Tuesday, September 08, 2009

From Carolina With An Assist To Beaverton

Number $23This page's interest in the National Basketball Association is just below that of Glenbrook North Powder Puff football scores. That interest level has pretty much always been the same since 1967. There was a period of time, say the time period between the Fall of 1987 and the Summer of 1998 that the interest in one, narrow piece of the league did increase. That narrow piece was the Chicago Bulls that contained Michael Jordan.

To say that Jordan changed sports is an understatement. He was, in many ways, the George Lucas of professional sports. No, not that he came back past his prime and was a shadow of his younger, creative self. Rather that he became an independent brand within a larger business model. He was a business all to himself.

Where did that business come from? Most of it comes from Phil Knight, Rob Strasser, Howard Shluser, Moore, and Sonny Vaccaro. Who are these people? Dan Wetzel over at Yahoo! Sports recounts:

In 1979, Knight had met John Paul "Sonny" Vaccaro, a basketball maven who pitched a groundbreaking idea: The company would sign endorsement deals with college coaches who, in turn, could turn their players into billboards for the brand.

At first, no one even knew if it was legal, let alone if the colleges would allow it. But by the time of the off-site meeting, Nike owned much of the college game – overnight, Vaccaro had delivered signature programs from Georgetown to UNLV.

"I was charmed by Sonny," Knight would say. "After that, we gave him all the room he wanted."

As successful as the college venture had been, Knight knew the big money was in the surging pro game, where Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had vaulted the league's popularity. Both players, however, wore Converse.

The men at the meeting were following Nike's well-worn path of thinking far outside the box. With most of the NBA's top players already locked up to Converse, Nike officials thought they should gamble on a rookie, a fresh new face for the league.

Even more daring that that, Nike was considering creating and marketing a signature shoe around the player, and selling not just a piece of footwear, but an entire package of performance and personality.

The draft class had a number of promising choices. Akeem Olajuwon had played in three Final Fours and would be the No. 1 pick. Charles Barkley boasted an oversized personality. John Stockton was a potential white star. A number of people wondered whether it wouldn’t be best to sign them all to smaller deals, hedge the bets a bit on this signature shoe.

Then Strasser turned to Vaccaro, the man whose instincts made up for his lack of formal business education, and asked him which player he preferred.

"The kid from North Carolina," Vaccaro said.

The rest is billions of dollars in history.

On Friday, Michael Jordan enters the Hall of Fame. The Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. A well deserved honor. Next should be the US Business Hall of Fame at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.

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