clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Michael Jordan knew how to deliver a pitch

Some behind-the-scenes scoops on how his famous 1991 ‘‘Be Like Mike’’ Gatorade commercial came to be.

Michael Jordan
Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan drinks some Gatorade during a news conference in Chicago, Aug. 8, 1991. Gatorade, owned by the Quaker Oats Co., announced that it has signed a long-term contract with Jordan to represent the company in advertising, promotions and public appearances.
Mark Elias/AP

Does it ring in your head from the olden times?

It sure does in mine:

‘‘If I could be like Mike.’’

There it is. Happy, yearning, cheerful, dreaming.

It’s the chorus to the Gatorade commercial from 1991, the one featuring a sprightly Michael Jordan that was so huge a phenomenon that the soundtrack itself became a musical hit.

And it was all done in the Chicago area.

It was filmed in Lincoln Park, Cabrini-Green, Highland Park, North Avenue Beach and the Ida Wells gym on Chicago Avenue and edited here. All the music was created, played, sung and edited by the Shafer-Antelis music agency in town, with lyrics and oversight by Bernie Pitzel, the creative director at the now-defunct Bayer Bess Vanderwarker ad agency.

It was a wondrous ad that likely wouldn’t be created today.

Cynicism and reality have crippled that kind of joyful innocence. You see Jordan with dozens of kids, laughing and messing around, and what comes to mind is: Where’s the social-distancing, idiot? Ever heard of COVID-19?! This was before Michael’s father, James, was murdered and before Michael went on his gambling adventures and became seen as human.

But in the summer of 1991, things were different.

The Bulls had just won their first NBA championship — en route to their first three-peat — and Michael was on everybody’s mind.

What did he eat? McDonald’s? Wheaties? How did he fly? Was it the shoes?

Yes, yes and N-O.

The man was a handsome, chiseled, beautifully smiling, ungodly basketball player, the likes of which the world had never seen. And he did eat Big Macs and he did eat Wheaties, products which, of course, he endorsed.

But flying? You could have put him in hiking boots instead of Nikes, and he would have soared as if unconstrained by gravity.

The championship was quite an achievement. Especially for this city, which had only the 1985 Bears to celebrate for recent pro-sports success.

But nothing seemed impossible at that point.

Not for MJ.

And not for Gatorade, which was looking for that rare commercial that could elevate a rising star into the stratosphere, dragging its product along with him.

Remember, if that finished ad weren’t so addictive, there wouldn’t now be a remake of ‘‘Be Like Mike’’ on social media with idled basketball stars Zion Williamson, Jayson Tatum and Elena Delle Donne interacting with the vintage footage of Jordan.

How did the ad become so special?

It starts with Pitzel sitting in his favorite restaurant, Avanzare, on Huron Street, and writing the lyrics on the tablecloth.

‘‘Sometimes I dream/That he is me,’’ it begins. Simple brilliance. On spaghetti sauce-stained white parchment.

‘‘I tore it off and went into the kitchen and immediately faxed it to three music houses,’’ said Pitzel, now retired and living in Arizona. ‘‘The first two tracks came back that weekend, and they were bad. The last music house was Shafer-Antelis. I got theirs and said, ‘Holy sh—! This is so good.’ ’’

And it was.

Steve Shafer (who died at 52 in 2004 of liver cancer) and Ira Antelis were partners who worked feverishly around the clock on the tune because they had only the weekend to get it done. The ad originally was slated to use Disney’s song, ‘‘I Wan’na Be Like You’’ from ‘‘The Jungle Book’’ movie.

But Disney wanted more than $300,000 for limited use of the tune, no ‘‘Be Like Mike’’ lyrics and, on top of that — to be honest — the song was lousy.

‘‘Literally, Bernie gave us the words on Thursday afternoon, and it had to be on the air by Monday,’’ Antelis recalled. ‘‘Steve Shafer was the most brilliant guy, and we just did it. I wrote the tune — three chords. I wanted it to be like a happy moment, and in my mind, not much mattered — as long as you remembered, ‘Be like Mike.’ ’’

With the aid of music producer Bonny Dolan, who collected all the singers, did the contracts and filled in the blanks of the minutelong ditty, the exhausted group had a polished recording by Monday morning.

And it sounded different. This wasn’t an old-school jingle. This was honest-to-God, foot-dancing music.

‘‘Steve was obsessed with Michael Jackson, with Stevie Wonder,’’ Antelis said. ‘‘Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album had come out [in 1986], and I loved that.’’

Those influences are all in the song. And the song, with Mike behind it, changed advertising.

Just as Mike changed the game.