Having worked on Nike commercials for years, Dex Deboree understood that some consumers feel an almost spiritual link to their Air Jordan sneakers. Dissatisfied with surface explanations, he wanted to probe reasons for this transcendently deep connection.
Last year, the filmmaker set out to find the brand's soul. After crisscrossing the country and conducting dozens of interviews—with Spike Lee, former NBA commissioner David Stern, Nike co-founder Phil Knight and Michael Jordan himself, among others—Deboree found it.
In Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1, a 90-minute film that won the Grand Clio in Branded Entertainment & Content at Thursday's Clio Sports Awards, he explores the history of the iconic basketball shoe. The documentary premiered at at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, dropped on Hulu in February, and presently streams across most major platforms. It delves into the sneaker's origins, its controversial league ban in 1984 (irony of ironies: an early version didn't use enough white), and its broader impact on pop culture worldwide.
As for Deboree's advertising work, you might recall Nike's dynamic, contemplative "The Playground," a spot from a couple of years back, featuring Blake Griffin. Deboree created that spot and many more, for Nike and other brands, during his six and a half years leading content studio Los York. Last month, he launched a new venture, Falkon, to further span the divide between marketing and entertainment.
"I spent the last year and a half toggling back and forth between advertising and entertainment, and I've always had this vision of the two worlds colliding," he tells Muse. "As I danced between the two, working on projects in both, I lifted my head one day and realized the lines had completely disappeared for me. I see a future where the audience is really the same eyeballs, whether you're trying to sell a show or sell them a pair of shoes. The more we look at it as one thing, the quicker we're going to get to some really powerful solutions."
In the Q&A below, edited for length and clarity, Deboree discusses what he learned while making Unbanned, shares his vision for the future of content—and reveals how flunking high-school English set him on the path to success.
Muse: How did Unbanned come about?
Dex Deboree: It goes back to a burning desire I had to get the explanation of the zeitgeist of Jordan, both the shoe and the man, and the brand. It was something that I was fascinated by as a marketer, as a storyteller, as a philosophical human being. And then as I started to work with Jordan, and I got closer to it, and I did things that Michael put his eyes on and would respond to—I had somewhat of a relationship with him—I didn't get any closer to the explanation. It kept propagating these surface-level explanations: "Well, it's because he had a legendary career," or whatever. And I was always like, "I think it's got to be more than that." But I couldn't put my finger on it.
Then one day I was on [Nike's] campus, getting briefed on a project for a campaign for the Air Jordan 31 shoe. And that shoe took inspiration from the AJ1. In that briefing, the ask was, "We need to spend 5 percent of our energy in educating this young audience on the 1, because we're going to say the new shoe is inspired by the 1." So we needed to just quickly go, "Hey, here's the 1, and tell what it was all about, and this is why it matters—[then explain how] it inspired the 31."
I went away and came up with a campaign and pitched it to them, and they loved it, and we did it. But in that same meeting when I presented the campaign, I said, "By the way, I have something else I want to share." And I shared with them the idea to make a movie. They were like, "What the fuck are you talking about? That's crazy." Then they took a little bit of time and wrapped their heads around it, and said, "You know what? This is great. Go for it."
Have you spent a lot of time with Michael?
About 30 minutes or so when I shot him in the Bahamas [for Unbanned]. Then I had a phone conversation with him, and spoke to his mom. … [Later, speaking to Jordan's spokesperson Estee Portnoy] … there was something that she said, and she started crying, and I kind of welled up a little bit. I looked at her and said, "That's what the movie's about. That's what this is all about, right there, what you just said."
What did she say?
She told me a story—and part of this is in the film—about how through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which Michael is a big part of, there was a boy who had terminal cancer, and he used to write letters all the time. So Michael sent him some shoes and a jersey and all of his books. And the kid would wear the jersey and shoes on a daily basis. His parents said it really kind of gave him hope to keep on living. Then he eventually passed, and they buried him in the shoes in the jersey. And his parents thanked Michael for giving him that last bit of hope at the end of his life, and maybe giving him a little bit of extra time.
You're making me tear up.
That ended up becoming the answer: The shoes are a symbol that represent hope for a lot of people. For some people, it represents empowerment and self-identity and self-expression, especially in a community of underserved people who did not have that voice and didn't have empowerment and weren't allowed to speak up or express themselves.
And forget about what it is. In this case, it happened to be a shoe. It could be something you wear around your neck, or that you pray to, or whatever. But for something, an object, to carry that level of symbolism and meaning—that's amazing, you know? And that's really what that shoe is about. For a lot of people there's a deep connection to it that they can't even explain, but it's based on those root things that are really deep inside. That's a story that needs to be told.
What are you working on now?
There's a scripted series that centers around an African American high school hockey player, which is a bit of a rarity in the sport. [Nashville Predators star] PK Subban is an executive producer on that. We have a relationship with the NHL around marketing and promoting the show and cross-promoting the league. They're not involved in production, but they're going to be involved in the marketing, which is a little bit of a different angle.
Then there's a completely different docu-series. I'm doing it with Carmelo Anthony and his producing partner, Asani Swann, that centers around untold but monumental moments in sports that changed the cultural-social landscape of the world. One of the episodes is focused on the '65 AFL All-Star Game, when the players boycotted because they were treated with racial prejudice. The African American players decided they were going to stand down, and the white players joined them, and they forced the game to be rescheduled two weeks later.
On the advertising front, we're focused really heavily on sports and culture—on streetwear and fashion and things like that. We're about to start a project with a sports league that we haven't worked with before.
Do you play a lot of sports?
I'm physical and mental, so I train religiously five to six days a week. I have about 3 percent body fat, and have kept that for the last 10 years. I am an athlete, but I'm kind of a very meditative solo athlete. I train my ass off and have a gym at my house. I spend two hours at it, really early in the morning. I don't play too much team sports, mainly because of the time aspect. But my son is kind of making up for that. He plays football, basketball, baseball and soccer.
If you had to pick one or two ad campaigns you're proudest of, what would they be?
I'd probably say "Playground." Two others area close second. One of them is a "Respect" campaign. There's an anthem film that we have that was a collection of a bunch of mini-social films. It covers all sports and it is very powerful and very vérité, which is not usually my style. I'm a writer, and I script everything out thoroughly. That project in particular came up literally overnight, and I was shooting within 24 hours and didn't have a plan. It taught me about filmmaking and storytelling, just getting in with the camera and telling the story versus writing and planning. Then the "Own the Game" campaign ... again, no time to do it. So, we ended up doing it with their stills, and it ended up being better than what I could have shot if I'd had the time.
Would you say we live in a hoop world, that, in a way, hoop culture IS pop culture?
I tell other sports leagues that all the time, much to their chagrin. But in reality, they have dominated culture. What they did is realize they were such an influence on culture, and that the culture around the game was as important as the game itself. They certainly care, obviously, first and foremost about the game. But they allowed themselves to go, "You know what? Our fans and our players care as much about other shit around the game as they do the game itself, in some cases more so. We're going to lean into that versus shying away or defending against it because of our egos." It's a hoops culture because of that.
Is there another sport that could turn the same trick?
Hockey and baseball have the opportunity. Baseball has a deep, deep, deep legacy with America. It's an important sport in the fabric of the country. If they were able to shift the perspective and embraced the players, the personality, the culture around the game, then I think they have a huge opportunity to step out. And then hockey—it doesn't have the same deep American legacy. But there's a primal connection people have to it. When you step into an arena, whether you're male, female, young, old—race or size doesn't matter. There's this primal thing that comes out because it's so action packed.
When you were a kid, did you want to be in this business?
No. When I was a kid, I was an athlete first and foremost, and maybe a bit of a meathead. I wasn't a writer. I didn't read. I failed high school English. On the athletic side, I was all in. I skated. I surfed. I wrestled. Wrestling is probably the single greatest influence because I still live my life like I'm training for wrestling season. I started when I was in 10th grade, which is really late for wrestlers. I was tall and skinny, so I was never going to be a great wrestler … [but] I varsity lettered two years in a row because I pushed so hard and trained so hard.
You failed English? That's ironic, since you're so good at storytelling.
I had a high school English teacher who was the ex-wrestling coach, so we kind of had a connection there. But he kicked me out of his class, and on my way out the door, he told me that I was a loser and that I would never amount to anything. I went home that night and I cried, and I thought that I hated him and I cursed him. Then I caught myself and I realized I was upset because he was right. And so at that moment, I said, "I never want to feel this way again. Instead of being angry at him, I'm going to take that and use it as fuel to prove him wrong."
What inspires you right now? Music, TV, stuff online?
Jaden Smith—I think he's going to become a massive icon in the future. He's highly underrated. His music and his approach are extremely inventive, and he's very much the voice of the young generation.
Political views aside entirely, I do think Kanye [West] is extremely talented as a musician, as an artist. All of the things he's able to do—sneaker design and things like that. Creatively he's fucking crazy smart, and he's got a lot of talent.
Virgil Abloh is another guy breaking down barriers and transforming the definition of what a designer can be and how we define fashion. Shows like Chef's Table elevated documentary series making. Same with Flint Town. The producers and directors have done an amazing job. I don't really like cop shows, but I got sucked in by the visual aesthetic, and the way they told those stories. That's a job well done, if you can suck in people that aren't even interested in the subject matter.
People ask me a lot, "What sports docs have you seen that you love?" There aren't many. "30 for 30" did an amazing job setting a new standard. They set up a formula which was revolutionary. But it has really stuck in large part to that formula, and it's time to move off of that. We've got to take it further, take it to the next step. Guys like Gotham Chopra—he's a friend, and I'm also a huge fan. He's pushing the envelope, coming from this place that's really thoughtful, with a hint of a spiritual approach in how he tells the story of athletes and sports.
Is there an ad campaign you didn't do that you think is just brilliant?
I wish I would have done [Nike's] Kaepernick ad. I should have done that.