Iconic Sports Commercials: Michael Jordan vs. Larry Bird

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Sometimes the commercial breaks during a big game provide more entertainment than what happens between the lines. Iconic Sports Commercials is a Yahoo Sports series highlighting some of the most unforgettable spots, from how they were conceived, to behind-the-scenes tales from the set, to what made them so influential.

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How it came about

The masterminds behind the famous Michael Jordan-Larry Bird commercial had almost total creative freedom while coming up with the spot.

McDonald’s chief marketing officer Paul Schrage only stipulated that he wanted a two-part Super Bowl commercial that promoted the Big Mac and featured the immensely popular Jordan as a celebrity pitchman.

Copywriter Jim Ferguson and art director Bob Shallcross, then the top creative team at Leo Burnett Worldwide, bounced ideas off one-another for days before the premise of a shooting contest dawned on them. In the award-winning spot, Bird challenges Jordan to match him shot for physics-defying shot with a Big Mac and fries at stake.

“It was a very simple idea, but what you find in advertising is that the simple ideas are usually the best,” Ferguson said. “Did we have any idea it was going to become part of pop culture? Hell no, man. You never know what’s going to catch on, but you hit the right time, the right idea, the right stars and sometimes it does.”

Iconic line: “No dunking”

One of the most memorable lines in the commercial is actually an improvisation that director Joe Pytka added to the script during the shoot. “No dunking,” the 36-year-old Bird insists to Jordan in an effort to make the contest fair.

Pytka’s inspiration for that line stems from a game of H-O-R-S-E between him and Jordan during some downtime while shooting a previous commercial. Jordan shot strictly left-handed to give his counterpart a shred of hope of winning.

Relying on a baby hook shot that Jordan struggled to duplicate shooting with his off hand, Pytka managed to extend the game until it was H-O-R-S to H-O-R-S and they were both down to their final letter. That’s when Jordan unleashed a flat-footed dunk that Pytka had no hope of matching.

“That’s not fair!” Pytka told him

Responded the notoriously competitive Jordan, “There’s no way I was going to let you beat me.”

Pytka’s loss popped into his mind when he read the script for the McDonald’s commercial for the first time. He had Bird stipulate no dunking both to poke fun at Jordan and to make the shooting contest more believable with the Celtics star hobbled by lingering back injuries that forced him to retire from the NBA in 1992.

“That’s where that ‘no dunking’ line came from,” Pytka said. “I gave Larry that line because of that.”

What’s the deal with MJ’s outfit?

If he could reshoot the commercial today, Pytka insists he would only change one thing.

He’d find Jordan something else to wear.

Whereas Bird arrived at the first day of filming clad in a sleeveless gray T-shirt and basketball shorts, Jordan showed up in far more colorful get-up. It was an unmistakably early 90s-flavored matching shirt and shorts ensemble better suited for an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air than a basketball game.

“What the hell is that? You can’t wear that!” Director Joe Pytka was not a fan of Michael Jordan's outfit. (Screenshot via YouTube)

Never one to sugarcoat an opinion no matter how high-profile the celebrity, Pytka gestured at Jordan’s outfit and told him, “What the hell is that? You can’t wear that!” Jordan responded that he wasn’t changing, adding that he designed the outfit himself as part of his newly released Nike clothing line.

When Pytka again demanded he pick out new clothes, Jordan turned to a cluster of advertising agency executives seated within earshot and asked, “What do you guys think?” Unwilling to risk alienating the world’s most famous athlete at the height of his basketball career, they fell over each other assuring Jordan that he looked great.

“To this day, it’s the ugliest get-up you’ve ever seen in your life,” Pytka said. “I never let Michael forget it. I busted his chops about that for years.”

Three Fun Facts

1. Executives from McDonald’s bickered with Ferguson and Shallcross on who Jordan’s co-star should be. “McDonald’s really wanted to see Shaq,” Ferguson said with a laugh. “I remember Bob telling them, ‘The guy can’t even hit a free throw. How’s he going to hit one from mid-court?’”

2. A memorable exchange from the commercial shoot occurred with Jordan and Bird seated in the rafters of what is now known as Allstate Arena. Ferguson estimates they were only about 10 feet off the ground yet he recalls Jordan joking, “If we fall, we’ll own McDonald’s.”

3. The only piece of memorabilia Ferguson has from the commercial is a basketball signed by both Bird and Jordan. Bird addressed his autograph to “Father Nelson,” a reference to a dirty joke about Catholic priests that Ferguson told during the shoot.

Impact on pop culture

Within days of the Jordan-Bird commercial airing during the Super Bowl, the catchphrase “nothing but net” became ingrained in popular culture. Kids across the country challenged each other to emulate the spectacular trick shots Jordan and Bird made look easy with the assistance of some clever video editing.

The commercial inspired a 1994 sequel that included Charles Barkley and an ill-fated 2010 remake that starred Dwight Howard and LeBron James. McDonald’s even went back to the well one more time in 2013 with a passing competition between Super Bowl quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick to see who comes away with a box of wings.

“The fact that it lives on this many years later is pretty amazing,” said Cheryl Berman, creative director for the original spot. “Everybody felt good about it, but I don’t think anybody really knew where it was going to go or how long it was going to last. To this day, people are still like, ‘Oh my God, I remember that commercial’ or ‘I love that commercial.’”

One last behind the scenes story

McDonald’s encountered an unexpected issue just before the commercial was scheduled to air. Nobody at Leo Burnett secured permission to use footage of the John Hancock Center, a huge problem since the final sequence of the commercial featured Jordan and Bird shooting from atop the 100-story Chicago skyscraper.

The agreement that the agency eventually reached with Hancock Center officials underscores Jordan’s immense popularity in Chicago at that time.

“They could have easily said it would cost us 100 grand to use a shot of the building, but instead they settled for autographed basketballs,” Ferguson said.