The shoe design that revolutionized Nike Air may have been seeded by an 18-year-old Covington kid

There can only be so much suspense in Air, the feature film which depicts Nike’s quest in 1984 to sign the then-rookie Michael Jordan to an endorsement deal. Everyone knows that in the end, Nike got its man. Some of you are doubtlessly wearing Swoosh-adorned sneakers right now. 

Yet the filmmakers conjure a gripping moment late in the film. Through wit and grit, Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike executive played by Matt Damon, has secured Jordan’s agreement until Jordan’s mother, Deloris Jordan, played by Viola Davis, makes an additional demand: Her son must receive not only a $250,000 fee, but also a cut from every sneaker sold. 

The idea for that shoe design may have been seeded by an 18-year-old local Covington kid   

“I attended Holmes High School and then on to Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio for commercial art where I played basketball,” said Basil Lewis, now a local barber in Roselawn. Lewis has made a case to Nike that it was his original idea that helped to spark a shoe revolution.   

Nike shoes have a long-standing cultural significance in the Black community, often representing more than just footwear but also a symbol of status, identity, and cultural expression. The signficance is due in no small part to the influence of Michael Jordan who has had a symbiotic relationship with Nike since the beginning of his professional sports career. Jordan and Nike have grown together into two of the most popular sports brands in the world; and far beyond the game of basketball into sports, entertainment, and lifestyle.

The popularity of Nike shoes among Black consumers can be traced back to the 1980s and 1990s when the brand's marketing campaigns, celebrity endorsements, and iconic shoe designs resonated strongly with Black youth. In 1982, the Air Force 1 basketball shoe was introduced and launched as one of the most famous and enduring collaborations between Nike and an athlete with its partnership with Michael Jordan. The Air Jordan line of basketball shoes became immensely popular among Black consumers and helped establish Nike as a dominant force in the urban fashion market.

“Right before I went off to college back in 1985, I was living in Covington and worked as a Rent-a-Kid at the Northern Kentucky Community Center,” said Lewis. “The Community Center used to be a historical Black school called Lincoln Grant High School. I was looking at Nike’s Air Force 1 shoe and I had a thought to flip the design of the shoe; something that would help protect your ankle more when maneuvering on the basketball court. So, I came up with a two-strap design. And again, remember, I had just turned 18. After I showed my new design to a friend of mine, they loved it."

Lewis continues "I went to a local sporting goods store here in Covington to get the address for Nike. The worker asked what it was for. I told them I wanted to send them a design. The worker said good luck, they are slow to get back to you. I sent Nike the design and two weeks later, I heard back from them. They were enthused with my idea. In the letter this is what they said, and they also mentioned that they would keep it on file.” 

Nike’s Revolution shoe along with original shoe ideas submitted by Basil Lewis.

Two years later, in 1987, Nike introduced the Air Max shoe, giving athletes their first look at Nike Air cushioning, launched by the controversial Revolution ad campaign. Lewis claims, the Air Max incorporated his design idea submitted to Nike two years earlier. Incorporation of the signature air bubble, and the placement of the NIKE name on the shoe are just a few of the items Lewis is claiming are all from his initial 1985 design. 

“I touched base with Nike a year after I sent in my ideas, in 1986, and received a similar response. Another year passes and I see the Nike Revolution and think to myself, that’s my idea. After speaking with a few attorneys, I knew I had a case and even contacted Nike in the 1990’s asking to be compensated for my design but was again redirected by the company.” 

Protecting intellectual property

Black thought creators, innovators, and entrepreneurs continue to face significant barriers that can hinder their success especially when it comes to keeping and protecting their intellectual property. Many could say that the law is not applied to different demographic groups equally in practice, as can be seen just by looking at America’s criminal justice system, which has historically oppressed racial minorities in disproportionate numbers. Though less known, this is also true with intellectual property law. 

In February 2023, Lewis filed a case in the Sixth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals against Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike, Michael Jordan Brand and Tinker Hatfield, a designer of numerous Nike athletic shoe models. The initial filing of the case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction in March of 2023 by the Circuit Judges Jeffrey S. Sutton (Chief), Alan E. Norris and David W. McKeague, but Lewis is not giving up. 

“People need to know the truth,” Lewis said when asked the importance of filing this case now, close to four decades since he submitted his ideas to Nike. “It’s also about educating folks, especially young folks, on how to protect themself, and their ideas. We see so many people put up stuff on YouTube and TikTok. There is a need for folks to know how to protect their ideas.” 

Resources for innovators

At the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, their program, Black Empowerment Works, aims to promote Black self-determination and economic prosperity and social mobility by providing tools, supportive and otherwise, so that Black-led work can thrive. 

Here are some of the additional resources and organizations in Cincinnati that support Black thought creators and entrepreneurs:
  • MORTAR - A Cincinnati-based organization that works to support underrepresented entrepreneurs, including Black entrepreneurs, through business education and mentorship programs.
  • Greater Cincinnati | Northern Kentucky African American Chamber of Commerce - The African American Chamber offers networking opportunities, business development resources, and advocacy for Black-owned businesses.
  • Citylink Center - Resources and support for individuals and families in Cincinnati, including programs that can benefit aspiring entrepreneurs.
  • The Greater Cincinnati Microenterprise Initiative (GCMI) - Small business loans and technical assistance to entrepreneurs, including those from underserved communities.
  • Minority Business Accelerator - Operated by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber provides support and resources for minority-owned businesses, including networking opportunities and access to capital.
  • SCORE Cincinnati - A nonprofit organization that offers free mentoring, workshops, and resources to help entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses.
  • Queen City Angels - While not specifically focused on Black entrepreneurs, Queen City Angels is a group of experienced entrepreneurs and business leaders in Cincinnati who provide funding and mentorship to startups.

This list of resources is a start to secure valuable support, guidance, and networking opportunities for Black thought creators and entrepreneurs in Cincinnati.
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Read more articles by Kareem A. Simpson.

Raised in the inner city of Covington, Kentucky, Kareem Simpson is an author, innovator, community enthusiast, military veteran, serial entrepreneur, foodie and lover of all things creative.