On Location: A Brooklyn Goodbye

On Mars Blackmon’s home turf, one more shoutout to Jordan

It’s 2:45 on a dreary April afternoon, and students from P.S. 81 are heading in droves down DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn. As they pass the Love ‘N Oven pizzeria, something catches their attention.

“Yo, Spike Lee’s there!” one shouts.

Spotted through the store window, Lee stands in front of a camera as Mars Blackmon, the character he created in 1986 for his first big release, She’s Gotta Have It. Today, Lee is starring in and directing “Yes, Mars,” Wieden + Kennedy’s 17th and what looks to be its last spot in the 16-year “Spike and Mike” campaign for Nike’s Air Jordan.

In his familiar “Brooklyn” hat, black-rimmed Coke-bottle glasses and gold necklace with the “Mars” nameplate, Lee slips easily into character. “Yo, Mars Blackmon here, with my main man Michael Jordan on the speed dial,” he says rapid-fire into the camera as employees serve pizza behind him. Lee stands nose pressed up to the lens of a camera—so much so that he sometimes steams it up with his breath—and repeats his questions to Jordan: “Is it true? Are you retiring? Forever and ever? And ever?”

The spot, which broke last Wednesday during Jordan’s final game, puts Blackmon in familiar spots around Brooklyn—the Brooklyn Bridge, Nathan’s hot dog stand in Coney Island, Junior’s Restaurant and a brownstone stoop in Fort Greene among them—as he incessantly phones Jordan to ask if he’s really retiring. Jordan is not seen, just heard responding to Mars. The spot closes with the copy: “Thanks and goodbye Michael.”

The simple concept allowed for a quick one-day shoot and for Jordan, preparing for his last games, to call in his performance. The idea came about just a few weeks ago, after the Wizards played the Portland Trail Blazers. “We wanted to do something for Jordan,” says Mike Byrne, co-creative director at the Portland, Ore., shop, on his first “Spike and Mike” shoot. “I called my dad last night. He remembers the old spots. We used to watch the commercials together, and now I’m part of it.”

Copywriter Jim Riswold came up with the original “Spike and Mike” idea after seeing She’s Gotta Have It, in which Mars Blackmon is obsessed with his Air Jordans. Riswold is one of the few people on the creative team—which includes co-creative director Hal Curtis and art director Jayanta Jenkins—who was involved in the first executions. “There’s no better person to say goodbye to [Jordan],” says Riswold of Blackmon. “The first stuff I did with Mars was seminal for Nike. It was the first time they used humor in advertising.”

That campaign showed superfan Blackmon chattering about Jordan as the star looked on skeptically. In the debut ad, “Hang Time,” Lee hung from a basketball net by standing on Jordan’s shoulders. Later commercials introduced the catchphrase, “It’s gotta be the shoes” and featured Little Richard as a genie who grants Mars his wish to turn into Jordan.

“The ads were fun and filled with laughter, and you never got enough,” says Roman Vega, senior advertising manager on brand Jordan. “That’s a testament to the quality of the ads, and Spike Lee as a director and actor.”

The writing for this spot, says Riswold, was done in “about five minutes. There’s such a formula to it.” That formula leaves room for improvising, and Riswold grabs a reporter’s notebook to write down a line he’s just thought of: “Are they retiring the Air Jordans, too?” A minute later, Lee repeats it into the camera.

“This is how the spot came together,” observes agency producer Andrew Loevenguth. “Very quick and on the fly.”

“It’s me feeding him lines: ‘Try this, try that,’ ” Riswold says of the process. “You can never have too many words for Mars.”

Lee repeats another line improvised on the set by Riswold: “Sorry you didn’t make the playoffs.” He laughs. “They’re not going to air that one.” (Indeed, it doesn’t appear in the final spot.) Lee agreed to do the shoot a few days earlier as a way to honor Jordan. “It will be the end to one of the greatest athlete’s career,” he says. He’s far more nostalgic about saying goodbye to Jordan than to Mars: “Mars is no big thing. Michael’s the one who changed the sport.”

At the Brooklyn promenade, almost 12 hours after the shoot began, crew members shovel remnants of the previous day’s snowstorm out of the way and set up the last shot, a view of Manhattan in the background. Lee repeats his lines as the crew huddles around the camera in the cold. “It’s really ovah?” he says to the camera. “O-v-a-h. Ovah?”

Then, it is over. “Cut,” Lee yells. “Got it?”

Mars Blackmon’s last hurrah is sorted out with little fanfare. Lee and Riswold embrace. The 20-strong crew, with only one camera, clears out in a few minutes. Lee slips a jersey over his head—number 23—and walks away.