Atlanta comic legend Chris Tucker is super picky when it comes to doing movies.
Since “Rush Hour 3″ in 2007, he has taken roles in just two films: 2012′s “Silver Linings Playbook” and 2016′s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.”
Now seven years later, Tucker is finally back on the silver screen, this time playing real life Nike executive Howard White in the Ben Affleck film “Air” out in movie theaters April 5. It’s based on the actual story regarding how Nike, known at the time mostly for running gear, convinced future NBA star Michael Jordan in 1984 to sign with them instead of bigger rivals Adidas and Converse, radically shifting the entire sports marketing universe.
Tucker, in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said he heard from his agent that Affleck wanted him for this role and he realized White was someone he knew personally from Jordan’s charity golf tournaments.
“Howard helped build Jordan’s brand,” Tucker said. “When he signed the deal with Nike, Nike put Howard with Michael almost like a chaperone. They needed someone he could relate to. Howard is an ex-basketball player, an All American in college who blew out his knee. He became an executive and is a great guy all around.”
Tucker called White personally and told him he was playing him in the movie. White provided Tucker contacts from his life and Tucker went all out in his research, contacting 30 of White’s family members, friends, work colleagues and coaches.
The original “Air” script, he said, didn’t feature much of White at all, so Tucker added dialogue for his character and fleshed him out.
“It was all me,” he said. “Ben then structured it and made it work.”
He said Affleck was like a player coach in the movie since he not only produced and directed “Air” but also played Nike founder and CEO Phil Knight. His “Good Will Hunting” buddy Matt Damon portrayed Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike marketing exec who convinced Knight to gamble on Jordan.
“He and Matt came into my trailer and said, ‘Hey, we’re just going to have fun making this. It’s like friends having fun’,” Tucker said. “They told me to relax and figure it out. It was awesome. Ben was on it and moving and moving. I was trusting him. We just kept going.”
“Air” was self-contained, mostly set in the Nike offices. Tucker said it reminded him of shooting “Friday” in 1995. “We did ‘Friday’ on one street with a couple of soundstage scenes,” he said. “I love character-based movies like this.”
And Affleck chose to keep the actor playing the 21-year-old Jordan in the shadows during the entire movie, the focus being on the Nike team and Jordan’s mom Delores, played with steely resolve by Viola Davis.
“I was concerned,” Tucker said, when he first heard about this creative decision. “But the way Ben did it was brilliant. You felt Michael’s aura. You didn’t need Michael to show up. You felt his spirit.”
Tucker was 13 years old when Air Jordans debuted in April 1985. He remembered how pricey they were at the time.
“I was in sixth grade and I had to save up money,” he said. “Thank God my dad had his own business Tucker Cleaning Service so I could work.”
He thinks his first Jordan purchase was the second version that came out in late 1986, not the original ones featured in the movie. “I cherished those shoes,” he said. “I kept them so long because I only wore them in certain places.”
Jordan basically created the entire sneakerhead culture, a multi-billion dollar resale business. There are multiple sneaker shops in metro Atlanta that now cater specifically for the collector.
Tucker said he considers himself a sneakerhead now. “People consider these shoes art,” he said. “One time I went to a Bentley factory in London ... and I appreciated my car more. Once I did this movie, I appreciated my Air Jordans that much more. It brings back great memories. Jordans made Nike cool. Before Air Jordans, it was all Adidas in the hip-hop culture. Everyone wanted Adidas.”
Credit: Alex J. Berliner
Credit: Alex J. Berliner
To seal the deal at the end of “Air,” Jordan’s mother convinced Nike to give Jordan a cut of each shoe sale, an unprecedented move at the time that helped turn Jordan into a billionaire.
Last year, Nike raked in $5.1 billion from its Jordan brand and Jordan himself pocketed more than $400 million.
“This is a blueprint on learning branding,” Tucker said. “Michael always said hard work helped make that shoe. And he won championships in the 1990s. That helped the brand build and build and build.”
WHERE TO GO
“Air,” in area movie theaters starting Wednesday, April 5
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