1984 | Jumpman

In lead up to the 1984 Summer Olympics, Life Magazine tried to put together a special issue featuring great athletes of past, present, and future. The subjects lined up included Carl Lewis, Greg Louganis, Edwin Moses, Nadia Comaneci, Jesse Owens, Mark Spitz and an upcoming basketball star who had just completed his junior year at the University of North Carolina, Michael Jordan.

Appropriately, one of the photographers chosen to undertake the project was Co Rentmeester who represented the Netherlands as a rower at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome before becoming a photojournalist for LIFE magazine; his photo from 1972 Olympics – of sharply focused head of swimmer in water while water was in motion – was World Press sports photo of the year.

Rentmeester went to Chapel Hill to photograph Jordan. Jordan was just selected by consensus to the NCAA All-American First Team and was awarded the Naismith and Wooden College Player of the Year awards. Rentmeester’s crew mowed a hillside that would give him the view of the clean skyline and set up a portable basketball hoop they bought from a toy store.

When Jordan arrived, the photographer asked Jordan to jump straight up while holding a basketball aloft. Instead doing a regular basketball jump, Rentmeester asked Jordan to splay his legs in the manner of a ballet dancer, a pose known as a “grand jetés.”  “It worked beautifully,” Rentmeester remembered.

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The image ran across two pages in Life. Six months later, Rentmeester was in a meeting in Chicago with a corporate client and saw an image of Jordan doing the same jump on a Nike billboard against Chicago skyline. Seeking design inspiration for its first Air Jordan sneakers, Nike did pay Rentmeester $150 for use of his photos from the Life shoot as ‘research’ copy, but Rentmeester claimed Nike not have permission to reproduce the image.

In 1987, Nike began to use a silhouette of Jordan from the Nike Photo and began using it as a logo (later known as the “Jumpman Logo”) on all of its Michael Jordan branded merchandise. Years long legal battle between Rentmeester and Nike followed, and eventually the judges sided with Nike. Time magazine noted that Rentmeester’s photo was “a beautiful image but one unlikely to have endured had Nike not devised a logo for its young star that bore a striking resemblance to the photo.”  

That was not the only trouble Nike faced in growing Air Jordans into what would eventually become to be a billion-dollar business. Jordan was an unlikely spokesperson for Nike – in college, he wore Converse and the 1984 Olympic team was sponsored by Adidas. The NBA policy also required the shoes be 51% white and in accordance with the shoes that the rest of the team wore. Nike famously paid Jordan’s fines ($5,000 fine per game) for black and red sneakers and marketed Michael Jordan’s rebellious image through a series of commercials, making sure the public knew all about the ban, and managed to keep the public interested and the sales going even when Jordan was off-court with an injury in the following years.


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