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Triumph of the Swoosh
Donald Katz
August 16, 1993
With a keen sense of the power of sports and a genius for mythologizing athletes to help sell sneakers, Nike bestrides the world of sport like a marketing colossus
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August 16, 1993

Triumph Of The Swoosh

With a keen sense of the power of sports and a genius for mythologizing athletes to help sell sneakers, Nike bestrides the world of sport like a marketing colossus

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And that was the end of that.

Pro athletes still in their prime are dazzled by the World Campus. Deion was recently supposed to be in Beaverton for a day, but he stayed for three, working out for hours in the beautiful gym at "the Bo" and hanging out with shoe designers to talk about sports gloves that would protect his fingers when he slides and about shoes that could provide the same support as the yards of tape that Sanders used to wrap around his ankles and feet, outside his shoes and socks. (The practice, known as "spatting," is anathema to Nike, which wants its shoes and logo to show on TV.) For his part, Bo loves the campus scene so much that he says he wants to retire to Beaverton and take a job at Nike. ("Yeh, well Bo's crazy then," said Jordan when he heard this. "No way I'm retiring to Beaverton, Oregon.")

On the walls of the arcades connecting the three-and four-story buildings are bronze plaques bearing bas-relief images of athletes whose greatness has been less than fully recognized but who epitomize Knight's vision of the nobility of sport. Along the Nike Walk of Fame, Charley Lau, the highly respected batting coach, shares a place with triathletes and wheelchair road racers. Lots of high-profile tough-guy athletes like Franco Harris and the former lineman Lee Roy Selmon are on the wall too.

Michael Doherty, who makes elaborate films and videos for Nike conclaves and marketing events, booked talent for The Merv Griffin Show before joining the company 11 years ago. Doherty has created hundreds of films in the company's state-of-the-art production facility in the Mike Schmidt Building. Most of them are evocative works that mix the music and imagery of rock videos with slow-motion sports highlights culled from miles of footage. "I can build a whole show around a shoe," says Doherty. "It's not like you're ever short on emotional material. You've got sports."

At Oregon in the late '50s, Knight answered to the name Buck. Buck Knight was a pretty good middle-distance runner on a track team possessed of some of the fastest U.S. milers. He once ran a 4:09 mile, but he was still a "squad" runner, a team guy who was always ready for the dozens of 6 a.m. uphill 400s required by his mentor, Bill Bowerman, Oregon's famed coach.

Knight says that Bowerman was "part genius, part madman, the best coach I ever had," and as every MBA student of the last 10 years knows, it was Bowerman's fascination with customizing what he considered to be the inferior shoes his runners wore that sparked Knight's Stanford business school term paper about a running-shoe start-up. After graduating from Stanford, Knight became a certified public accountant, and it wasn't until JFK was shot—Knight recalls that many young child-of-the-'50s accountants from upper-middle-class homes were asking, "What's the point?"—that he began haunting high school track meets on weekends, the trunk of his green Plymouth Valiant full of Tiger brand footwear manufactured by the Onitsuka Company of Kobe, Japan.

Knight ran Blue Ribbon Sports out of a storefront hole-in-the-wall next to the Pink Bucket Tavern in working-class Portland. Still a part-time employee himself, he hired a full-time salesman, a California kid named Jeff Johnson, who had been a middle-distance runner at Stanford. Johnson had majored in anthropology, but like many other collegiate-level runners, he didn't see how he could hold a job and still do what really mattered in life—which was to run.

From the beginning Knight's animating idea was to promote high-quality, low-cost Japanese shoes, at a time when high quality was rarely associated with Japanese products, and to eventually displace Adidas, the triple-striped German shoes worn by all serious track and field athletes at the time. Johnson and the other runners who joined Knight's team say the Adidas representatives at track meets used to come by the Blue Ribbon card tables stacked with shoes to laugh at them. "It was true geekdom," says Nelson Farris, one of the few original employees who still work for the company. "All kinds of people work here now—assuming, of course, that you love sports—but back then we were all running geeks who didn't fit in."

"It was a way to continue a life-style and still make a living," says Knight.

Four years after Onitsuka began incorporating Bowerman's design ideas into its novel nylon Tiger shoes, Johnson came upon the idea of calling the company Nike. Johnson says the image of the Greek goddess of victory came to him in a dream in 1971. Retired now and living alone in rural New Hampshire—one of a dozen millionaires from the original gang—Johnson says he regarded Knight as a second father.

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