On Location: Be the Ball

The retired jerseys still hang high in the rafters of the Great Western Forum, the Inglewood arena that the Lakers abandoned for downtown L.A. long before Carmelo Anthony dazzled the NBA. Today, the Denver Nuggets rookie has the floor to himself, and the production crew basks in seats only movie stars could get during the glory days.

“You see those numbers up there?” asks Charles Hall, acd and copywriter at Wieden + Kennedy in New York, pointing toward Magic Johnson’s No. 32. “Anyone who Michael Jordan has picked to be on Team Jordan is in search of that greatness. They’re not just in the NBA to be good or collect a check. Jordan athletes have a special connection to the ball, because the ball tells them things.”

Just what it tells them is revealed in three TV spots shot here and in New Jersey in January for the Air Jordan XIX shoes. The ads, which broke Sunday, feature Anthony, Lakers guard Gary Payton and New Jersey Nets guard Jason Kidd drawing inspiration from the basketball itself, which is personified—as muse, coach, even romantic distraction—in voiceovers from legendary Georgetown coach John Thompson.

The goal is to emphasize that greatness is earned through hard work and devotion. The voiceover in Payton’s ad, for example, says, “And the ball said, ‘Anybody can be famous. Fame is easy. Fame is cheap. Fame is fleeting. But try achieving greatness. Greatness is hard. Greatness is lonely. Greatness is work. Greatness is humbling. Greatness is a responsibility. Greatness lasts forever.’ ”

“He’s incredible,” Hall says as he watches Anthony shoot around. “He’s easily hit 95 percent of his shots. And he takes direction well. We just had to show him his mark. It’s not like we had to instill conviction—you know, ‘Here is your motivation for sinking the basket.’ ”

A mysterious kinship between man and ball—is this like Tom Hanks and Wilson in Cast Away? “The role the ball played there was to keep Tom Hanks alive, maintain his sanity and give him hope,” says Hall. “The ball in our relationship talks to [the player] more like Yoda, with an understanding of the Force and how the Force works.”

Leave it to British director Jake Scott of RSA USA (the production company co-founded by his father, Ridley Scott) to class the metaphor up a notch: “I always had in mind that little soliloquy from Hamlet, with Yorick’s skull. The ball resonates with power, and that’s something they acknowledge.” (The family feel extends to cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, whose late father, Jordan, shot Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.)

Art director Adrian Hilton, who has worked on the Jordan brand for nearly five years with directors ranging from Spike Lee to Joe Pytka, says the team trusted Scott to visualize the theme. “Jake came to the table with a vision and a look that we responded to,” Hilton says. That included shooting in a widescreen aspect ratio. “We didn’t want it to feel like the average basketball commercial. We wanted it to feel more cinematic, more like a story, more movie, an epic, bigger.”

The crew has spread out balls on the court so Anthony can work his jump shot. “When they train and practice, they’re never really on their own, so it’s really artificial for them,” Scott explains. “But there’s a romance to [practicing alone].” Yet basketball, evidently, is not really Scott’s game. “It is interesting to see these guys, as good as they are, do something bad, like dribble funny,” he adds. “It makes them human.”

Payton’s spot plays off basketball as religion, with the player lit up as if in a monk’s cell—concentrating before practice. He then sets up chairs as defenders and works out. That shoot wasn’t without its problems. “There was a finite number of takes he’d do,” Scott says. “He wouldn’t risk injury.”

In Kidd’s spot, shot at the Nets’ practice facility, the player wakes from a dream to find the basketball between him and his wife. “There’s a psychology to that one,” says Scott. “It’s about overcoming demons and their connection to performance and domestic bliss.”

The “inner dialogue” came from Hall, now on his second Air Jordan campaign. (His debut was on Pytka’s “I’m not Michael Jordan” spot.) “The copy is strong,” says Scott. “It does a lot of the work in terms of the storytelling. … You understand that the ball means something to them.”

Working on Jordan clearly means something to Hilton and Hall, allowing them to mix branded-entertainment shorts and full-length documentaries into their work. “The interesting thing is that the brand evolves,” says Hall. “I like thinking differently for TV, whatever the assignment holds. You adapt, and you change, and you challenge each other to come up with something different. Within the scope of what we’ve done for Jordan and the scope of basketball commercials out there now, this is going to be different. I think we hit a different note.”