Athletes’ mothers are often their biggest supporters but rarely is that celebrated despite the fact that many players, including my son Kevin, lovingly tell the world about the impact their business-savvy mothers have on their careers.
Nuanced depictions of Black mothers on big and small screens aren’t much better. When we’re not shown sobbing over injustice toward our children, we are portrayed as angry, aggressive, loud women who harshly discipline our babies instead of hugging them.
So you can imagine the pleasure I derived when I recently sat down to watch the new movie “Air,” which comes out Wednesday and tells the inspiring story of how Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) signed Michael Jordan to a deal in the 1980s, just before his meteoric rise in the NBA.
In the first scene that grabbed my attention, Sonny’s co-worker Howard White (played convincingly by Chris Tucker) tells him that in the Black community, you have to “go through the Mamas.”
That’s precisely what Vaccaro does as he sits down with Michael’s mother, Deloris Jordan (portrayed beautifully by Viola Davis), and explains why his tennis shoe company is the best choice for her son.
Vaccaro even accurately predicts how each company’s pitch will go, which endears him to Deloris as those scenarios play out before her eyes. What Vaccaro doesn’t expect is just how strategic Deloris Jordan is when it comes to getting her son the best deal possible, and when she finally does reveal her master plan, it is beyond uplifting.
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Like Deloris Jordan, I heard Nike’s sales pitch to my son
I didn’t have the level of intel that Vaccaro armed Deloris with when Adidas and Nike courted Kevin nearly 15 years ago, but there were surreal parallels between Michael and Kevin’s journeys, like walking into the Nike headquarters for the first time and hearing the pitch.
Like Michael, Kevin chose Nike. And like Deloris and James Jordan (played by Julius Tennon), his grandmother, father and I accompanied Kevin to Nike headquarters, which was much more diverse then than in 1984 when Howard White was the only Black Nike executive at the table.
Seeing the fictional Jordans in that room (the audience never sees the face of the actor playing Michael), I thought about the sacrifices Kevin and our family made that got us to that place. I can only imagine what it took for the Jordans.
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Like Deloris in the film, I was laser focused as I listened to every promise and weighed our options. Part of our story was captured in Lifetime’s 2016 made-for-TV movie “The Real MVP: The Wanda Durant Story.”
As audiences learned, I was a loving disciplinarian, staunch supporter and an encourager to my sons, Tony and Kevin. Organized sports were a way for me as a single mother to focus on each of my children individually and celebrate them outside of our home as they developed a love for basketball, fueled their competitive natures and earned scholarships.
In return, I worked night shifts at the U.S. Postal Service’s mail processing center and did everything I could to show up and be present for my two favorite guys.
I attended most of their AAU games, started practices if coaches ran late and gave rides to my sons’ teammates (and sometimes their parents). Occasionally, I would catch the first quarter of one son’s game and then jump in my car, drive across Prince George’s County, Maryland, and catch the final quarter of the other son’s game, all while cheering from the bleachers.
Kevin’s intensity for hoops became apparent as he missed family cookouts and made other sacrifices to perfect his skills for many years with the help of his AAU coach, Charles Craig, who was murdered at age 35, and for whom Kevin numbered his jersey.
I knew early on that the NBA was Kevin’s ultimate goal, so I became savvier, too. When it was time to zero in on the NBA, I enlisted the help of Goodwin Sports Management and read and learned everything I could to help Kevin and our family make decisions that best benefited him.
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Men doubted my ability to advise my son as he advanced to NBA
I also prayed and ignored the unsolicited comments of men who doubted if I, as a woman, could participate in the conversation about my son’s future. Some were subtle, and others asked outright whether I understood what was happening.
Initially, I snapped back with quick-witted responses. Later, I just smiled.
Kevin is an NBA championship-winning superstar and one of the few professional athletes to have the opportunity to sign a signature shoe deal with Nike. Like Michael, LeBron James and the late Kobe Bryant, Nike believed in Kevin’s potential before he played in his first NBA game.
That was an emotional time for me to watch him be drafted into the NBA and then sign a deal with a behemoth like Nike.
In watching “Air,” I learned just how brilliant Deloris Jordan was during the negotiations with Nike. She asked that her son be paid a percentage of earnings for every pair of Air Jordans sold, and it was Deloris, with that one request, who changed the game for many athletes to this very day. I didn’t know that Mama Jordan was the first to make that request.
This was one of the sweetest moments for me and it made me cry. The hairs on my neck stood up, and I got chills. God used Deloris to secure her family’s legacy, and now, because of her, all of our sons with signature shoe deals have benefited and have lucrative legacies of their own.
Not only did she change the trajectory of her life and her family’s lives, but she changed the trajectory of the lives of thousands and thousands of people. That gives me goosebumps, and we owe homage to her.
Deloris later founded the James R. Jordan Foundation, in honor of her late husband, to assist students with their education. Every time the foundation helps to produce a surgeon or a teacher, it is a part of her legacy, one that opened the door for LeBron James’ I Promise School, the Kevin Durant Family Foundation, the Wanda Durant Real MVP Charity, Inc. and other NBA-related charities.
It brings to mind the story of actor Jason Weaver and his mom. Weaver had a deal to sing “Hakuna Matata” in the original 1994 “Lion King” movie. Disney offered him substantial money, but his mom asked for a smaller amount and royalties. Some 30 years later, he still receives royalty checks because of his Black Mama.
We need more of these types of layered stories of Black motherhood. “Air” depicts the courting of a legend, and it busts the narrative of the athlete’s mother, particularly Black mothers, in such a beautiful and mind-blowing way. Of course, you don’t have to be a Black mother to enjoy this movie, but watching “Air” as one makes the message deeper and sweeter.
Wanda Durant is founder and CEO of Hope, Dream, Believe and Achieve. Her son Kevin Durant plays for the Phoenix Suns in the NBA.