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It’s Gotta Be The Shoes: How Nike bet on Jordan, Jordan bet on Nike and both won. Big.

Feb 15, 2013, 9:10 AM EDT

michael-jordan nike Getty Images

It seems like another world now — like discussing Pompeii or prohibition — but there was a time when Nike was just another struggling shoe company. In 1983, Nike had revenues of less than $1 million.

In 1984, Nike signed Michael Jordan.

Today, Nike owns the basketball shoe market. Owns it. When you factor in all the Nike brands — Nike, Jordan, Converse — you are talking nearly 95 percent of the basketball shoe market. And the Jordan Brand remains the biggest seller by far.

Michael Jordan turns 50 this weekend and yet his legacy and his shoes are such that when you talk to players coming out of college about their goals in the NBA, becoming part of the Jordan Brand family still comes up a lot. I mean with most of them. Players who were in kindergarten the last time Jordan won a ring.

It’s doesn’t gotta be the shoes. It is much more than that.

All this because of a big gamble back in the 1980s where a company that needed a star bet on the guy who would go on to become the general consensus greatest player ever, and that player bet on the company’s marketing skills.

Roland Lazenby, the author of “Blood On The Horns, The Long Strange Ride of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls” (which is being re-released right now by Diversion Books as an ebook edition in honor of Jordan’s birthday) and also the author of a new Jordan biography due out in the spring of 2014 (by Little, Brown), said that even MJ admits it was all fortuitous.

“As Michael told me in discussing his career, ‘Timing is everything.’” Lazenby said. “He came along at a time when Nike, a struggling company, was suddenly willing to gamble millions, far more than had ever been gambled, on an untested NBA player, giving him an unprecedented deal before he had even played an NBA game.

“Nike turned its full efforts to marketing Jordan. Then suddenly he emerged as this amazingly athletic figure, wearing a shoe that was banned by the NBA.”

People sometimes forget that part of the story. David Stern and the NBA banned the first pair of Air Jordan’s in 1985, just weeks before the start of the season, because they were completely Bulls red and black with no white on them.

There is no better marketing endorsement than having the man say, “you can’t have it.” That shoe and that moment spawned today’s sneakerhead culture.

“Nike took that circumstance and pushed it, which would have meant nothing if Jordan hadn’t played the way he played,” Lazenby said. “It was a departure from the past that showed it was also immune to the future.”

Jordan’s play was the key. It started because of his athleticism, his “jumpman” dunks that went on to become the Jordan Brand logo. He could fly, and Spike Lee was yelling “It’s gotta be the shoes.” But everything grew exponentially as Jordan started to win and win big. He became the best player in the game and owned his generation, booming the popularity of the NBA.

And booming the sales of Nike and his shoes. Because everyone wanted to “Be Like Mike.”

“As I say in my book, he became the godhead of a global sports marketing machine,” Lazenby said. “Godheads aren’t flashes in the pan. They paid Jordan so much, and his shoes sold so well that he essentially became a partner in Nike long before they officially recognized it.

“He became enmeshed in culture like no athlete before or after.”

And with him, so did Nike.

Now they are a key part of the lucrative running shoe market (they maintain more than half the market) and Nike is a global apparel brand with it’s swoosh on pretty much everything but refrigerators.

But none of that would have been possible without a big gamble on Jordan that paid off better than anyone expected.

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