When geese fly in formation, the ones in back only need to work at 80% of the effort. It’s the ones in front that do most of the work, and take on the greatest risk. Throughout this memoir, Phil pours his soul out and it’s clear he is at the front of the pack flying as hard as he can.
Inspired by popular Japanese shoes, Phil Knight worked with Bill Bowerman to develop a shoe for the American runner.
This story describes in detail how many times Nike was close to failing, seemingly flying into headwinds for much of its early life.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. —Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
The best teacher I ever had, one of the finest men I ever knew, spoke of that trail often. It’s our birthright, he’d growl. Our character, our fate—our DNA. “The cowards never started,” he’d tell me, “and the weak died along the way—that leaves us.”
And then it happened. As my young heart began to thump, as my pink lungs expanded like the wings of a bird, as the trees turned to greenish blurs, I saw it all before me, exactly what I wanted my life to be. Play.
Which led, as always, to my Crazy Idea. Maybe, I thought, just maybe, I need to take one more look at my Crazy Idea. Maybe my Crazy Idea just might . . . work? Maybe.
I was suddenly smiling. Almost laughing. Drenched in sweat, moving as gracefully and effortlessly as I ever had, I saw my Crazy Idea shining up ahead, and it didn’t look all that crazy. It didn’t even look like an idea. It looked like a place. It looked like a person, or some life force that existed long before I did, separate from me, but also part of me. Waiting for me, but also hiding from me. That might sound a little high-flown, a little crazy. But that’s how I felt back then.
So that morning in 1962 I told myself: Let everyone else call your idea crazy . . . just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where “there” is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop.
I’d spent weeks and weeks on that paper. I’d moved into the library, devoured everything I could find about importing and exporting, about starting a company. Finally, as required, I’d given a formal presentation of the paper to my classmates, who reacted with formal boredom. Not one asked a single question. They greeted my passion and intensity with labored sighs and vacant stares.
but what I really craved was connection with a capital C. I wanted to experience what the Chinese call Tao, the Greeks call Logos, the Hindus call Jñāna, the Buddhists call Dharma. What the Christians call Spirit. Before setting out on my own personal life voyage, I thought, let me first understand the greater voyage of humankind. Let me explore the grandest temples and churches and shrines, the holiest rivers and mountaintops. Let me feel the presence of . . . God?
I’d read somewhere that the geese in the rear of the formation, cruising in the backdraft, only have to work 80 percent as hard as the leaders. Every runner understands this. Front runners always work the hardest, and risk the most.
I looked out the window at the blazing red circle on the wing. Mom Hatfield was right, I thought. We were just at war with these people. Corregidor, the Bataan Death March, the Rape of Nanking—and now I was going there on some sort of business venture? Crazy Idea? Maybe I was, in fact, crazy.
I spent hours sitting on benches in walled gardens, reading about Japan’s dominant religions, Buddhism and Shinto. I marveled at the concept of kensho, or satori—enlightenment that comes in a flash, a blinding pop. Sort of like the bulb on my Minolta. I liked that. I wanted that.
I was a linear thinker, and according to Zen linear thinking is nothing but a delusion, one of the many that keep us unhappy. Reality is nonlinear, Zen says. No future, no past. All is now.
In every religion, it seemed, self is the obstacle, the enemy. And yet Zen declares plainly that the self doesn’t exist. Self is a mirage, a fever dream, and our stubborn belief in its reality not only wastes life, but shortens it. Self is the bald-faced lie we tell ourselves daily, and happiness requires seeing through the lie, debunking it. To study the self, said the thirteenth-century Zen master Dogen, is to forget the self. Inner voice, outer voices, it’s all the same. No dividing lines.
“The key,” they said, “is don’t be pushy. Don’t come on like the typical asshole American, the typical gaijin—rude, loud, aggressive, not taking no for an answer. The Japanese do not react well to the hard sell. Negotiations here tend to be soft, sinewy. Look how long it took the Americans and Russians to coax Hirohito into surrendering. And even when he did surrender, when his country was reduced to a heap of ashes, what did he tell his people? ‘The war situation hasn’t developed to Japan’s advantage.’ It’s a culture of indirection. No one ever turns you down flat. No one ever says, straight out, no. But they don’t say yes, either. They speak in circles, sentences with no clear subject or object. Don’t be discouraged, but don’t be cocky. You might leave a man’s office thinking you’ve blown it, when in fact he’s ready to do a deal. You might leave thinking you’ve closed a deal, when in fact you’ve just been rejected. You never know.”
JAPAN WAS RENOWNED for its impeccable order and extreme cleanliness. Japanese literature, philosophy, clothing, domestic life, all were marvelously pure and spare. Minimalist. Expect nothing, seek nothing, grasp nothing—the immortal Japanese poets wrote lines that seemed polished and polished until they gleamed like the blade of a samurai’s sword, or the stones of a mountain brook. Spotless.
The first shoe factory I’d ever seen. I found everything about it interesting. Even musical. Each time a shoe was molded, the metal last would fall to the floor with a silvery tinkle, a melodic CLING-clong. Every few seconds, CLING-clong, CLING-clong, a cobbler’s concerto. The executives seemed to enjoy it, too. They smiled at me and each other.
Unable to remember what I’d wanted to say, or even why I was here, I took several quick breaths. Everything depended on my rising to this occasion. Everything. If I didn’t, if I muffed this, I’d be doomed to spend the rest of my days selling encyclopedias, or mutual funds, or some other junk I didn’t really care about. I’d be a disappointment to my parents, my school, my hometown. Myself.
*Note:** Buildijng tension example
I held forth the Limber Up. “This is a good shoe,” I said. “This shoe—I can sell this shoe.” I asked them to ship me samples right away. I gave them my address and promised to send them a money order for fifty dollars. They stood. They bowed deeply. I bowed deeply. We shook hands. I bowed again. They bowed again. We all smiled. The war had never happened. We were partners. We were brothers. The meeting, which I’d expected to last fifteen minutes, had gone two hours. From Onitsuka I went straight to the nearest American Express office and sent a letter to my father. Dear Dad: Urgent. Please wire fifty dollars right away to Onitsuka Corp of Kobe.
I hated war, but I loved the warrior spirit. I hated the sword, but loved the samurai.
I went to Jerusalem, to the rock where Abraham prepared to kill his son, where Muhammad began his heavenward ascent. The Koran says the rock wanted to join Muhammad, and tried to follow, but Muhammad pressed his foot to the rock and stopped it. His footprint is said to be still visible. Was he barefoot or wearing a shoe?
(Romans in the age of the Caesars believed that putting on the right shoe before the left brought prosperity and good luck.)
I stood before the David, shocked at the anger in his eyes. Goliath never had a chance.
I went by train up to Milan, communed with Da Vinci, considered his beautiful notebooks, and wondered at his peculiar obsessions. Chief among them, the human foot. Masterpiece of engineering, he called it. A work of art.
sauntered up the Champs-Élysées, tracing the liberators’ path, thinking all the while of Patton. Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.
Eyes closed, I conjured the great Churchill. You ask, What is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory . . . without victory, there is no survival.
Something about my feet spoke to him. Something about my stride. Also, I afforded a wide margin of error. I wasn’t the best on the team, not by a long shot, so he could afford to make mistakes on me. With my more talented teammates he didn’t dare take undue chances.
As a freshman, as a sophomore, as a junior, I lost count of how many races I ran in flats or spikes modified by Bowerman. By my senior year he was making all my shoes from scratch.
I believed this new Tiger, this funny little shoe from Japan that had taken more than a full year to reach me, would intrigue my old coach.
I wondered sometimes if it was mere coincidence that Bowerman and my father—both cryptic, both alpha, both inscrutable—were both named Bill.
He called himself a “Professor of Competitive Responses,” and his job, as he saw it, and often described it, was to get you ready for the struggles and competitions that lay ahead, far beyond Oregon.
We hung our clothes on nails. Rusty nails. We sometimes ran without socks. Complaining never crossed our minds. We saw our coach as a general, to be obeyed quickly and blindly. In my mind he was Patton with a stopwatch.
So Bowerman rigged the mailbox with explosives. Next time the trucker knocked it over—boom. When the smoke cleared, the trucker found his truck in pieces, its tires reduced to ribbons.
January 25, 1964. I was terribly nervous as the waitress showed us to our table. I recall that Bowerman ordered a hamburger, and I said croakily: “Make it two.”
he was the first college coach in America to emphasize rest, to place as much value on recovery as on work.
Bowerman’s strategy for running the mile was simple. Set a fast pace for the first two laps, run the third as hard as you can, then triple your speed on the fourth. There was a Zen-like quality to this strategy, because it was impossible. And yet it worked. Bowerman coached more sub-four-minute milers than anybody, ever.
“Buck,” he said, “how long do you think you’re going to keep jackassing around with these shoes?”
It never failed to move me, the sight of her standing at the stove or the kitchen sink, cooking dinner or washing dishes in a pair of Japanese running shoes, size 6.
So why was selling shoes so different? Because, I realized, it wasn’t selling. I believed in running. I believed that if people got out and ran a few miles every day, the world would be a better place, and I believed these shoes were better to run in.
on the porch would be some skinny kid with oddly muscular legs, shifty-eyed and twitchy, like a junky looking to score. “Buck here?” the kid would say. My father would call through the kitchen to my room in the servants’ quarters. I’d come out, invite the kid in, show him over to the sofa, then kneel before him and measure his foot. My father, hands jammed into his pockets, would watch the whole transaction, incredulous. Most
On July 4, 1964, I sold out my first shipment. I wrote to Tiger and ordered nine hundred more.
The problem was, how to get to California? I certainly couldn’t afford airfare. And I didn’t have time to drive. So every other weekend I’d load a duffel bag with Tigers, put on my crispest army uniform, and head out to the local air base. Seeing the uniform, the MPs would wave me onto the next military transport to San Francisco or Los Angeles, no questions asked.
“Just be yourself,” she said. I looked out the window. Be myself. Really? Is that my best option? To study the self is to forget the self.
The art of competing, I’d learned from track, was the art of forgetting, and I now reminded myself of that fact. You must forget your limits. You must forget your doubts, your pain, your past.
Some time ago, he said, he’d had a vision. A wondrous glimpse of the future. “Everyone in the world wear athletic shoes all the time,” he said. “I know this day come.” He paused, looking around the table at each person, to see if they also knew. His gaze rested on me. He smiled. I smiled. He blinked twice. “You remind me of myself when I am young,”
“Yes,” he said, “all right. You have western states.” The Marlboro Man, he said, could continue selling his wrestling shoes nationwide, but would limit his track shoe sales to the East Coast.
There were many ways down Mount Fuji, according to my guidebook, but only one way up. Life lesson in that, I thought.
the Japanese place torii gates at sacral borderlands, portals between this world and the world beyond. “Wherever you pass from the profane to the sacred,” I said, “you’ll find a torii gate.”
She was certainly the only person I’d ever known who could casually drop Babe Paley and Hermann Hesse into the same conversation. She admired them both. But especially Hesse. She was going to write a book about him one day. “It’s like Hesse says,” she purred over dinner one night, “happiness is a how, not a what.”
“Since you’re so interested in mail,” I said hoarsely, “maybe you’d enjoy doing some secretarial work. Dollar and a half an hour?” She chuckled. And thus my sister became the first-ever employee of Blue Ribbon.
In his heart of hearts Johnson believed that runners are God’s chosen, that running, done right, in the correct spirit and with the proper form, is a mystical exercise, no less than meditation or prayer, and thus he felt called to help runners reach their nirvana.
in 1965, running wasn’t even a sport. It wasn’t popular, it wasn’t unpopular—it just was. To go out for a three-mile run was something weirdos did, presumably to burn off manic energy. Running for pleasure, running for exercise, running for endorphins, running to live better and longer—these things were unheard of.
People often went out of their way to mock runners. Drivers would slow down and honk their horns. “Get a horse!” they’d yell, throwing a beer or soda at the runner’s head. Johnson had been drenched by many a Pepsi. He wanted to change all this. He wanted to help all the oppressed runners of the world, to bring them into the light, enfold them in a community.
He’d been making $460 a month as a social worker, but he said he could live on $400. I agreed. Reluctantly. It seemed exorbitant, but Johnson was so scattered, so flighty, and Blue Ribbon was so tenuous—one way or another I figured it was temporary.
the accountant in me saw the risk, the entrepreneur saw the possibility. So I split the difference and kept moving forward.
“A one hundred percent increase in sales is troubling?” I asked. “Your rate of growth is too fast for your equity,” he said. “How can such a small company grow too fast? If a small company grows fast, it builds up its equity.”
To have cash balances sitting around doing nothing made no sense to me. Sure, it would have been the cautious, conservative, prudent thing. But the roadside was littered with cautious, conservative, prudent entrepreneurs. I wanted to keep my foot pressed hard on the gas pedal.
“Between us, Bill, if the kid’s company goes under—you’ll still back him, right?” “Hell no,” my father said.
First National Bank was the only game in town and Wallace knew it. Oregon was smaller back then, and it had just two banks, First National and U.S. Bank. The latter had already turned me down.
At the same moment Johnson devoted himself exclusively to Blue Ribbon, I decided to branch out.
I was also learning how they survived, or didn’t. How they sold things, or didn’t. How they got into trouble, how they got out. I took careful notes about what made companies tick, what made them fail. Again and again I learned that lack of equity was a leading cause of failure.
Intellectually I always knew that numbers were beautiful. On some level I understood that numbers represented a secret code, that behind every row of numbers lay ethereal Platonic forms. My accounting classes had taught me that, sort of. As had sports. Running track gives you a fierce respect for numbers, because you are what your numbers say you are, nothing more, nothing less.
when I wasn’t a foot soldier in Hayes’s Army, I was still serving in the Reserves. (A seven-year commitment.) Tuesday nights, from seven to ten, I had to throw a switch in my brain and become First Lieutenant Knight.
I had grown to hate that war. Not simply because I felt it was wrong. I also felt it was stupid, wasteful. I hated stupidity. I hated waste. Above all, that war, more than other wars, seemed to be run along the same principles as my bank. Fight not to win, but to avoid losing. A surefire losing strategy.
Mr. Onitsuka told Bowerman about founding his shoe company in the ruins of Japan, when all the big cities were still smoldering from American bombs. He’d built his first lasts, for a line of basketball shoes, by pouring hot wax from Buddhist candles over his own feet. Though the basketball shoes didn’t sell, Mr. Onitsuka didn’t give up. He simply switched to running shoes, and the rest was shoe history. Every Japanese runner in the 1964 Games, Bowerman told me, was wearing Tigers.
Mr. Onitsuka also told Bowerman that the inspiration for the unique soles on Tigers had come to him while eating sushi. Looking down at his wooden platter, at the underside of an octopus’s leg, he thought a similar suction cup might work on the sole of a runner’s flat.
Inspiration, he learned, can come from quotidian things. Things you might eat. Or find lying around the house.
After dissecting a dozen pairs of Tigers, Bowerman saw how they could be tailored to cater to American customers. To that end, he had a slew of notes, sketches, designs, all of which he was firing off to Japan.
During the autumn track season of 1965, every race had two results for Bowerman. There was the performance of his runners, and there was the performance of their shoes. Bowerman would note how the arches held up, how the soles gripped the cinders, how the toes pinched and the instep flexed.
Onitsuka made prototypes that conformed to Bowerman’s vision of a more American shoe. Soft inner sole, more arch support, heel wedge to reduce stress on the Achilles tendon—they sent the prototype to Bowerman and he went wild for it. He asked for more. He then handed these experimental shoes out to all his runners, who used them to crush the competition.
Around this time he was also testing sports elixirs, magic potions and powders to give his runners more energy and stamina. When I was on his team he’d talked about the importance of replacing an athlete’s salt and electrolytes. He’d forced me and others to choke down a potion he’d invented, a vile goo of mushed bananas, lemonade, tea, honey, and several unnamed ingredients.
years later that I realized Bowerman was trying to invent Gatorade.
He also thought something rubbery might be more forgiving on his runners’ feet. So he bought a cement mixer, filled it with old shredded tires and assorted chemicals, and spent hours searching for just the right consistency and texture.
it was years before I realized what Bowerman was actually up to. He was trying to invent polyurethane.
Bowerman was forever griping that people make the mistake of thinking only elite Olympians are athletes. But everyone’s an athlete, he said. If you have a body, you’re an athlete. Now he was determined to get this point across to a larger audience.
there would be a PS, and usually another PS, and sometimes a pagoda of PS’s. Then one last plea for encouraging words, which I never sent. I didn’t have time for encouraging words. Besides, it wasn’t my style.
I was reading everything I could get my hands on about generals, samurai, shoguns, along with biographies of my three main heroes—Churchill, Kennedy, and Tolstoy. I had no love of violence, but I was fascinated by leadership, or lack thereof, under extreme conditions.
War is the most extreme of conditions. But business has its warlike parallels. Someone somewhere once said that business is war without bullets, and I tended to agree.
Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.
Each new customer got his or her own index card, and each index card contained that customer’s personal information, shoe size, and shoe preferences. This database enabled Johnson to keep in touch with all his customers, at all times, and to keep them all feeling special. He sent them Christmas cards. He sent them birthday cards. He sent them notes of congratulation after they completed a big race or marathon.
Johnson began aggregating this customer feedback, using it to create new design sketches. One man, for instance, complained that Tiger flats didn’t have enough cushion. He wanted to run the Boston Marathon but didn’t think Tigers would last the twenty-six miles. So Johnson hired a local cobbler to graft rubber soles from a pair of shower shoes into a pair of Tiger flats. Voilà. Johnson’s Frankenstein flat had space-age, full-length, midsole cushioning.
I wasn’t much for setting goals, but this goal kept flashing through my mind every day, until it became my internal chant: Fail fast.
He wouldn’t be filing taxes, he said, “because gross income was $1,209 while expenses total $1,245.” His leg broken, his heart broken, he told me that he was also flat broke. He signed off: “Please send encouraging words.” I didn’t.
Johnson, the aspiring cult leader of runners, finally had his church. Services were Monday through Saturday, nine to six.
I wasn’t certain what Blue Ribbon was, or if it would ever become a thing at all, but whatever it was or might become, I hoped it would have something of this man’s spirit.
Adidas already had a new shoe named the “Azteca Gold,” a track spike they were planning to introduce at the same Olympics. No one had ever heard of it, but that didn’t stop Adidas from kicking up a fuss. Aggravated, I drove up the mountain to Bowerman’s house to talk it all over. We sat on the wide porch, looking down at the river. It sparkled that day like a silver shoelace. He took off his ball cap, put it on again, rubbed his face. “Who was that guy who kicked the shit out of the Aztecs?” he asked. “Cortez,” I said. He grunted. “Okay. Let’s call it the Cortez.”
By the tail end of 1967 Bowerman was inspiring many people besides me. That book he’d been talking about, that silly book about jogging, was done, and out in bookstores. A slight one hundred pages, Jogging preached the gospel of physical exercise to a nation that had seldom heard that sermon before, a nation that was collectively lolling on the couch, and somehow the book caught fire. It sold a million copies, sparked a movement, changed the very meaning of the word “running.” Before long, thanks to Bowerman and his book, running was no longer just for weirdos. It was no longer a cult. It was almost—cool?
Within days he’d found and rented a little house behind a funeral parlor. Claiming it in the name of Blue Ribbon, he also made it his home. He wanted me to go halfsies on the two-hundred-dollar rent. In a PS he said I should buy him furniture also. I didn’t answer.
I wanted to dedicate every minute of every day to Blue Ribbon. I’d never been a multitasker, and I didn’t see any reason to start now. I wanted to be present, always. I wanted to focus constantly on the one task that really mattered.
If my life was to be all work and no play, I wanted my work to be play.
The single easiest way to find out how you feel about someone. Say goodbye.
I phoned Bowerman, eager to get his overall thoughts on the Games, and particularly on the moment for which they would forever be remembered, the protest of John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Standing on the podium during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” both men had bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists, a shocking gesture, meant to call attention to racism, poverty, human rights abuses.
He told me about the scandalous behavior of Puma and Adidas throughout the Games. The world’s two biggest athletic shoe companies—run by two German brothers who despised each other—had chased each other like Keystone Kops around the Olympic Village, jockeying for all the athletes.
Leaning back in my recliner each night, staring at the ceiling, I tried to settle myself. I told myself: Life is growth. You grow or you die.
I struggle to remember. I close my eyes and think back, but so many precious moments from those nights are gone forever. Numberless conversations, breathless laughing fits. Declarations, revelations, confidences. They’ve all fallen into the sofa cushions of time. I remember only that we always sat up half the night, cataloging the past, mapping out the future.
That day the habit was more pronounced. I must have looked as if I was practicing some exotic yoga pose I’d learned in Thailand.
Now about that logo. My new soccer-qua-football shoe would need something to set it apart from the stripes of Adidas and Onitsuka. I recalled that young artist I’d met at Portland State. What was her name? Oh, yes, Carolyn Davidson. She’d been in the office a number of times, doing brochures and ad slicks. When I got back to Oregon I invited her to the office again and told her we needed a logo. “What kind?” she asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “That gives me a lot to go on,” she said. “Something that evokes a sense of motion,” I said. “Motion,” she said, dubious.
For her many hours of work, we gave Carolyn our deepest thanks and a check for thirty-five dollars, then sent her on her way.
Now we just needed a name to go with this logo I didn’t love. Over the next few days we kicked around dozens of ideas, until two leading candidates emerged. Falcon. And Dimension Six. I was partial to the latter, because I was the one who came up with it. Woodell and everyone else told me that it was god-awful. It wasn’t catchy, they said, and it didn’t mean anything.
We took a poll of all our employees. Secretaries, accountants, sales reps, retail clerks, file clerks, warehouse workers—we demanded that each person jump in, make at least one suggestion. Ford had just paid a top-flight consulting firm $2 million to come up with the name of its new Maverick, I announced to everyone. “We haven’t got $2 million—but we’ve got fifty smart people, and we can’t do any worse than . . . Maverick.”
Shoe dogs were people who devoted themselves wholly to the making, selling, buying, or designing of shoes.
The average person takes seventy-five hundred steps a day, 274 million steps over the course of a long life, the equivalent of six times around the globe—shoe dogs, it seemed to me, simply wanted to be part of that journey. Shoes were their way of connecting with humanity. What better way of connecting, shoe dogs thought, than by refining the hinge that joins each person to the world’s surface?
Bowerman told us that a wealthy alum had just donated a million dollars to Oregon, earmarked for a new track—the world’s finest. His voice rising, Bowerman described the surface he’d created with that windfall. It was polyurethane, the same spongy surface that was to be used in Munich in the 1972 Olympics, where Bowerman was on tap to be head coach of the track team.
The following Sunday, sitting over breakfast with his wife, Bowerman’s gaze drifted to her waffle iron. He noted the waffle iron’s gridded pattern. It conformed with a certain pattern in his mind’s eye, a pattern he’d been seeing, or seeking, for months, if not years. He asked Mrs. Bowerman if he could borrow it.
He had a vat of urethane in his garage, left over from the installation of the track. He carried the waffle iron out to the garage, filled it with urethane, heated it up—and promptly ruined it. The urethane sealed it shut, because Bowerman hadn’t added a chemical releasing agent. He didn’t know from chemical releasing agents. Another person would have quit right then. But Bowerman’s brain also didn’t have a releasing agent.
Bowerman now had two foot-sized squares of hard rubber nubs, which he brought home and sewed to the sole of a pair of running shoes. He gave these to one of his runners. The runner laced them on and ran like a rabbit.
I look back over the decades and see him toiling in his workshop, Mrs. Bowerman carefully helping, and I get goosebumps. He was Edison in Menlo Park, Da Vinci in Florence, Tesla in Wardenclyffe. Divinely inspired. I wonder if he knew, if he had any clue, that he was the Daedalus of sneakers, that he was making history, remaking an industry, transforming the way athletes would run and stop and jump for generations.
They’d stacked the new Tigers in neat rows, and now they were stacking the new Nikes in pyramids of orange shoe boxes. In those days shoe boxes were either white or blue, period, but I’d wanted something that would stand out, that would pop on the shelves of sporting goods stores. So I’d asked Nippon Rubber for boxes of bright neon orange, figuring it was the boldest color in the rainbow.
Prefontaine was universally known as Pre, and he was far more than a phenom; he was an outright superstar. He was the biggest thing to hit the world of American track and field since Jesse Owens. Sportswriters frequently compared him to James Dean, and Mick Jagger, and Runner’s World said the most apt comparison might be Muhammad Ali. He was that kind of swaggery, transformative figure.
Sometimes I thought the secret to Pre’s appeal was his passion. He didn’t care if he died crossing the finish line, so long as he crossed first. No matter what Bowerman told him, no matter what his body told him, Pre refused to slow down, ease off. He pushed himself to the brink and beyond. This was often a counterproductive strategy, and sometimes it was plainly stupid, and occasionally it was suicidal. But it was always uplifting for the crowd. No matter the sport—no matter the human endeavor, really—total effort will win people’s hearts.
In our coming battles, with Onitsuka, with whomever, we’d be like Pre. We’d compete as if our lives depended on it. Because they did.
It took a full six months, but the fire in Pre’s belly came back. In his final races for Oregon he shone. He won the NCAA three-mile for a fourth straight year, posting a gaudy 13:05.3. He also went to Scandinavia and crushed the field in the 5,000, setting an American record: 13:22.4. Better yet, he did it in Nikes. Bowerman finally had him wearing our shoes. (Months into his retirement, Bowerman was still coaching Pre, still polishing the final designs for the waffle shoe, which was about to go on sale to the general public.
Pre and the coach were clashing constantly, two headstrong guys with different ideas about training methods and running styles. Bowerman took the long view: a distance runner peaks in his late twenties. He therefore wanted Pre to rest, preserve himself for certain select races. Save something, Bowerman kept pleading. But of course Pre refused. I’m all-out, all the time, he said. In their relationship I saw a mirror of my relationship with banks. Pre didn’t see the sense in going slow—ever. Go fast or die. I couldn’t fault him. I was on his side. Even against our coach.
Pre was broke. The know-nothings and oligarchs who governed American amateur athletics at that time decreed that Olympic athletes couldn’t collect endorsement money, or government money, which meant our finest runners and swimmers and boxers were reduced to paupers.
Woodell told me he wanted to take a different approach to Johnson. By all means, I said. Have at it. So he wrote Johnson a long letter “admitting” that we’d all been colluding against him, trying to make him unhappy. He wrote, “I’m sure you realize we don’t work quite as hard out here as you do; with only three hours in the working day it is hard to get everything done. Still, I make time to place you in all sorts of embarrassing situations with customers and the business community. Whenever you need money desperately to pay bills, I send only a tiny fraction of what you need so that you’ll have to deal with bill collectors and lawsuits. I take the destruction of your reputation as a personal compliment.”
It slid toward me. Now I saw the rough contours of a man. Six-three, 280 pounds, with an extra helping of shoulders. And fire-log arms. This was one part Sasquatch, one part Snuffleupagus, though somehow light on his feet. He minced toward me and thrust one of his fire logs in my direction. I reached, we shook.
We had a huge laugh over the fact that Oregon’s basketball coach that year was Dick Harter, while the football coach was still Dick Enright. The popular cheer at Oregon State games was: “If you can’t get your Dick Enright, get your Dick Harter!”
I hadn’t slept the night before, hadn’t eaten that morning, and I was running on adrenaline, but the adrenaline wasn’t giving me extra energy or clarity. It was only clouding my brain. I found myself entertaining strange, almost hallucinatory thoughts, like how much Cousin Houser resembled me. He was about my age, about my height, with many of my same features. I’d never noticed the family resemblance until now. What a Kafkaesque twist, I thought, being interrogated by yourself.
THE JUDGE IN our case was the Honorable James Burns, a notorious figure in Oregon jurisprudence. He had a long, dour face, and pale gray eyes that looked out from beneath two protruding black eyebrows. Each eye had its own little thatch roof. Maybe it was because factories were so much on my mind in those days, but I often thought Judge Burns looked as if he’d been built in some far-off factory that manufactured hanging judges. And I thought he knew it, too. And took pride in it. He called himself, in all seriousness, James the Just. In his operatic basso he’d announce, “You are now in the courtroom of James the Just!”
A WEEK LATER we got a settlement offer: four hundred thousand dollars. Onitsuka knew full well that a special master might come up with any kind of number, so they were seeking to move preemptively, contain their losses. But four hundred thousand dollars seemed low to me. We haggled for several days.
We all wanted to be done with this, forever. Especially Cousin Houser’s overlords, who now authorized him to take the money, of which he’d get half, the largest payment in the history of his firm. Sweet vindication.
I opened by telling Strasser that it was all a foregone conclusion, really. “You’re one of us,” I said. One of us. He knew what those words meant. We were the kind of people who simply couldn’t put up with corporate nonsense. We were the kind of people who wanted our work to be play. But meaningful play. We were trying to slay Goliath, and though Strasser was bigger than two Goliaths, at heart he was an utter David. We were trying to create a brand, I said, but also a culture. We were fighting against conformity, against boringness, against drudgery. More than a product, we were trying to sell an idea—a spirit. I don’t know if I ever fully understood who we were and what we were doing until I heard myself saying it all that day to Strasser.
laughed. I laughed and laughed. “Over your head?” I said. “Over your head ! We’re all in over our heads! Way over!” He moaned. He sounded like a car trying to start on a cold morning. I waited. Just give it a second, I thought. He denied, fumed, bargained, got depressed, then accepted. The Five Stages of Jeff.
Pay Nissho first. This was my morning chant, my nightly prayer, my number one priority. And it was my daily instruction to the man who played the Sundance Kid to my Butch Cassidy—Hayes. Before paying back the bank, I said, before paying back anyone . . . pay Nissho.
“I do not like stupidity,” he said. “People pay too much attention to numbers.”
Pre was most famous for saying, “Somebody may beat me—but they’re going to have to bleed to do it.”
Pre drove Shorter home from the party, and minutes after dropping Shorter off he’d lost control of his car. That beautiful butterscotch MG, bought with his first Blue Ribbon paycheck, hit some kind of boulder along the road. The car spun high into the air, and Pre flew out. He landed on his back and the MG came crashing down onto his chest.
He was twenty-four years old. He was the exact age I’d been when I left with Carter for Hawaii. In other words, when my life began. At twenty-four I didn’t yet know who I was, and Pre not only knew who he was, the world knew. He died holding every American distance record from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters, from two miles to six miles. Of course, what he really held, what he’d captured and kept and now would never let go of, was our imaginations.
What are we trying to build here? What kind of company do we want to be? Like most companies, we had role models. Sony, for instance. Sony was the Apple of its day. Profitable, innovative, efficient—and it treated its workers well. When pressed, I often said I wanted to be like Sony. At root, however, I still aimed and hoped for something bigger, and vaguer.
Rather than give his personal guarantee, he offered to give me two-thirds of his stake in Blue Ribbon, at a discounted price. He was bowing out.
WHILE WE WERE busy moving around stakes and dollars, the dollar itself was hemorrhaging value. It was all at once in a death spiral against the Japanese yen. Coupled with rising Japanese labor rates, this was now the most imminent threat to our existence.
I remembered that the best way to reinforce your knowledge of a subject is to share it, so we both benefited from my transferring everything I knew about Japan, Korea, China, and Taiwan to Gorman’s brain.
There was a knock. Gorman. He walked in and asked me something about our next day’s itinerary. He found me on my hands and knees, searching for my contact lenses in a pool of my own sick. “Phil, you okay?” “Follow your mentor’s lead,” I mumbled.
AT THE 1976 Olympic Trials, held again that June in Eugene, Nike had a chance, a fantastic chance, to make a good show.
Now, at last, we had our own stuff, and it was really good: top-quality marathon shoes and spikes. We were buzzing with excitement as we left Portland. Finally, we said, we’re going to have a Nike-shod runner make an Olympic team.
And then we got three. Shorter and Virgin took first and second, and Bjorklund plunged ahead of Bill Rodgers at the tape to take third. I was covered with sweat. Three Olympians . . . in Nikes!
all day long people came in to say they’d seen someone wearing a Nike T-shirt on the street and they just had to have one for themselves. Despite our continual melancholy about Pre, we allowed ourselves to feel joy, because it was becoming clear that Nike was doing more than making a good show. Nike was dominating those trials.
Slowly, in the shop, in the town, we heard people whispering, Nike Nike Nike. We heard our name more than the name of any athlete. Besides Pre.
It didn’t matter if Bowerman was right or wrong, we’d just have to find a way to make him feel needed and useful. If Bowerman isn’t happy, I said, Nike isn’t happy.
This was an enormous rite of passage for a running-shoe company. You really weren’t a legitimate, card-carrying running-shoe company until an Olympian ascended to the top medal stand in your gear.
I woke up early that Saturday—July 31, 1976. Right after my morning coffee I took up my position in my recliner. I had a sandwich at my elbow, cold sodas in the fridge. I wondered if Kitami was watching. I wondered if my former bankers were watching. I wondered if my parents and sisters were watching. I wondered if the FBI was watching.
Nike was more than just a shoe. I no longer simply made Nikes; Nikes were making me. If I saw an athlete choose another shoe, if I saw anyone choose another shoe, it wasn’t just a rejection of the brand alone, but of me.
JOHNSON COINED THE phrase, we think. At one of our earliest retreats he muttered: “How many multimillion-dollar companies can you yell out, ‘Hey, Buttface,’ and the entire management team turns around?” It got a laugh. And then it stuck. And then it became a key part of our vernacular. Buttface referred to both the retreat and the retreaters, and it not only captured the informal mood of those retreats, where no idea was too sacred to be mocked, and no person was too important to be ridiculed, it also summed up the company spirit, mission and ethos.
I’d look around the table and feel overcome by emotion. Camaraderie, loyalty, gratitude. Even love. Surely love. But I also remember feeling shocked that these were the men I’d assembled. These were the founding fathers of a multimillion-dollar company that sold athletic shoes? A paralyzed guy, two morbidly obese guys, a chain-smoking guy?
Undoubtedly we looked, to any casual observer, like a sorry, motley crew, hopelessly mismatched. But in fact we were more alike than different, and that gave a coherence to our goals and our efforts. We were mostly Oregon guys, which was important.
While floating ideas, and shooting down ideas, and hashing out threats to the company, the last thing we took into account was someone’s feelings. Including mine. Especially mine. My fellow Buttfaces, my employees, called me Bucky the Bookkeeper, constantly. I never asked them to stop.
we needed to decide on a new logo. Aside from the swoosh, we had a lowercase script name, nike, which was problematic—too many people thought it was like, or mike. But it was too late in the day to change the name of the company, so making the letters more readable seemed a good idea. Denny Strickland, creative director at our advertising agency, had designed a block-lettered NIKE, all caps, and nested it inside a swoosh. We spent days considering it, debating it.
It was us against the world, and we felt damned sorry for the world. That is, when we weren’t righteously pissed off at it. Each of us had been misunderstood, misjudged, dismissed. Shunned by bosses, spurned by luck, rejected by society, shortchanged by fate when looks and other natural graces were handed out. We’d each been forged by early failure. We’d each given ourselves to some quest, some attempt at validation or meaning, and fallen short.
Hayes couldn’t become a partner because he was too fat. Johnson couldn’t cope in the so-called normal world of nine-to-five. Strasser was an insurance lawyer who hated insurance—and lawyers. Woodell lost all his youthful dreams in one fluke accident. I got cut from the baseball team. And I got my heart broken. I identified with the born loser in each Buttface, and vice versa, and I knew that together we could become winners.
Vastly trickier than how to get midsoles from Point A to Point B was the question of Son A and Son B, how to keep them happy, while keeping Son C, Nike, afloat.
they had a Crazy Idea, and together they were going to pitch us—that’s the sum total of what I knew that morning in March 1977 as we settled around the conference table.
Rudy leaned his weight on the edge of the conference table and smiled. “Mr. Knight, we’ve come up with a way to inject . . . air . . . into a running shoe.”
He saw me appraising him, saw my skepticism, and wasn’t the least fazed. He walked to the blackboard, picked up a piece of chalk, and began writing numbers, symbols, equations. He explained at some length why an air shoe would work, why it would never go flat, why it was the Next Big Thing. When he finished I stared at the blackboard.
Every time, Strasser walked away with more than we’d ever hoped. No one scared him, no one matched him in a clash of wills. By 1977 I was sending him into every negotiation with total confidence, as if I were sending in the Eighty-Second Airborne. His secret, I think, was that he just didn’t care what he said or how he said it or how it went over. He was totally honest, a radical tactic in any negotiation.
To build on this momentum we rolled out a new ad campaign with a sexy new slogan: “There is no finish line.” It was the idea of our new ad agency and its CEO, John Brown. He’d just opened his own shop in Seattle, and he was young, bright, and of course the opposite of an athlete.
His ad showed a single runner on a lonely country road, surrounded by tall Douglas firs. Oregon, clearly. The copy read: “Beating the competition is relatively easy. Beating yourself is a never-ending commitment.”
Everyone around me thought the ad was bold, fresh. It didn’t focus on the product, but on the spirit behind the product, which was something you never saw in the 1970s. People congratulated me on that ad as if we’d achieved something earth-shattering. I’d shrug. I wasn’t being modest. I still didn’t believe in the power of advertising. At all. A product, I thought, speaks for itself, or it doesn’t. In the end, it’s only quality that counts. I couldn’t imagine that any ad campaign would ever prove me wrong or change my mind.
Our semidaily crises were always bigger and more pressing than what slogan to print under a picture of our shoes.
Everything is about to change. It’s just a matter of time. And then came the letter. AN UNIMPOSING LITTLE thing. Standard white envelope. Embossed return address. U.S. Customs Service, Washington, DC. I opened it and my hands started to shake. It was a bill. For $25 million.
Essentially the American Selling Price law, or ASP, said that import duties on nylon shoes must be 20 percent of the manufacturing cost of the shoe—unless there’s a “similar shoe” manufactured by a competitor in the United States. In which case, the duty must be 20 percent of the competitor’s selling price. So all our competitors needed to do was make a few shoes in the United States, get them declared “similar,” then price them sky high—and boom. They could send our import duties sky high, too. And that’s just what they did. One dirty little trick, and they’d managed to spike our import duties by 40 percent—retroactively. Customs was saying we owed them import duties dating back years, to the tune of $25 million. Dirty trick or not, Strasser told me customs wasn’t joking around. We owed them $25 million, and they wanted it. Now. I
But as we closed out 1977 . . . sales were going berserk. Nearly $70 million. So Penny and I decided to buy a bigger house. It was a strange thing to do, in the midst of an apocalyptic fight with the government. But I liked the idea of acting as if things were going to work out. Fortune favors the brave, that sort of thing.
“another accountant.” He had me there. I did seem to hire nothing but accountants. And lawyers. It wasn’t that I had some bizarre affection for accountants and lawyers, I just didn’t know where else to look for talent.
He threw a fit, of course. And he plotted. Days later he and Hayes came to work in coats and ties. But preposterous coats and ties. Stripes and plaids, checks with polka dots, all of it rayon and polyester—and burlap? They meant it as a farce, but also as a protest, a gesture of civil disobedience, and I was in no mood for two fashion Gandhis staging a dress-in. I disinvited them both from the next Buttface. Then I ordered them both to go home and not to come back until they could behave, and dress, like adults. “And—you’re fined again!” I yelled at Strasser. “Then you’re fucked!” he yelled back.
I wanted to make another point, to rebut something the bureau-kraken had just said, but I didn’t trust myself to speak. I feared that my limbs might go flailing, that I might begin screaming. That I might beat the living tar out of his telephone. We made quite a pair, him with his frantic pacing, me with my frenzied self-hugging.
I hugged myself so tight, I must have looked as if I was wearing an invisible straitjacket.
Don’t you know that Hitler’s father was a customs inspector?
In our first meetings on the subject of China we’d always say: One billion people. Two. Billion. Feet.
“Put it this way,” Chuck said. “When Walter Kissinger wanted to get into China, and couldn’t, he didn’t call Henry. He called Chang.”
He met Hayes, who was 330 pounds, and Strasser, who was 320, and Jim Manns, our new CFO, who was a Mounds bar away from 350. Chang made a crack about our “half ton of upper management.”
Even with his help, Chang cautioned, getting into China was extremely difficult. The process was laborious. “You can’t just apply for permission to visit China,” he said. “You have to formally request that the Chinese government invite you. Bureaucracy doesn’t begin to describe it.”
We launched a new shoe, a running shoe with nylon uppers, and called it One Line. It was a knockoff, dirt cheap, with a simple logo, and we manufactured it in Saco, at Hayes’s ancient factory. We priced it low, just above cost. Now customs officials would have to use this “competitor” shoe as a new reference point in deciding our import duty.
Then we threw the left hook. We produced a TV commercial telling the story of a little company in Oregon, fighting the big bad government. It opened on a runner doing his lonely road work, as a deep voice extolled the ideals of patriotism, liberty, the American way. And fighting tyranny. It got people pretty fired up.
Then we threw the haymaker. On February 29, 1980, we filed a $25 million antitrust suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleging that our competitors, and assorted rubber companies, through underhanded business practices, had conspired to take us out.
Immediately they initiated settlement talks.
The first was to secure a deal with the Chinese track-and-field federation. This meant securing a deal with the government’s Ministry of Sports. Unlike the Western world, where every athlete made his own deal, China itself negotiated endorsement deals for all its athletes.
Just before getting on the plane home we signed deals with two Chinese factories, and officially became the first American shoemaker in twenty-five years to be allowed to do business in China.
For some, I realize, business is the all-out pursuit of profits, period, full stop, but for us business was no more about making money than being human is about making blood. Yes, the human body needs blood. It needs to manufacture red and white cells and platelets and redistribute them evenly, smoothly, to all the right places, on time, or else. But that day-to-day business of the human body isn’t our mission as human beings. It’s a basic process that enables our higher aims, and life always strives to transcend the basic processes of living—and
at some point in the late 1970s, I did, too. I redefined winning, expanded it beyond my original definition of not losing, of merely staying alive. That was no longer enough to sustain me, or my company. We wanted, as all great businesses do, to create, to contribute, and we dared to say so aloud. When you make something, when you improve something, when you deliver something, when you add some new thing or service to the lives of strangers, making them happier, or healthier, or safer, or better, and when you do it all crisply and efficiently, smartly, the way everything should be done but so seldom is—you’re participating more fully in the whole grand human drama.
Nike will be creating 20 million shares of class A stock and 30 million shares of class B. The price of the stock, we told the world, would be somewhere between eighteen and twenty-two dollars a share. TBD.
Of 50 million shares, total, almost 30 million would be held in reserve, and about 2 million class Bs would be sold to the public. Of the roughly 17 million remaining class A shares, the preexisting shareholders, or insiders, meaning me, Bowerman, the debenture holders, and the Buttfaces, would own 56 percent.
I personally would own about 46 percent. It needed to be that much, we all agreed, because the company needed to be run by one person, to speak with one firm and steady voice—come what may. There could be no chance of alliances or breakaway factions, no existential struggles for control.
To the outsider the division of shares might have seemed disproportionate, unbalanced, unfair. To the Butt-faces it was a necessity. There wasn’t a word of dissent or complaint. Ever.
After China, we weren’t in any mood to travel, but there was no other way. We had to do what Wall Street calls a dog-and-pony show. Twelve cities, seven days.
The cowards never started and the weak died along the way. That leaves us, ladies and gentlemen. Us.
WE CHOSE A date for the offering. December 2, 1980. The last remaining hurdle was settling on a price.
A company called Apple was also going public that same week, and selling for twenty-two dollars a share, and we were worth as much as them, I said to Hayes. If a bunch of Wall Street guys didn’t see it that way, I was ready to walk away from the deal.
I relived every negotiation in my life to that point. So, Dad, you remember that Crazy Idea I had at Stanford . . . ? Gentlemen, I represent Blue Ribbon Sports of Portland, Oregon. You see, Dot, I love Penny. And Penny loves me. And if things continue in this vein, I see us building a life together.