The dark truth behind the movie AIR

Nike’s Air Jordans were all about building a brand. It didn’t matter how many children died in the process. All for a pair of shoes.

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Air is a film for today. With its big-name cast, it’s the kind of inspiring all-American movie that we love so much, the story of a poor kid’s rise to riches through talent, perseverance and a dose of good luck.

No, wait, that’s not what it’s about at all.

It’s about a sports company building a shoe-line around a celebrity’s image and how they made billions of dollars doing it. That’s the all-American dream now. Kids believing that a pair of $115 shoes (or the latest I-phone, or whatever) is what gives their lives meaning. The product is who they are. The inside can be an empty shell as long as the outside looks the part.

The success of Air Jordans and Michael Jordan’s transformation into a legend, opened the door for other sports companies to hire stars to endorse products as a way of selling an unattainable dream and bilking the public of billions of dollars. Sports stars can make millions on the court, but they can make billions promoting products. Selling themselves to the highest bidder means that the kids who look up to them learn to do the same.

Now, this is nothing against Michael Jordan. He surely is a living legend—the first of his kind—and as such is quite untouchable. I’m sure he never imagined the violence that would break out on the inner-city streets once he signed that contract with Nike. When he was told that kids were killing each other over his shoes, he said:

I thought people would try to emulate the good things I do, they’d try to achieve, to be better. Nothing bad. I never thought because of my endorsement of a shoe, or any product, that people would harm each other.”

— Michael Jordan

This hits home for me. Just a few months ago, two young men in their late twenties, that I’ve known since they were in middle school, were shot and left for dead after posting photos on social media of their “bling”.

One is the rapper, Wakko the Kid, the other is his sound engineer, Caleb. I tried to visit them in the hospital but couldn’t get in because I wasn’t vaxxed.

The Los Angeles Times did a story about Wakko.

Wakko the Kidd is often seen in music videos on YouTube holding thick stacks of cash in his hands, standing next to expensive cars or boasting about money in lyrics like claiming his “paycheck like Dubai.” In one video posted on his TikTok account, someone in the backseat of a car is seen dropping $100 bills from a window onto a crowded sidewalk.

Within days of that crime, another young rapper PnB Rock was shot and killed for his jewelry, after having revealed on Instagram he was eating at Roscoe’s House of Chicken ‘N Waffles.

According to LAPD crime statistics, robberies have increased about 18% so far in 2022 when compared with the same time period in 2021.

Between Wakko and Caleb, they took over twenty bullets and it’s a miracle they are still alive. Wakko told me the experience changed his mentality, he thanks God he’s still alive, and he’s working on a new album about it. Caleb says God saved him years ago from a life of drug addiction. He was just in the studio helping his friend.

“But the fact is,” he told me. “It’s the drugs, violence and money that sells. If you want to make it in this business, that’s what you have to rap about.”

The rap “industry” has shaped young men’s minds as much as the sports industry. Both worlds started with real heroes on the streets, like Michael Jordan and Tupac Shakir, but they both ended up as money-making machines.

And it all started with Air Jordans.

The death of 15-year-old Michael Eugene Thomas in May 1989 shocked the nation. It became the most infamous example of how far kids would go to capture the dream they were being fed by the marketing industry.

James David Martin, 17, a basketball buddy, strangled Thomas for his two-week-old Air Jordans, leaving his shoeless body in the woods of Anne Arundel County, Md.

From the Vox Vault

Thomas loved Michael Jordan, as well as the shoes Jordan endorses, and he cleaned his own pair each evening. He kept the cardboard shoe box with Jordan’s silhouette on it in a place of honor in his room. Inside the box was the sales ticket for the shoes. It showed he paid $115.50, the price of a product touched by deity.

“We told him not to wear the shoes to school,” said Michael’s grandmother, Birdie Thomas. “We said somebody might like them, and he said, ‘Granny, before I let anyone take those shoes, they’ll have to kill me.’”

Kevin Garnet describes that time:

This all crystalized in 1989 when I was thirteen. Word swept through the hood like a tornado. A kid had been killed for his Air Jordans. The red-and-black Air Jordans.

That was the moment. That’s when the alarm rang. That’s when one world stopped and another started. That turned out to be the number one selling shoe in the world, for any sport, for any athlete. Over a fuckin’ million pairs sold.

Garnett describes what Nike did to Jordan, turning the person into the product:

They were taking him to Paris. They were turning his game highlights into commercials. They were putting him on soundstages and telling him, “Put on these shoes and then dunk. Put on these shoes and hit a three. Put on these shoes and just jump.”

Who was dunking the ball like that before Jordan? Dr. J, that’s who. But Jordan was a better Dr. J. Dr. J had a good jump shot, but it wasn’t no Jordan jump shot. Jordan was the script that all of us had to follow. He was the avatar. Mike was the mantra. And Nike was the corporate monster making it all happen.

The deaths continued over the years, the cause spreading beyond Jordans to other products that youth were told they just had to have. Here are just a few from the Vault:

  • 1983: 14-year-old Dewitt Duckett was shot to death in the hallway of Harlem Park Junior High in Baltimore by someone who apparently wanted Duckett’s silky blue Georgetown jacket.
  • 1985: 13-year-old Shawn Jones was shot in Detroit after five youths took his Fila sneakers.
  • 1988: a 14-year-old Houston boy, a star athlete in various sports, allegedly stabbed and killed 22-year-old Eric Allen with a butcher knife after the two argued over a pair of tennis shoes.
  • In March 1990, Chris Demby, a 10th-grader at Franklin Learning Center in West Philadelphia, was shot and killed for his new Nikes.

And it didn’t stop there.

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