From the windows that stretch across one wall of David Falk's 18th-story office you can see the Kennedy Center, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and much of the rest of this marble city. It is an impressive if incongruous sight because nothing Falk does pertains in the slightest to government or politics. But this view of his is a classic Washington power vista, and Falk knows something about power.

As president of the team sports division at ProServ, the Arlington-based sports agency and marketing firm, he is one of the three or four most powerful men in professional basketball. On his walls hang pictures, posters and magazine covers of the clients from whom this power flows.

Falk and his colleagues represent 1991 National Basketball Association All-Stars Patrick Ewing, Dominique Wilkins and John Stockton. Other clients include Buck Williams, Xavier McDaniel, Johnny Dawkins and Danny Ferry.

These high profile and lucrative relationships notwithstanding, Falk is best known as the man behind the packaging, marketing and mythologizing of one man -- Michael Jordan. Under Falk's care, the Chicago Bulls superstar has landed some of the largest endorsement contracts in history, including a multimillion-dollar deal with Nike that has helped turn the company around and changed the face of the athletic shoe industry. Now that he's on nearly every basketball, cereal box and chewy fruit snack in America, the big question for Jordan, and for Falk, is: What next?

Shrewd, relentless, possessed of a great self-regard, Falk is a man not easily diverted by others' attempts at humor. In casual conversation he seems always to be looking elsewhere, searching for someone more important to speak with. In a more structured setting, however, his focus is sharp, his knowledge broad and his opinions incisive. "I feel I can trust David," says one reporter who covers the NBA. "The things he tells me are self-serving, but they are true."

Falk's recitation of his personal statistics falls into that category. His accomplishments as an agent are nearly as impressive as Jordan's statistics as an athlete, and he reels off his achievements with the readiness of Pete Rose. "Of the six highest rookie contracts, I have negotiated four," he said during the 1990-91 NBA season. "Of the 30 highest-paid players, I have negotiated 10 of those contracts. Of the four biggest contracts in the league, I have negotiated three" -- for Jordan, Ewing and Ferry, who, despite his failure so far to establish himself in the NBA, earns more than David Robinson.

This track record has convinced many young ballplayers that Falk is the man they want on their side. From 1985 through 1991, he and his associates at ProServ represented 12 of the 61 collegians chosen in the NBA draft lottery, as many as the two closest competing agencies combined. Other agents acknowledge that Falk generally negotiates the rookie contract that defines the market for that year and sets the standard against which their own performances are judged. He also represents the top endorsement athlete at most of the major sneaker companies.

All the success has not made Falk a widely popular fellow. "There are people who don't like me because I am very opinionated, but I think they respect me," he says. "I'd like to be liked and respected, but sometimes there are trade-offs. I would rather be respected than liked.

"The nature of what I do -- taking money, getting more money -- they are not likely to like you."

Falk's top clients understand that he is intensely loyal and extremely vigilant about whom he allows to approach them. His life has become bound up in many of theirs. Clients Adrian Dantley, a former NBA all-star, and Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason are the godfathers of his two daughters. He refers to another client, coach John Thompson of Georgetown, as his "mentor."

It was in marketing Michael Jordan, though, that Falk made his reputation, and the memory is so sweet that it moves him to something approaching modesty.

"We haven't packaged Michael Jordan," he says. "We have done a good job exposing who he is and what he is to corporate decision-makers. Once they saw what he was firsthand, the rest flowed from there. Obviously Michael had a lot going for him, but he needed an access to the McDonalds, the Coca-Colas, and I think that ProServ provided that bridge."

ProServ's unique contribution to Jordan's fame was its conviction that certain stellar team athletes could be marketed in much the same way as golfers and tennis players. Jordan was the type of athlete they had in mind -- explosive, acrobatic and, above all, telegenic. The problem, from a corporate point of view, was that he was black.

"There was a general feeling lurking beneath the surface that black team-sport athletes were not marketable, that they would not be accepted by corporate America," Falk says. "Not so much by the people, not so much by the consuming populace, but by the people who were making the decisions to put them on television." The companies were "very, very circumspect about why would Michael -- simply because he is a good basketball player -- be a useful addition to them in marketing," he adds. "And we had to supply the answers."

WHEN HE FIRST ENTERED THE NBA, Michael Jordan said he wanted to be the best-marketed player in the game. That was achieved within his first two seasons. In the six years since, he has been expanding his portfolio and proving, through his example, that other basketball stars deserve a chance to do the same. Today, Michael pitches Gatorade for Quaker Oats, fast food for McDonald's, Wheaties for General Mills, cars for Chicago area Chevy dealers, basketballs for Wilson, lottery tickets for the state of Illinois, calendars, school supplies and greeting cards for Cleo and underwear for Hanes. CBS-Fox markets Michael Jordan videos. The Bulls star has a restaurant in Chicago, three lines of clothing marketed through Bigsby & Kruthers (a Chicago men's store), and a chain of sportswear stores in North Carolina that is run by his family.

There is little question about his ability to move merchandise. The Air Jordan is the best-selling basketball shoe in the country. Wilson has sold more than 6 million basketballs bearing Jordan's signature. His first Cleo calendar was not even in the company's catalogue, yet it was the firm's top seller.

What is remarkable about Jordan's commercial success, however, is not simply its breadth, but its durability. Sports fads Jim McMahon, William "Refrigerator" Perry and Brian Bosworth have come and gone during Michael's commercial career. "Athletes today are clearly aware of the business opportunities out there," says Falk. "They pick one fad and they ride it through. Michael is not looking to invest all his energies in a very small niche. He wants to have a broad-based impact and a well-rounded growth pattern."

Neither Jordan nor Falk will say what Michael earns each year, but his salary from the Bulls is $3.25 million, and the Nike deal alone is believed to be worth roughly $2.5 million. In 1990, Forbes magazine estimated Jordan's annual income at about $8.1 million, but a source close to Michael said that figure was low by at least half. Jordan's precise earnings are difficult to calculate because his investments are extensive and several of his endorsement contracts provide for royalties and stock options.

Michael is not the only one who benefits from his success. In 1989, he and his family established the Michael Jordan Foundation, which provides funds to a variety of children's and educational charities. One foundation executive estimated that in 1991 it distributed some $500,000. Jordan's visibility was a key factor in reversing the declining fortunes of the NBA. He not only won over a new generation of basketball fans, but proved that white America could respond well to a black athlete in a spokesman's role. During the past five years, basketball stars, as a group, have placed higher than any other athletes in the advertising industry's "Q" score, a mysterious ranking that allegedly measures how well a celebrity is known and liked. In the overall 1991 ratings, Jordan was tied for first place with Bill Cosby.

But talent and personality are not all that Jordan has at his disposal. Behind him stands a sophisticated network of men and women who make a sizable portion of their living interpreting him -- warmly, humorously, ironically, heroically -- and packaging him for an American public eager to believe in Michael Jordan, the commercial legend.

THE FIRST REAL TIME DAVID FALK AND Michael Jordan spent alone was before a 1984 press conference to introduce Jordan to Chicago. "The city had had a lot of success with the Bears at that point, and the Cubs were playing well, finally," Falk says. "But the Bulls had just been downtrodden forever, and I expected a lot of negativism. So, flying out there on the plane, I wrote down some questions and some suggested things for him to be thinking about to answer them."

He and Jordan met at the airport and went over the notes in the limousine that the Bulls had provided for the occasion. "I started to brief him on what he might be able to expect," Falk says. "He listened very intently for five or six minutes and said, Thanks, I think I get the gist of what you are saying, and I'm pretty comfortable, and I think I'll be able to handle it.

"I'd barely gotten to my second note.

"Well, he sat down at this round conference table with all the microphones in front of him. There were about 40, 50 people in the room, and he was like Johnny Carson. He took the mike off the stand. A guy asked him what it was like to play for Bobby Knight {who was coaching Jordan on the U.S. Olympic team}, and he'd wink at him and give him sort of a nondescript answer. You could see in the very beginning this was a made-for-the-media athlete. He had a natural ability to communicate, to provide intelligent answers to questions, to delicately handle the tough questions. He was incredible.

"When we got done, I said, God, I'm really glad my briefing provided some help."

The summer that Michael was drafted, he led an extremely talented U.S. men's basketball team that included Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin at the Olympics in Los Angeles. After impressive victories over a few NBA semi-all-star teams early in the season, the U.S. squad drubbed an international field that included fast-improving teams from Spain, Italy and Brazil. The Americans claimed the gold medal by going undefeated in eight games, winning by an average of more than 39 points and holding opponents to a 38.7 percent shooting average. The Olympic medal enhanced Jordan's image as an all-American kid, as did the widely aired press conference at which he draped it around his mother's neck. "It was almost like a power boost to his image," Falk says.

Michael seemed perfectly poised to leap into the national imagination that summer. But the legends of many Olympic champions have bloomed and died in the space of a month. And scores of can't-miss professional prospects go nowhere in the NBA. Others hold their own in Salt Lake City or Sacramento and the national audience never really notices.

Jordan, on the other hand, was headed for the third largest city in the country, for a leaderless team that was desperate to succeed.

And once he got there, he'd be wearing one hot pair of shoes.

"I remember we were getting together one time," says Buzz Peterson, Jordan's teammate and roommate at the University of North Carolina. "He said, 'Buzz, better get some Nike stock. They are going to make a shoe for me. They are going to make these Air Jordans, and someday it's going to be worth a lot of money.'

"I said, 'Get out of here.' If I had just listened to him there . . . He's always been a lucky person."

ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF PORTLAND, ORE., sits a campus built on air. The buildings are named for Jordan, John McEnroe, Mike Schmidt, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Alberto Salazar, the late Steve Prefontaine and other athletes who have helped make Nike the most successful sports shoe company in the world. This is the firm's Beaverton headquarters, and if ever a corporation's self-image were captured in its surroundings, this is it.

Nine low, sleek buildings in shades of green glass and graphite rest beside a man-made pond. Around them bloom $1 million worth of imported Japanese cherry trees. The entire facility is surrounded by a well-used running course. The effect, as one approaches from the visitors' parking lot, is cool, stylish, precise, as though one is about to walk into a wonderfully made luxury pencil.

Indoors, the feeling is quite different -- light, airy, casual. It is a world of atriums with offices tucked discreetly against the walls. The floors on which shoe designers labor are marked by a loft-like openness. Work spaces pour over eye-high dividers, flowing one into the next as if to represent the collegial development of an excellent idea.

The design of the company's headquarters also captures the quality that is at the heart of Nike's appeal: an ability to have things both ways. The firm portrays itself as corporate, yet casual; intense, yet irreverent; structured, yet spontaneous; fabulously successful, yet unaffected by it all.

"There are no fat cats here," says Tinker Hatfield, director of design. "It is not a typical hierarchy. I am one of the executives, and look at me."

On a mild, rainy, mid-November morning, Hatfield is wearing a pair of tweedy plaid shorts, a vibrant limited edition T-shirt and a blue cardigan sweater courtesy of CBS Sports. His sleeves are bunched at his elbows. On his head sits a long-brimmed baseball cap. The lenses of his glasses are round and rimless. He looks so much his point that one wonders if he dressed to make it.

For the last six years, Michael Jordan has come to the campus to confer with Hatfield about the design of the new Air Jordans that the company unveils each winter. "He really had no input on the first two shoes," says Hatfield, who has designed Air Jordans three through eight. "When I took over, I felt he needed to be involved. He came in, and I laid out leathers and textures and different ideas."

If it is difficult to imagine what sort of ideas these might be, or to understand what kind of muse leads a professional architect like Hatfield into sneaker design, listen as he describes his inspiration for Air Jordan No. 5, the shoe with Michael's number near the heel, the one Jordan first wore at the 1990 All-Star Game.

"That was the airplane-inspired shoe," Hatfield says. "Michael plays like a fighter pilot. He glides in a certain gear, then all of a sudden he takes off, and in the next five minutes he scores 20 points. He's like a plane up there in his own world until he finds his target and strafes the enemy." So Hatfield based his design for AJ-5 on the P-52 Mustang, a World War II-vintage fighter, because modern jets didn't have "the same romantic image." A drawing of the plane hangs on his office wall.

Air Jordan No. 6 has a more technological lineage. "It's got a dynamic fit system," Hatfield says, meaning that the fit adjusts to the movement of the foot. "Like a water-skiing boot." And, in fact, it looks a bit like a water-skiing boot, with black rubber pull-on tabs attached to the tongue and the back of the shoe. "Like the spoiler on a sports car," Hatfield says.

But these pull tabs are not the most daring style innovation in AJ-6. That honor belongs to the shoe's plain toe. That's right, its plain toe. None of the rubber or leather edging that encircles the front of almost every other sneaker in the world.

"One of the things about Michael Jordan is we can take incredible risks in the product because his wearing them validates it," Hatfield says. "The fact that Michael Jordan is wearing this plain-toed shoe will make it all right for a lot of people. Whereas otherwise the marketing department would as soon shoot me as let something like this out the door."

It would not be easy to keep a straight face through this discussion -- it would not be easy to know whether one was supposed to -- were it not for Hatfield's seriousness. It behooves the people at Nike to take the Air Jordan seriously. It is the best-selling basketball shoe in the industry.

The early drawings for Air Jordan No. 7 are propped against the wall near Tinker Hatfield's worktable. Michael, who will wear the shoe in the 1992 All-Star Game, saw the sketches for the first time just a few days ago when the Bulls were in town to play the Portland Trail Blazers. While the shoe will eventually undergo a number of changes, he pronounced himself satisfied with the early drafts. "It's looser, more passionate, not quite so German techy," Hatfield says of his evolving creation. "I'm trying to bring an exuberance into the design that's rougher. It's this sleek Ferrari-ish approach combined with a more primitive tribal kind of thing." The typical detailing -- those raised swatches of leather that intimate the way a sneaker supports your arches and ankles -- has been reduced to jagged, lightning-like lines, which are supposed to give the shoe a futuristic feel. And the sole is a collage of bright colors and sharp angles reminiscent of the abstract African-influenced art of the early 20th century.

Hatfield says his influence was the crossover success of Living Colour, the black rock-and-rollers. "I've always stayed away from the ethnic tinge before, but my sense is that in '92 it will be okay," he says. By ethnic, he, like everyone else in the industry, means black. "Before, I was a little nervous about offending anybody. But if there is anything special about Michael Jordan that will be of some real long-term benefit to society, it will be the way he has transcended our racial thinking."

The shoe is also symbolic of the forces that helped make Jordan a folk hero. As dazzling a player as Michael would become, his commercial legend was shaped -- in large part before he took a shot for money -- by a once-thriving sneaker company that in the spring of 1984 found itself in a corporate free fall.

IT WAS NOT POSSIBLE, 10 YEARS AGO, TO become incredibly wealthy simply by agreeing to wear a particular pair of shoes. In 1982 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the only basketball player with a six-figure sneaker endorsement contract; he earned $100,000 that year from Adidas. This was rightly regarded as a regal sum, since Jabbar was going to have to wear something on his feet whether he was paid to do so or not. Within two years, however, a revolution in the way athletes were employed in marketing sneakers made the Laker star's contract look comparatively slight.

For decades, sneaker makers had offered athletes free shoes and sometimes a small stipend to wear their products. The market for basketball shoes, until the late 1960s, was virtually owned by Converse, which manufactured "Chuck Taylor All-Stars," canvas shoes with rubber soles and minimal arch support that were the serious ballplayer's sneaker of choice.

In the late '60s, two European sneaker companies, Adidas and Puma, made inroads in the American market with a flashier approach and a more diverse line of shoes. But it was not until the fitness boom of the 1970s that the athletic footwear business became so lucrative and so competitive. Athletes who could testify to the superiority of one's product were suddenly in great demand, and sneaker companies tripped over one another trying to get their shoes on high profile feet.

Signing all those athletes to endorsement contracts was costly, however, and sometimes the benefits were not all that tangible. Who cared what sneakers were worn by the backup forwards on the Kansas City Kings? The sneaker companies were not particularly sophisticated in their marketing either. Their idea of promotions extended no further than furnishing their stars with logo-laden wardrobes of T-shirts and sweat pants. In the early 1980s, Converse shod Julius Erving, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, yet did little to help them develop recognizable commercial personalities.

By the mid-1980s, the more-is-better approach was being reconsidered by several major sneaker companies. "Nike flew most of the major player representatives out to Portland at its expense and had a meeting to explain to them that they were shifting gears from signing a multitude of players to signing only a few," David Falk recalls. "The theme of this transition was explained to us as 'the best and the brightest.' "

Nike was not the only company considering this new marketing approach. New Balance, Spot-Bilt and other sneaker makers were also mulling the idea of building promotional campaigns around a few highly visible stars. The first player to benefit from this rethinking was not Jordan, but a Carolina teammate, James Worthy, who graduated in 1982.

Worthy was an All-American. His team had just won the NCAA championship, and he had been named the most valuable player in the Final Four. That June the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers made him the first pick in the entire draft. With so glamorous a client, Falk decided to see how serious footwear manufacturers were about this new strategy. "I told all the companies that we would evaluate offers for James in six figures," he says. "Six figures per year."

At least one sneaker company representative felt Falk was toying with him and said so in strong and profane terms. But the athletic shoe industry was chaotic at this point. It was not entirely unreasonable for a manufacturer to believe that one brilliant pitchman would help his company break from the pack.

New Balance offered James Worthy $1.2 million for eight years to wear a shoe it called the Worthy Express. This marked the first time that an athlete who played a team sport was marketed as though he were a golfer or tennis player. The venture's success, however, was only modest. New Balance did not invest heavily in promoting the shoe. Even if it had, it seems doubtful a mystique could have arisen around a rookie who shared the ball with Kareem and Magic. But marketing Worthy had given David Falk a sense of how much money an eager sneaker manufacturer might commit to an athlete who seemed especially appealing.

By the time the Chicago Bulls drafted Michael Jordan in 1984, the market for traditional athletic shoes was contracting rapidly. The jogging boom had peaked. Fitness buffs were playing racket sports, riding bikes and demanding new specialty shoes. The aerobics craze was in full flourish. To complicate matters, public tastes had also changed. Consumers were tired of the clunky-looking nylon "performance shoes" of the '70s and were looking for more stylish materials and sleeker designs.

Few companies kept pace with these changes. Nike, one of the great corporate success stories of the 1970s, stumbled badly. Between 1978 and 1983, the company's earnings rose at an average annual rate of nearly 100 percent. Its stock, which debuted in 1982 at $22 a share, reached $43 before year's end. In 1983, with record sales of nearly $700 million, Nike had displaced Adidas as the world's top athletic footwear company. But by the following spring, its earnings had plunged for the first time, and the business press was rife with speculation about the firm's demise or, perhaps, its impending sale. Even founder Philip Knight allowed that while he wasn't looking to unload the company, he wouldn't necessarily turn anything down.

Nike's decline aroused unusual interest. Knight was regarded by many as the model for a new breed of businessman, the kind of daring chief executive who could lead moribund American industries into a more creative, less bureaucratic and newly productive future.

"Phil Knight has nurtured one of the most swinging, entrepreneurial, free-spirited, individualistic organizations that exist today," C. Roland Christensen, dean of the Harvard Business School, wrote in the New York Times in 1985. "He's built a new type of industrial society. He's sort of a corporate pope and he has lots of apostles and followers."

Many of the company's executives were former athletes looking for a way to re-create the challenge and camaraderie of competitive sports in their business careers. They were also often children of the Pacific Northwest's counterculture, sensitive to the ethical dilemmas inherent in corporate success. Servicing the fitness boom allowed them to believe that they were building a healthier America while still making a killing in industry.

But the company's passion for athletics spawned a strange blindness. Nike executives knew that perhaps 85 percent of their sneakers were not worn in athletic endeavors. Yet they failed to understand the implications of this fact.

"The secret to the business," Knight told Fortune magazine, "is to build the kind of shoe professional athletes will wear, then put them on the pros. The rest of the market will follow." But athletes were not the only ones who wore the shoes. Many of the people who bought Nikes had only a nodding acquaintance with sweat. The sneakers had simply become a necessary piece of cultural equipment, an outward sign in the self-obsessed '70s that one took one's body seriously. A pair of Nikes attested to one's familiarity with questing exertion, even if the only quests one went on were for a matching pair of shorts.

Even today, the firm still sometimes seems to deny half its identity, claiming that it is in the business of fitness, not fashion.

Yet it became painfully clear in the mid-1980s that this was not the case. The company reacted sluggishly to consumer demand for more stylish and specialized shoes. More damaging was its decision to overlook what Jane Fonda had wrought and ignore the aerobics explosion. In doing so, it created an opening for a then-minuscule firm that is today its principal competitor.

Reebok was an old-line British sneaker company, probably best-known in this country for putting shoes on the feet of the 1924 British Olympic team portrayed in "Chariots of Fire." Unlike Nike, which prided itself on leading the market by building innovative new shoes, Reebok "followed" the market, asking consumers what they wanted and hurrying to provide. In 1983, female consumers wanted sneakers they could wear while doing aerobics. Almost no one was making them, so Reebok decided to fill the vacuum. The shoe it came up with -- the Classic -- was light, not particularly durable and didn't offer much by way of cushioning, yet its success convulsed the industry.

The Classic created the immediately burgeoning women's sneaker market. Reebok sales, languishing at around $3.5 million in 1982, rocketed to roughly $200 million in 1985. The stock debuted at $13 a share that year and was selling for $83 a share when it split three for one in June 1986.

Nike, meanwhile, was in a tailspin. "Nike Loses Its Footing on the Fast Track," wrote Fortune in November 1984. "Earnings are dismal, management is shuffling, and many wonder if founder Philip Knight has run out of breath." As a sign of Knight's blundering, the magazine pointed out that the chairman recently offered a rookie basketball player some $2.5 million to wear Nikes for the next five years.

PROSERV, MEANWHILE, WAS BATTLING to right itself as well. A feud among its founders had led two disaffected partners -- Craig Hill and Lee Fentress -- to found Advantage International, which would become an extremely influential agency in its own right.

In the spring of 1984, ProServ took a huge and unknowing step toward establishing itself as the preeminent basketball agency when company founder Donald Dell, Falk and then-colleague William Strickland traveled to Chapel Hill and made their pitch to represent the Carolina basketball star who had decided to turn professional after his junior year. "We made an hour and a half presentation, and that was it," Falk remembers. "After that, no more contact was allowed." A few weeks later, Carolina coach Dean Smith called his friend Dell to tell him that Jordan, following the lead of Worthy and former Carolina great Phil Ford, had selected the firm as his representative.

Falk wanted for Michael Jordan substantially more than he had achieved for James Worthy. The demands were not modest: a signature shoe, a line of apparel, a royalty on each item sold and a huge promotional budget to make the whole like we do with our tennis clients," Falk says.

The people at ProServ were pleased to have Jordan on board, but they didn't really know what they had. "Michael was considered a very flashy player but not a dominating player, not a complete player," Falk says. "No one really had any idea how good he could be."

The general reaction in the sports-promotion business, he adds, was: " 'David, it will never work. This guy is not a tennis player. He is a team athlete, and while he may be better and more talented than some of his teammates, he is one of five players among starters and 12 players on the team.' "

Converse passed. Adidas passed. Most firms passed. But, as with Worthy, a few companies seemed mesmerized by the idea that perhaps this player could somehow convince the public that its sneakers were the best. One firm in the early running was Spot-Bilt, a small company that couldn't promise Jordan much by way of an advance, but was willing to cut him in for a share of the profits on its proposed "Michael Jordan" collection. The other company considering the situation was Nike.

"They had passed on Worthy," Falk remembers. "{Ralph} Sampson was the catch in '83. He went with Puma. And the year before James {Worthy}, in '81, of the top three players in the draft, {Mark} Aguirre, Isiah {Thomas} and Buck Williams, the first two signed with Converse and Buck signed with Puma.

"So they really hadn't had the major guy in the draft since 1980, which was Darrell Griffith, and Darrell turned out, in Utah, not to have the impact people expected he might have. So Nike was really, I won't say desperate, but they really had a major need for a flagship, for someone to anchor their basketball {line}."

The Oregon firm had a special edge in seeking Jordan's services. Rob Strasser, who was in charge of Nike's advertising and promotions, was Falk's best friend in the industry. Competing shoe companies felt that Falk steered all his best clients Strasser's way, a charge Falk flatly denies. At any rate, a friendship alone could not have led the sneaker company to take the enormous risk it was contemplating.

By all accounts, Nike's presentation to Michael and his parents was extremely impressive. Its centerpiece was a Jordan highlight film set to the music of "Jump!" by the Pointer Sisters. Close friend Fred Whitfield says the video gave Michael his first true sense of how exciting he was to watch. "I think that was the first time he was really impressed with himself," Whitfield says.

Jordan's parents say Michael was so excited by the presentation that he was ready to sign with Nike almost immediately, but Falk still had details to work out. One was that Nike wasn't sure what to call the new shoe. Company officials were leery that simply labeling it "Michael Jordan" would conjure images of the designer jeans craze.

One summer afternoon Falk and Strasser were sitting in the agent's Washington office mulling over Jordan's nicknames -- NBC analyst Al McGuire used to call him Prime Time -- and trying to come up with a name for the shoe. "Nike was going through a whole program in track and field which wasn't very well known, certainly wasn't very well promoted, where they developed this air sole technology," Falk says. "Then all of a sudden, as you get these good ideas sometimes, there it was: instead of Michael Jordan, Air Jordan, because it reflected both the technology they were going to implement down the road . . . and it was the way he played. He was an air player."

Falk had not only coined a name for the shoe, but a nickname for his client that has stuck to this day. That those names are the same is a coincidence for which the people at Nike are extremely grateful.

In the weeks ahead, as Nike developed the first shoe and the attendant ad campaigns, company executives remained concerned that they had committed too much money to Jordan and to promoting his new shoes and sportswear. "So they had a clause in the contract," Falk says, "that said if, in the first three years of the deal, Michael failed to make the All-Star team, the All NBA team, a couple criteria, they would have the right to discontinue making his own signature shoe. However, even if he did do all those things, but the orders for the shoe going into the third year had not exceeded three million dollars, they would still be free to discontinue it.

"It's hard to remember in 1984 just how bold a move Nike made, and the best way to gauge it is that they wanted an out clause if they couldn't sell three million dollars' worth of the product."

The first Air Jordans were airless. Nike had not had time to design an entirely new shoe, so it simply produced new colors -- red, black and white -- for a sneaker that was already in its line. The shoe was unique otherwise only in that it was heavily promoted and outlandishly unattractive, resembling a clunky mottled boot rather than a sleek new sneaker. One night on "Late Night With David Letterman," as Jordan tried to explain why the Bulls initially forbade him to wear the shoes, Letterman asked: "Not because they are so ugly?"

Actually, the Bulls wanted Jordan to wear a shoe in the team's traditional colors, red and white. Air Jordans were predominantly red and black. The NBA stood by the team. "You've got him looking like a tennis player," one official complained to Falk. "Exactly," Falk said.

The ban was the greatest publicity that the new shoes could have had. The Air Jordan was in the midst of its first six-city test marketing campaign when Nike hit the air in those cities with a new commercial: The camera panned slowly up Jordan's body as he stood pounding a basketball menacingly into his palm. "On October 15, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe," a voice intoned. "On October 18, the NBA threw them out of the game. Fortunately, the NBA can't keep you from wearing them. Air Jordans. For Nike."

IT WAS JUST THE FIRST SHOT IN AN extensive promotional barrage. From 1984 through 1986, Nike spent $5 million advertising Air Jordans. The first national commercial aired around Thanksgiving 1984. It opened to a soaring view of Chicago's skyline, the sound of airplane engines and a voice confirming "ready for takeoff." Jordan leapt into the picture in slow motion, clutching a basketball in one hand. As he rose toward the hoop, he extended one arm behind him and splayed his legs, forming the silhouette now known in the industry as "the Jump Man." "Who says man was not meant to fly?" a voice asked as Jordan threw down a dunk.

Howard White, the Nike player liaison who would become one of Jordan's close friends, remembers the day that the commercial was shot. "The number of people outside the fence, climbing the fence, was amazing," he says. "We knew we were on to something. We were filming at an all-girls Catholic school in the suburbs, and the sisters had to hold them back. You could see a fire catching."

Though that first ad never became as popular as Jordan's later commercials with Spike Lee, it helped establish Michael as an inspiring presence, the athlete as artist. The shoe, meanwhile, was an immediate hit. Released nationally in March 1985, it accounted for $130 million in sales in its inaugural year. Had Air Jordan been its own company, that figure would have made it the fifth-largest sneaker firm in the world. By the following September, 22.3 million pairs had been sold, along with $18 million worth of apparel.

"The shoe is credited with beginning the turnaround of Nike," says Beth Sexer, managing editor of Sportstyle magazine. "Nike had the air technology in existence in 1978, but before they came out with the Air Jordan shoe, they had never really capitalized on it."

Some shoe industry experts said Jordan's role was minimal. "I don't think the success of the Air Jordan had so much to do with Jordan as with the distinctive style of the shoe," said Mark Klionsky of Sporting Goods Business magazine. "The demand has been for very stylish, colored leather."

It is true that market research in the early '80s showed that inner-city kids, the group that sets sneaker fashions, were looking for "match-ups" -- colored sneakers that could be coordinated with an entire outfit. But in presenting the Air Jordan as a performance breakthrough, Nike was attempting to broaden the sneaker's potential market. In that regard, Jordan's personal appeal was central to the shoe's popularity.

"When he came out of college, everybody knew he would be a premium player," says Gordie Nye, a vice president at Reebok. "What was not predicted was that he would be such a quantum improvement over the spokesmen of the time. No one person had ever been able to drive a business the way he drove it.

"The market for athletic shoes is broad and fractured. It is very difficult to find someone who doesn't alienate part of your market. You put your shoes on Brian Bosworth, teenage boys are going to love it, but their fathers are going to hate it. The thing about Jordan is that he doesn't alienate anybody."

After Jordan had signed his lucrative Nike deal, David Falk's next move was an obvious one, to get him a basketball. "We decided to sign with Wilson, because Spalding had Doc {Julius Erving}, Larry, Magic and a lot of other people," he says. "At the time Michael came to Wilson, I think they had {Kevin} McHale, Isiah {Thomas}, {Mark} Aguirre. And when they signed Michael, they dropped Isiah and Aguirre."

The Wilson contract was worth an estimated $200,000 per year. Like the Nike deal, it did wonders for both parties. Wilson sells a million Jordan-autographed balls each year.

In retrospect it might seem that Michael's commercial success had been assured by his performance in the Olympics. But the sense that black athletes couldn't sell to white America persisted. Even after the tremendous boost of his Nike ads, a great deal of corporate groundwork remained to be done.

"McDonald's was a good example," Falk says. "We couldn't convince McDonald's to use him in Chicago alone. Not nationally, not regionally, just locally in Chicago. They weren't confident, in 1984, that he could deliver value to them, enough to sign him to a contract for $25,000 to $50,000 a year.

"We said, 'Trust us. We {ProServ} have {Jimmy} Connors with you. We have Gabriela Sabatini. We have a lot of different properties with you that are working well.'

"Likewise Coca-Cola. After the initial meeting of the minds that we were going to do something with Michael, it took nine months to get it approved through the various channels."

Despite corporate America's initial reluctance, by year's end Jordan had signed endorsement contracts worth roughly $1.4 million, the majority of that coming from Nike, Coca-Cola and McDonald's. But only Nike marketed Michael aggressively on a nationwide basis. He was already the richest commercial endorser in basketball, but he was nowhere near the national celebrity he would one day become.

JORDAN'S FAME PRESENTS HIM WITH A range of moral dilemmas that few other athletes are asked to deal with. In 1989, kids began murdering one another for the $115 sneakers that bore his name. Jordan was first informed about sneaker violence by Sports Illustrated reporter Rick Telander, whose May 14, 1990, cover story "Senseless" helped focus attention and sharpen debate on the issue. "I thought I'd be helping out others and everything would be positive," a visibly shaken Jordan told Telander. Jordan had just been shown a newspaper article about a Maryland teenager who was murdered for his Air Jordans. "I thought people would try to emulate the good things I do, they'd try to achieve, to do better. Nothing bad. I never thought because of my endorsement of a shoe or any product, that people would harm each other . . . When it comes to kids actually killing each other, then you have to reevaluate things."

But in his own reevaluation Jordan had to recognize that he was closely bound to the giant sports shoe company. His relationship with Nike had been solidified in 1988 when he signed a new long-term contract that reportedly paid him $2.5 million each year, plus royalties and other options.

Negotiations on the new pact had been surprisingly acrimonious, not least because Rob Strasser, the executive who helped bring Jordan to Nike, had formed his own sports marketing company and was urging Jordan to found a new sneaker and sportswear conglomerate. Michael ultimately decided to stay with Nike, but not before the company leaked a report, denied by Michael's camp, that Jordan and David Falk were looking for a $45 million, 10-year deal.

The enormously lucrative new contract made it difficult for Jordan to publicly criticize Nike for promoting the expensive shoe in the inner city, as did the fact that his parents and his brother, Larry, depended heavily on Nike to supply the family's Flight 23 sportswear outlets in North Carolina. Michael told Telander: "I'd rather eliminate the product than know drug dealers are providing the funds that pay me." But by the time that reply saw print, Jordan had already modified his answer.

"It's kind of ironic that the press builds people like me up to be a role model and then blames us for the unfortunate crimes kids are committing," he told Jet magazine.

"Kids commit crimes to get NFL jackets, cars, jewelry and many other things. But nobody is criticizing people who promote those products."

The sneaker issue is a delicate one. How do we protect children from commercial manipulation without depriving them of the right to make economic choices? The issue is further complicated by the fact that most of the children at issue are poor and black.

Each side attempts to play the race card in its own way. The shoe companies portray themselves as champions of black self-expression, benevolent merchants selling inspiration and self-esteem, while just incidentally reaping enormous profits. The companies' critics ride an equally righteous horse, believing themselves the defenders of an unloved inner-city population helpless before the persuasive powers of television advertising.

Neither side presents the issue very clearly. Does the sneaker industry's barrage of advertising ($200 million in 1990) create demand for the product? Yes. Does the use of black athletes such as Jordan ensure that these products will be popular in the inner city? Probably. And are the sneakers priced too high for those inner-city children to afford? Certainly. In the most basic way, sneaker makers must recognize that they contribute to a dangerously covetous climate in inner-city neighborhoods. On the other hand, so does almost everything else about American culture today.

Advertising has helped make Michael Jordan one of the best-loved and most-admired men in America. With this status comes social influence and economic power, two commodities in short supply in black America. It is not too much to ask that these celebrities take note of the frenzy their endorsements create. But it is reckless to advocate that blacks ignore the engines of the consumer culture, and unfair to suggest that they bear a greater social responsibility in using them than whites.

As the debate about sneaker advertising heated up in 1990, Nike also came under fire from Operation PUSH, which initiated a boycott of the company, calling for it to hire more black executives, name a black to its board of directors and do more business with minority-controlled banks and advertising agencies. Jesse Jackson called Jordan on behalf of the organization, trying to enlist his support for the boycott, but Jordan refused. He said that there were racial problems throughout corporate America, that Nike did better on this score than most, and that the shoe maker was being unfairly singled out. Jordan, John Thompson and Spike Lee also met with Jackson at a New York hotel after the boycott began to see if they could arrive at a solution, but the effort failed.

Jordan kept as low a profile as possible throughout the boycott. He was in the uncomfortable position of a black hero siding with a white company. Even black leaders who did not support the boycott thought Michael could at least have diplomatically endorsed a few of its aims. But David Falk says Jordan's silence stemmed from Michael's determination not to be used as "an asset, as a pawn, if you will."

"If he believes in it, he'll get involved, but he has to be comfortable," Falk says. "Some people criticized him over his role with PUSH. I don't think he believed in it, so he didn't support it, and the fact that it was a black cause wasn't enough."

During the 1989-90 season, several black leaders, including former tennis star Arthur Ashe, attempted to enlist Jordan's support for Harvey Gantt, the black former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., who was challenging Jesse Helms for his seat in the U.S. Senate. They received no reply from Michael, although his mother, Deloris, responded with a contribution to Gantt's campaign. "Anybody over Jesse Helms," she says. "He is someone who doesn't care about our school system."

Jordan, who officially resides in Illinois, has never commented on his feelings about that Senate race, but his decision not to endorse Gantt was defended by Julius Erving. "A lot of people expected him to choose a side, but it wasn't part of his agenda," Erving says. "He has to consider the downside, and in this case it was a pretty heavy downside. If my base for making my living is the general public, I can ill afford to alienate half of them or one third of them."

Erving's argument would be a persuasive one in most cases. Jordan's help is solicited by many politicians for whom his endorsement would mean little. But the Helms-Gantt race was unique. Michael retains extremely strong ties to North Carolina and is tremendously popular there. Had Michael committed himself to Gantt -- who garnered 47 percent of the vote -- he might have helped galvanize opposition to one of the most racially divisive politicians in recent history. Such a clear-cut opportunity for a black athlete to make a political difference is not likely to arise again soon.

Jordan has not had much opportunity to develop a political sense. Basketball and business opportunities have consumed most of his time since late adolescence. He grew up black in the segregated South, but, as Fred Whitfield points out, "by the time he was in junior high, we had desegregated schools. And being as talented as he was, racial barriers were taken down. With him being on the level he is on now, not that much racism hits him front and center."

But it does hit. One friend tells of walking behind Michael through a Chicago-area country club and hearing one white member ask another, "Who's that nigger?" In dealing with these situations, Michael, for the most part, has adopted his mother's strategy of refusing to dignify ignorance with anger. Further, Jordan is clearly uncomfortable speaking out on social issues when he does not competely understand the situation.

On January 19, 1989, the Bulls played the Miami Heat in Miami just a couple of days after the city's Liberty City neighborhood had erupted in riots. Two nights earlier the Heat had been forced to cancel a game because of the violence, but leaders of those outbreaks promised that the streets would be quiet when Michael was in town. The national media was in Miami for the Super Bowl and wanted to know if Jordan had a message for the people in the streets.

"It would have been tough for me to do that because I didn't understand the situation," he said. "I wouldn't exactly know what to say to them. I was very fortunate to grow up in a very country-style background. I just never had the chance to grow up in the city life. You hate to see anybody suffer and go through poverty, especially with the riches we have in the United States. I think {the rioters} got their point across. I think people are going to start to listen, hopefully, and they can solve the problem."

In short, when it comes to politics, Jordan, distinguished and bold in other fields, is ordinary and somewhat timid.

THIS TIMIDITY LIMITS HIM. JORDAN is the predominant athlete of his era, yet, unlike Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson or Muhammad Ali, he has not become a truly forceful actor in the nation's racial drama. His image at this point more resembles that of Joe DiMaggio or Arnold Palmer, magnificent and beloved athletes, to be sure, but better known for moving merchandise than shaping their times.

For nearly a decade, in fact, Michael has been this democracy's idea of a crown prince -- young, handsome, virtuous, charismatic and powerless in all but symbolic ways. It is a wonderful role, but not one that lasts a lifetime.

Jordan has already begun to ponder what he will do when he retires from basketball after another four or five seasons. He will retire enormously wealthy and will have the opportunity to use that wealth in creative ways.

Dave Bing, a Hall of Fame guard for the Detroit Pistons, put his more meager resources into a pair of manufacturing ventures in inner-city Detroit, and has become one of the country's leading black capitalists. "American athletic life is really day to day -- what have you done for me lately?" says Bing. "There's much more meaning and performance attached to a job. You are giving meaning and substance to a person's life and to a person's family. If I can help somebody pay the rent or get a car or educate their kids, I feel that's much more substantial than anything I did as an athlete."

Ted Shaw, formerly an official with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and now a law professor at the University of Michigan, echoes this sentiment. "What Dave Bing is doing now is much more significant than what he was doing in the NBA. It is too early in Michael Jordan's life to say what he is going to do on that count. The jury is still out."

"I think Michael will have limitless freedom of choice when his career is over to do almost anything he wants," says David Falk. "I think he can go into politics. He can go into business. He can stay in basketball. He could develop a much closer relationship with one of his corporate partners. He could become a broadcaster. He could become a goodwill ambassador for the NBA. He could become a pro golfer. He can do almost anything that he wants, and I think he really wants to understand better each of the different opportunities before he makes a decision."

Falk realizes that when his client stops playing basketball, Michael will lose the principal platform from which he addresses the public. But he does not believe that Jordan will, or will want to, fade into obscurity. "It is assumed that when you stop playing the impact dramatically goes away," he says. "Quickly. Because you are not in the public eye. In his case I don't think that is going to be the situation at all. I think he is going to be very much before the public eye. I think he is still going to be doing Nike commercials, maybe {other} commercials. He will be in a different phase in his life. Almost maybe more as a Bill Cosby, as a family guy who is well known and popular and espouses good values. And that, in theory, may never end."

Jim Naughton is a reporter on The Post's Metro staff. This article is excerpted from Taking to the Air: The Rise of Michael Jordan, due out this month from Warner Books.