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The athletic shoe might seem to be an unlikely seminal artifact of these last years of the 20th century, but that is clearly what it is. The shoes have spawned the same sorts of popular obsessions and high-profile companies inspired not so long ago by the airplane, the automobile and the computer. And the shoes and all of the imagery and emotion surrounding them have made Nike one of the great success stories of the post-World War II era.
In the 10 years following the company's launch under the Nike name at the 1972 Olympic track and field trials, in Eugene, Ore., sales grew at an average rate of 82%, and profits doubled every year. Back in 1964, when the company was a part-time fantasy of Knight's called Blue Ribbon Sports, he sold only 1,300 pairs of running shoes from cars and card tables set up at local track meets. This year Nike will probably sell close to 100 million pairs of shoes—nearly 200 pairs for every minute of every day.
A $2 billion company in 1990, Nike all but breezed through the recent recession, its revenues almost doubling by 1993 to a sum as large as that generated by all the TV deals, tickets and paraphernalia of the NBA, NFL and major league baseball combined. More than one in three pairs of athletic shoes sold in the U.S. are Nikes. Sales of the elite line of eighth-generation Air Jordans alone dwarf all the basketball shoe sales of Converse, the reigning shoe king of court and blacktop not long ago. Nike's newer line of Robinson-and Barkley-connected Force shoes and its Pippen-endorsed Flights account for more business than all the basketball shoes sold by Converse and Adidas.
One of five Nike shoe sales is currently rung up outside the U.S., mostly in Europe, and within a few years company officials expect foreign revenues to surpass those in the U.S. Though the latest Nike Air Max model retails for 299 Dutch guilders in Amsterdam—more than $155—the shoe is as essential to young people along the canals as bell-bottoms were to young people in San Francisco 25 years ago. When Nike recently opened up a small outlet in Shanghai, hundreds of people waited in the dark for hours to be the first among the billion to own all-American icons for the feet.
But Knight has always said that Nike's allure was tenuous, so when enraged phone calls continued to pour into Beaverton in the wake of events in Barcelona, he realized that the delicate balance of forces responsible for Nike's success was out of kilter. There just wasn't much he could do.
Knight hadn't gone to the Olympics, though he could have sat beside princes and prime ministers. He often appears to underscore his power by not showing up at major events. His habitual avoidance of the fray has caused him to be characterized as shy or even eccentric, but his distant style in no way compromises his determination to win every game he plays. Knight manages the Nike empire by nuance—a raised eyebrow here, the jingle of keys in his pocket there, a yawn. When he does talk, he speaks in rapid-fire bursts, often punctuating lines with a little humming noise or a laugh, as if he's already bored by a listener's effort to catch up with his galloping cogitations.
As reports continued to come in from Barcelona, Knight realized that a passing comment he had made five weeks earlier was probably responsible for the situation. After the Dream Team tune-up at the Tournament of the Americas in Portland, Ore., Knight had gone out for dinner with Jordan. Jordan told Knight that Dave Gavitt, the president of USA Basketball, had sprung the special medals awards outfit deal on the players in the locker room after practice that day.
"I told him, 'Dave, I have a big problem with this,' " Jordan said to Knight. "I said, 'We're like hired guns in this thing. Let's not pretend we're anything else. All of us have endorsement deals. How can you have sold these rights and expected us to wear these things?' " Jordan also told Knight that Gavitt had vowed to "fix the problem."
"Good going," said Knight, though as the calls poured in, Knight wished he had said something less rousing to his most famous part-time employee. On the flight to Europe, Jordan noticed that one of the clauses in a legal release Gavitt had asked him to sign required him to wear the Reebok warmups on the medals stand. He crossed out and initialed the offending clause. A few days later, on a flight to Barcelona from the Dream Team's first stop, in Monte Carlo, Jordan and the others were informed that they would indeed have to wear the Reebok sweats on the stand if they wanted to get a medal. Jordan was still furious when he arrived in Barcelona. "No way I'm wearing Reebok," he told reporters.
"Me neither," Barkley chimed in.