Wednesday, March 1, 2006 Updated: March 2, 1:14 PM ET
The Jumpman in us all
By Darren Rovell ESPN.com
No athlete on the planet has been in more commercials than Michael Jordan. Between advertisements for Nike, Gatorade, Hanes, McDonald's and countless others, Jordan's business manager Estee Portnoy tells us that it's definitely more than 400 different spots.
"Nothing But Net" with Larry Bird for McDonald's.
"Be Like Mike" for Gatorade.
MJ as "Johnny Kilroy" and "Motorboat Jones" in a Nike ad with Steve Martin. And who could forget those black-and-white "It's Gotta Be The Shoes!" ads with Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon.
The new commercial promoting the new Air Jordan XXI shoe features Jordan for all of two seconds, but it deserves to be considered at the top of the list.
When Jordan retired three years ago, sports marketers wondered how his brand -- tied to the "Jumpman" logo -- would live on if he wasn't on the court. Since that time we've learned that No. 23 is still very active in the hearts and minds of up-and-coming basketball players, and Nike and its much-heralded advertising firm, Wieden + Kennedy, have managed to create brilliant advertising that invades the typical water cooler chat of last night's games.
"As a kid you always envision somehow leaving that type of mark so they can always remember you even when you're not playing the game of basketball," Jordan said in a video interview released by the company. "And I think I was able to do that."
Last year's ads played off the fact that a bunch of kids were working on being the next Michael Jordan. The spot ended with the tag line, "Will You Be The One?"
This year's advertising, dubbed "2nd Generation," is a glorified version of "Be Like Mike." But instead of the kids trying to "Be Like Mike" and failing, these kids literally imitate the Jordan signature moves.
"We thought of the fact that a version of him is alive in everyone that loves basketball," said Todd Waterbury, co-executive creative director for W+K. "And there are moments in Jordan's career where you just say the move, or the game, and people who love the man, and love the sport, immediately can imagine that scene. Here, we were just taking advantage of those incredible moments."
In order to film the spot, Wieden + Kennedy held casting calls around the United States looking for kids of various backgrounds and ages who could make the moves, ranging from Jordan's tongue wagging to his gum chewing to memorable moments like his foul line dunk from the 1987 Slam Dunk contest, the fist pump after "The Shot" over Cleveland Cavaliers guard Craig Ehlo in the first round of the 1989 playoffs and his fake out of Utah Jazz guard Bryon Russell that gave the Chicago Bulls the title in the 1998 Finals.
Although all the spots were filmed in Los Angeles, the goal was to show kids imitating Jordan in all parts of the world. Jordan's defensive stance is portrayed by a kid dressed in a jersey that is African inspired. Another scene is set on another continent, where an Asian boy famously palms the basketball like Jordan. Other moments are supposed to hint at play taking place in U.S. cities, like Chicago and New York.
The only attempt at reconstructing specific scenery is the point in the ad where a young player imitates Jordan's most famous dunk. Because the dunk is supposed to happen in the present, the producers didn't have onlookers wearing clothing from the late '80s, but Mark Adamson, Jordan account executive for W+K, said the crowd was spaced out to look like it appeared during Jordan's dunk with the colors matching those of the insides of old Chicago Stadium.
While one might think that the kids were shown the specific Jordan moves before they were performed, W+K execs maintain that was not the case. The kids did what they remembered as art director Jesse Coulter fine-tuned to make sure the moves were as technically accurate as possible.
What makes the spot so unbelievable is the way in which the commercial evolves. At the beginning of the ad, moments are less specific so viewers aren't quite sure what they are watching. It starts with the shoes. The dribbling of the ball. The tongue wagging. The gum chewing. Then a moment of discovery happens. By the time it comes to the dunks the viewer starts to realize what is happening. The next few seconds are filled with anticipation as the viewer wonders what will happen next. Each moment is perfectly choreographed, leaving no chance for the hard-core baller to question a certain moment.
"We built the action in a way so that it created tension in the spot," Waterbury said. "As the commercial continues to build, the viewer will recognize scene after scene after scene."
Not to be underestimated in this spot is the music, by composer Jonathan Elias, which builds along with the viewer's discovery. The volume increases and the rhythm gets more complex as the scenes become more familiar, and a pause works perfectly as the camera focuses on a particular member in the crowd.
It is Jordan, of course, who is watching the kid on the playground imitate the moment from the 1992 NBA Finals, in which Jordan -- after hitting six 3-pointers in a half -- raises his two hands and shakes his head.
"We wanted to make sure that, through this commercial, people understood Michael's role as a mentor and a coach," Waterbury said. "His nod of approval at the end is his way of saying, 'Go.' "
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org. He has every cover of Sports Illustrated with Michael Jordan on it.