“The Last Dance,” ESPN’s docuseries detailing the 1998 and final season of the Bulls’ dynasty, has served as a reminder to basketball fans of the greatness of Michael Jordan on the court. It’s also shed light on his worldwide marketing allure.
The Hall-of-Famer starred in many memorable commercials throughout the 1990s for major brands, including McDonald’s “Nothing But Net” spot and Nike’s “Failure” ad. But perhaps his most famous was Gatorade’s “Be Like Mike” commercial.
But if it weren’t inadvertently for the Walt Disney Corp., the melodic jingle never would have been made.
“My whole goal in advertising, I told my wife right when I got into it, was I just wanted to create a little sliver of pop culture somewhere along the line,” said Bernie Pitzel, the advertising executive who created the song. “Everybody knows I’ve been saying that for years. And they go, ‘Well, I think you did it’.”
In 1992, Pitzel was working for Chicago-based ad agency Bayer Bess Vanderwarker and tasked with overseeing a spot for Jordan that they had already created. Pitzel thought it was lackluster and too similar to Jordan’s early Nike commercials.
But he became inspired as his children watched Disney’s 1967 film “The Jungle Book.” After changing a few lines of the song “I Wanna Be Like You” and presenting a mock-up, all parties settled on his idea.
After filming visuals for the commercial, there was one last hurdle to cross: convincing Disney to allow them to use the “Jungle Book” music; Pitzel said they wanted too much money to approve it (a rep for Disney said they could not confirm Pitzel’s account as it was decades ago).
With the season scheduled to start soon and the agency unsure of the next move, Pitzel went to a favorite restaurant where he frequently brainstormed. He jotted down the lyrics for the jingle on a paper tablecloth, and then faxed a few music production houses while still at the restaurant. He settled on a melody the next day with the music and singing all performed by session singers.
“I heard that instrumental opening that I’m like, ‘Oh, my God. We got it,’ Pitzel said. “As it turned out, it was way better that I wrote the song because that’s what people remember. If we’d just done it with the ‘Jungle Book’ music, it would have been a cute little spot, but it never would have resonated like it did.”
Now retired in Phoenix, Pitzel had fond memories of working on that project—his kids appear in the commercial and played one-on-one with Jordan during takes.
While he thought the spot was great and witnessed it become a pop culture staple, he couldn’t have predicted it would still be discussed nearly three decades later. When asked what goes into a creating an iconic ad, he says it’s not much different than the ingredients of winning a championship.
“You just gotta believe in it. You gotta put your soul into it,” Pitzel said. “You gotta put your heart in it, and then you’ve gotta get some luck.”