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Former Nike exec Sonny Vaccaro brings a special MJ prize out of storage

He is selling his pair of Air Jordans that Jordan wore in Game 4 of the 1991 Finals. The bidding will be open online through Dec. 7; the price could reach an estimated $500,000 to $750,000.

The signed (and cut) pair of Air Jordans that Jordan wore in Game 4 of the 1991 Finals. 
The signed (and cut) pair of Air Jordans that Jordan wore in Game 4 of the 1991 Finals. 
Sotheby’s and Goldin Auctions

For nearly three decades, Sonny Vaccaro had only told a few people that a unique memento of his long relationship with Michael Jordan had been wrapped up and hidden away in his wife’s closet.

Vaccaro, who pushed for Nike to sign Jordan coming out of North Carolina and revolutionized the sneaker industry in the process, had never asked for memorabilia from athletes. In fact, he even declined an offer from Jordan to attend a 1991 NBA Finals game in Los Angeles, preferring to watch Jordan’s first championship win from his home in Palm Springs.

But after the celebration was over, Jordan left a box for Vaccaro at the Ritz Carlton in Santa Monica; it contained a pair of black Air Jordans he had worn to start Game 4.

They were notable because of a hole cut on top of the right shoe to help Jordan play despite a bruised big toe he had suffered in Game 3. But for Vaccaro, they would come to represent something more: the looming end of his career at Nike and the end of his close professional relationship with Jordan.

“That was my last thing with Michael Jordan,” Vaccaro told USA Today Sports. “Being associated with Michael from 1984 to that day was one of the major turning points of my life, and now it’s over. It’s been 28 years, and I want the public to know that’s what happened. That’s how beautifully it ended, and I want to say it that way.”

Vaccaro is now selling those shoes in an auction announced Tuesday by Sotheby’s and Goldin Auctions, buttoning up one more chapter of his long life as a sports marketing visionary. The bidding will be open online through Dec. 7; the price could reach an estimated $500,000 to $750,000.

“There’s 10,000 pairs of Michael’s shoes — his first dunk, his first game, this one, that one, and they’re all valuable, and people save them,” Vaccaro said. “But this was me and him 30 years ago, and I never thought I’d sell them, but it’s the right point and the right time.”

It’s also, whether intentional or not, one last pushback against the systematic erasure of Vaccaro from the official version of the Jordan story.

In Vaccaro’s telling, he pushed Nike, then an upstart company without a real foothold in basketball, to place its bets on Jordan when he wasn’t even the No. 1 pick in the draft, something considered a risky move. Others have disputed parts of that story or assign credit differently, but the bottom line is that Vaccaro was instrumental in identifying Jordan as a unique marketing force, signing him to a contract and leveraging his charisma and style of play into a brand.

But a few months after Jordan’s first title in 1991, Nike fired Vaccaro, launching a decades-long cold war. Vaccaro went to work for rival Adidas, where he was responsible for signing Kobe Bryant to his first shoe deal and building a grassroots powerhouse, and then Reebok. Since his retirement from sports marketing, Vaccaro has spent a lot of time as an irritant to the NCAA, helping launch Ed O’Bannon’s antitrust lawsuit over name, image and likeness rights, and as an advocate for young athletes.

His place in sports history is secure. But the bitterness of the sneaker wars rages on.

When ESPN produced a “30 for 30” documentary on Vaccaro titled “Sole Man,” no Nike-affiliated figures participated. Earlier this year, when ESPN released its 10-part “The Last Dance” series, Vaccaro was notably left out aside from a brief appearance in a photograph of Jordan’s meeting with Nike before the historic contract was signed.

For Vaccaro, now 81, there is a sense of closure in putting those shoes up for sale. The relationship with Jordan changed his life, and ever since the summer of 1991, it hasn’t existed in quite the same way. But whatever feelings may remain all these years later, his role in that partnership is an important piece of NBA history. This is Vaccaro’s way of sharing it.

“He was the everyday part of my life for eight years, and it’s not there anymore,” he said. “And there will be people who will treasure it. It’ll maybe never be seen or heard of again, but the person who buys this will have a treasure because you can’t duplicate this one — that’s for sure.”