Matthew Maher on Playing Nike Design Legend Peter Moore in the New Film, Air

Film chronicles the origin story of the iconic Air Jordan sneakers

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Peter Moore was an instrumental figure in Nike's 1984 deal with Michael Jordan that revolutionized sports marketing, transformed the shoe company into a global behemoth and created sneaker culture as we know it today.

Moore, Nike's first brand creative director, designed the game-changing Air Jordan 1 basketball shoe, as well as the Jumpman logo, a silhouette of Jordan leaping to make a slam dunk.

While Moore's work made him an icon in the sneaker business (and he would later work for Adidas), actor Matthew Maher didn't know much about the man when his manager called to let him know that director Ben Affleck wanted him for the role.

"I, like the rest of America, binge watched [the Netflix Michael Jordan docuseries] The Last Dance during lockdown, and that has a little bit of Peter Moore. And once I started to read the script and get into the surrounding narrative, I was like, 'Oh yeah, I remember this,'" Maher says.

Set in 1984, the feature film, written by Alex Convery, dramatizes the story of how Portland, Ore.-based Nike—a company not known for basketball shoes at that time—beat out Adidas and Converse to sign Jordan, then a promising rookie on the Chicago Bulls, to an endorsement deal by creating a shoe just for him.

It was a massive gamble that paid off. Air Jordan sales topped $125 million in 1985, the first year they hit stores. For fiscal 2022, the Jordan brand generated $5.1 billion. 

Critics have compared Air, now playing in theaters and soon to stream on Amazon Prime, to Moneyball and Jerry Maguire. Maher sees the similarities, though he describes Air as The Natural meets The Bad News Bears meets Apollo 13.

While The Natural and Bad News Bears told stories about underdogs in the sports world, and Air focuses on a team of underdogs from Nike, Maher acknowledges it might seem weird to draw parallels to Apollo 13, which is about NASA engineers guiding a moon-mission crew safely back to Earth. But Maher argues, "They’re all solving nerdy problems." (Okay, we see it!)

Maher (whose credits also include the Apple+ series Hello Tomorrow! and films such as Funny Pages, Captain Marvel and Gone Baby Gone, also directed by Affleck) appears with an ensemble including Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike talent scout who believed that Jordan had all the makings of a superstar; Viola Davis as Jordan's mother Deloris; and Jason Bateman in the role of marketing chief Rob Strasser.

Chris Tucker plays Nike field representative Howard White, who is, today, the vice president of sports marketing for the Jordan Brand, spun off from Nike in 1997, while Chris Messina is Jordan's agent David Falk. In addition to directing, Affleck cast himself as Nike co-founder Phil Knight.

Incidentally, Maher has known Affleck and Damon since they were all students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin high school in Cambridge, Mass.

To prepare for his portrayal of Moore, who passed away last year at the age of 78, Maher supplemented his viewing of The Last Dance with books chronicling the early days of Nike, and he watched documentaries about Air Jordans.

In Maher's estimation, "Peter Moore was a genius, and he was a genius of a very particular kind—he was a big thinker who had to create work that by its very nature was popular."

For the film, Maher did not attempt to physically transform himself into Moore. "He didn't look anything like me, really," Maher says. "He was clean shaven and wore dark turtlenecks like Steve Jobs—and glasses."

Rather, Maher sought to tap into the designer's lifelong desire to create iconic products. Also, as an actor, Maher related to delivering under pressure. As we see in Air, Moore was given just one weekend to create the basic blueprint for the Air Jordan.

"That feels very true to me, reflects something that I know in my life, too. You spend your whole life grinding away. And when the moment actually happens, when you need to do the thing that you’re really good at, you just do it," Maher says, noting with a laugh that he'd unwittingly quoted Nike's famous tagline.

As ubiquitous as the Air Jordan is (the actor's brother is a sneakerhead who owns tons of the shoes), Maher does not wear the sneaker.

"The tragedy is, I don't look good in Air Jordans," he insists. "My legs are too short and kind of muscular. It works best on a long, lean leg like Michael Jordan's."

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Christine Champagne
Muse contributor Christine Champagne is a writer based in NYC.

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