Over at the Reebok booth the vice-president of research and development, the vice-president of sports marketing, and the vice-president of advanced product research were only a few of the onetime Nike people working for "the R company." Said John Morgan, who is now Reebok's vice-president of product marketing for sports and who worked for Nike for 14 years, "As soon as you leave, you get a lesson on friendship. People I worked with turn their heads when I see them in the hallways. Some of my closest friends in the company don't return my phone calls anymore. It's crazy, because when you boil it all down, what we do is about sneakers."
As Nike is in so many ways an organizational and philosophical reflection of Knight, Reebok is the brainchild of Paul Fireman, a former salesman who decided to acquire the right to sell Reeboks in the U.S. at a trade show in 1979. Within a decade he had run sales from $1.5 million to $1.8 billion, a rate that in percentage terms surpassed Nike's growth. Knight clearly considers Fireman a late entry and something of a faker, a pretender. Most Nike employees believe that Reebok people don't really care about sports and that Knight loathes Fireman for being less than authentic and for what Reebok did, however briefly, to cause Nike's layoffs.
Knight also believes that Reebok and Fireman were behind a 1990 call to boycott Nike by Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH. Nike's Oregon officials were unfamiliar with Chicago-based Operation PUSH when the group first demanded that Nike award contracts to minority businesses and hire blacks in proportion to the business it did in black communities. The episode became public after Nike held a private meeting with PUSH officials, at which PUSH maintained that Nike had no black vice-presidents or board members, which was true, and that it sold 40% to 45% of its products to black consumers. Nike countered with sales records indicating that 13% of its sales were to minority customers. In the end polls revealed that the public supported Nike three to one. The boycott fizzled, and Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, who is black and was already under contract to Nike, was soon thereafter named to the Nike board.
Nike's feud with Reebok is so intense that Jordan says he zeros in with a special intensity upon Reebok players like Dominique Wilkins and Shaquille O'Neal. "But this thing is between these guys," says Jordan, referring to Knight's visceral feelings toward Fireman and Strasser. "It involves things that we can't even know about."
When it was recently suggested to Knight that the demonization of a competitor might be a serviceable management and morale-building tool within the company, he grinned. "Especially when it's real," he said.
IV. The Hero Factory
The day Bo's dire medical prognosis led the Kansas City Royals to cut him two years ago, Jackson telephoned Knight. "I just want you to know I'm going to play baseball again," Bo said.
After the pain caused Jackson to quit a comeback attempt with the White Sox the following season, he phoned again. "I'm going in for a hip replacement," he said. "I promise I'll be back." A few years earlier Knight had been infuriated when some Nike executives had taken it upon themselves to pay $100,000 for an endorsement deal with a kid from Alabama who could have played pro football but opted for minor league baseball. Two years later, in 1988, after Jackson had distinguished himself as an NFL running back while playing only half a season with the L.A. Raiders, Nike began promoting Bo as nothing less than "the world's greatest athlete." Shortly before Jackson phoned Knight with his pledge to play again, a Nike executive advised Knight that the hip injury meant "Bo won't be able to tie his shoes," let alone play pro sports in them. But to Knight, Jackson had proved himself the very essence of a Nike guy.
The "Bo Knows" campaign begun in 1989 remains Knight's favorite. Jackson helped Nike sell historic numbers of shoes. That Bo was a tough kid who was headed for trouble before turning to sports, and that he was now determined to come back from an awful injury in defiance of conventional analysis, made him even more of a Nike guy. What's more, if the pathos of a successful comeback could be harnessed for marketing purposes, Bo might be even more promotable. "We're with you, Bo," Knight said on the phone.
Shortly thereafter Nike marketing executives helped coordinate a new ad campaign that spoke directly to the hip injury. Jackson's stats in spring training this season were updated daily along the grapevine in Beaverton, and when Bo hit a home run in his first at bat on Opening Day at Comiskey Park, Nike took out a full page in USA Today that said only BO KNEW.