In the spirit of the company's more raucous days, Michael Doherty, the in-house filmmaker, began to clown around one morning while hosting a broadcast on the World Campus radio station in Beaverton. "And next," Doherty said, "maybe we can get Phil Knight to come down here and tell us just what he does with all his money." Knight's vast wealth (despite the companywide knowledge of his penchant for sponging dollars and quarters off people at lunchtime) has turned him into a corporate totem in sunglasses, still crazy after all these years at the helm.
At the time Doherty was joking about Knight, the chairman was sitting up in his posh corner office, where he prefers visitors to remove their shoes. Knight's suite in the McEnroe building has rice-paper-style walls and cases full of Oriental objects that his contacts in the Far East have given him over the years. Displays of sporting images observable on every other wall in Nikeworld stop at the entrance to Knight's office, where blond wood, black-lacquer trim and elegant sconces take over. In a conference room next to his office, the sole indication of commercialism is a tiny piece of rock shaped like a swoosh.
Knight says he rarely thinks about the power implicit in his control of the Nike machine. But sometimes it's unavoidable. "I went to the Australian Open last year," he says, "and I decided to walk to the grounds. I turned a corner, and there, stretched across one of the biggest buildings in Melbourne, across the whole skyline it seemed, was a huge JUST DO IT banner. I thought, God, coming from Portland to Melbourne and seeing that. It was an enormous thrill."
During a June sales meeting in Beaverton, Knight appeared in a skit doing an imitation of Marlon Brando in The Godfather. "The most powerful man in sport" sat in his study like Brando in the famous wedding scene, supplicants approaching one after another to kiss his ring and ask for favors. Agassi, McEnroe and Courier appeared on film from the French Open, bowing to the Godfather's demand that they play Davis Cup. Krzyzewski appeared, and Penn State football coach Joe Paterno pranced onto the stage to complain to the Godfather that he'd been a Nike coach from the beginning. Later, during part of a skit spoofing the Village People's song YMCA (N-I-K-E), Knight appeared on stage again—in leather and chains.
In other companies such jests might serve to demythologize the leader for the good of morale, but at Nike a certain ritual irreverence is promoted as an inoculation against an encroaching bureaucratic style that would make Nike too much like the soulless monoliths beyond the berm. The reversions to a bygone corporate style seem designed to obscure the fact that Nike is entering middle age. The vast majority of U.S. companies are younger than Nike, and these contrived rituals of the corporate tribe cover up the laugh lines, like a pair of high-tech wraparound shades.
Knight misses the halcyon days. "Those entrepreneurial days were more fun," he says. "It's still fun, but only a few old-timers are left who are friends of mine."
One senior executive tells of a recent day when dozens of employees sat at the tables on a patio overlooking Nike's seven-acre man-made lake. Knight came up with his lunch tray, and though the executive said he had finished eating, Knight said, "Just stay awhile. I don't know anybody here."
A few weeks later Knight was strolling along the Walk of Fame beside Howard White. "So, Howard," Knight said, "what's a building that says John McEnroe on it going to mean to people in 10 years, when Mac's been retired for a decade? What will the Michael Jordan Building mean in 10 years, when Michael's been retired for—what?—a year or two?"
White's eyes bulged at the implication that Jordan would still be in the NBA for another eight years or so.
"Well, here's what I think," Knight continued without waiting for an answer. "I think that in 10 years it will mean a lot that today Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player in the world. And I think John McEnroe has put an imprint on tennis that nobody will ever take away. You might not like it, but it's there. I believe that some things people do never really fade away."