By Lauren Brownlow, WRALSportsFan columnist/reporter
How might the shoe world have changed if Michael Jordan had gone with his heart?
Jordan has become synonymous with Nike, and the Air Jordan shoe and Jordan Brand are an integral part of sports culture. But in the most recent episode of The Last Dance, an eight-part documentary on ESPN that is chronicling Jordan's career and the 1997-98 season with the Bulls, Jordan and others detailed just how close it came to not happening.
Gary Stokan, president and CEO of the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl and former NC State basketball player and coach, was with Adidas at that time. He joined The OG on Monday to talk about how close Jordan actually came to signing with Adidas instead of Nike, and how different the shoe world might have been if he had.
Jordan talked in the documentary about how much he preferred Adidas shoes at the time. He and teammate and roommate Buzz Peterson wore Adidas, even though North Carolina was under contract with Converse. Stokan got to know Jordan as a result and during the 1984 Olympic trials, Jordan wore Adidas. Jordan signed with David Falk not long after he made the decision to go pro. Falk had already gotten James Worthy the NBA's first million-dollar shoe deal, and he spoke in the documentary about how much he wanted Jordan to sign a big-money shoe deal as well.
Jordan loved Adidas. He didn't even want to meet with Nike. But as detailed in the documentary, his mother Deloris convinced him to go see the fledging company and at least hear what they had to say. They had quite the pitch for him, and Falk and Jordan's father both wanted him to sign with Nike right away. But Jordan was hesitant and still preferred the Adidas shoe.
"So after he came back, Michael and I met on Franklin Street on the stone wall there across from Four Corners," Stokan said. "We were drinking a Coca-Cola and Michael said, 'Mr. Stokan, I love you. You've been great to me. You've been great to my family. I love Adidas products. If you can get close on this shoe deal - the apparel, the car, the annuity, the poster program' - his brothers had those cool posters they used to do - he said, 'I'll go with Adidas. I want to sign with Adidas.'"
So Stokan got to work and wrote up what he called a three-page integrated marketing campaign to pitch to the Adidas executives. Jordan was going to play in the Olympics. He was going to be the best player, and the US was going to win because Russia wasn't playing. After he came out with the gold medal around his neck, they'd announce to the international press that they'd signed Jordan. He wanted Adidas to pony up $2.5 million over five years, Stokan said.
Adidas was based in Herzogenaurach, which was in what was then known as West Germany. This was when the Berlin Wall was still intact. Adidas was marketed in the United States by distributorships that were regional - Stokan represented the southeast, and was based in Atlanta. But those distributorships didn't have a lot of authority and he'd still have to get the okay from the German headquarters to give Jordan the deal he wanted.
"Adidas basically got back to me and said that they don't have that kind of money to put in the US marketplace. Now at the time - and this is verified by Shoe Dogs, which is Phil Knight's book - Nike was bordering on bankruptcy. They were having a tough time trying to find financing. We were No. 1, Converse was No. 2. Michael winds up signing with Nike, sells $126 million the first year for Nike, puts Nike back in the black and Michael's $126 million alone would have made him the third-largest company behind Adidas and Conversein the shoe wars," Stokan said.
"Unfortunately, the Germans at the time weren't that well-versed in basketball and in the Adidas market, and it cost them."
Stokan's run at Adidas was quite a successful one, but he's still haunted by what might have been with Jordan - and with others. He signed Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski to a seven-year contract with Adidas in 1980, and then left to go to Converse. He'd also signed Herschel Walker. Then he had Jordan ready to go - or so he thought.
"All within four years - the greatest college football player ever, the greatest basketball coach ever, the greatest NBA player ever, I had all of them basically ready to go and unfortunately, Adidas let Mike go and Adidas didn't sign Michael Jordan," Stokan said. "It's heartbreaking. The biggest regret I've had in my business career is losing Michael Jordan to Nike."
Stokan said that he nearly got North Carolina coach Dean Smith to switch allegiance from Converse to Adidas. Smith had been with Converse most of his career. Smith had been intrigued at how much Peterson and Jordan liked the Adidas shoe. He proposed an option to Stokan that half of his team could wear Adidas and the other wear Converse, but Stokan said there'd be too much money at stake for that to happen. Former North Carolina player York Larese was with Puma at the time, Stokan said, and was also trying to pitch Smith on switching to Puma. "Ultimately, both myself and Puma pushed Converse to pay a lot more for Coach Smith than he was getting paid because he stayed with Converse," Stokan said.
And naturally, as with most things with Michael Jordan, he remembers history a bit differently if it means he can make it into a slight that provides him an extra edge or motivation.
Stokan ran into Jordan at the Bahamas in Atlantis on a trip with his family during Jordan's annual golf tournament. Jordan, hanging out with his typical crew, recounted the same story about almost signing with Adidas that Stokan did - nearly verbatim.
Until the end.
"Michael tells the story I just told you, but only he ended it with, 'Yeah, and Gary didn't think I could play and that's why he didn't sign me to an Adidas contract.' So yeah, that was - I had Michael ready to go and Adidas just didn't put the money. The Europeans didn't know that the shoe wars were going to be fought here in the US, and they made the biggest mistake they could've ever made," Stokan said.
Nike's margins were a little better than Adidas', Stokan said, because they manufactured their shoes cheaply in other countries while Adidas owned its own manufacturing firms. But even with that, Nike was a struggling company at that time. The resurgence of their brand caused by Jordan's shoe taking off, Stokan believes, saved the business and led us to where we are today with Nike as a dominant force.
"Adidas owned its manufacturing firms. It actually owned the manufacturing buildings and everything. So our margins weren't as good as Nike back then. But even if that was the case, if we would have sold $50 million of Air Jordan products or Adidas products if Michael signs with us, it may have knocked Nike out of business. They may never have recovered never got financing, never had that $126 million that Michael provided and never have built their brand the way they built it," Stokan said. "So Nike might have been out of business.
"I'm dying watching these documentaries. I love Michael to death, but I'm dying watching them because it just refreshes my memory as to what might have been and how Adidas just blew it. It's killing me watching this thing because I know what might have been and how it would have changed Adidas' world. But Michael did a great job and he really made Nike. Nike would have all but been out of business if it weren't for Michael Jordan. Nike owes a ton to Michael, that's for sure."
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