Skip to main content
Original Issue

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

I. An Incident: During the Olympic summer of 1992, just days before the Dream Team was expected to receive its gold medals, the most casual of fans learned that certain members of team might ruin one of sports' most hallowed rituals because of their preference in footwear. Officials of the U.S. Olympic Committee announced that if Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Scottie Pippen, John Stockton and Chris Mullin—Nike guys making up half the superstar basketball team—did not wear official warmups bearing the emblem of Reebok, the shoe company against which Nike, Inc. has conducted a holy war for much of a decade, they would not be allowed atop the medal stand. But Jordan and the others refused to budge.

As news of the standoff" spread, phone calls began to stream into Nike headquarters, in Beaverton, Ore., most of them indicating that this time the mighty shoe machine had gone too far. Here was a moment meant to transcend the marketplace, an event indicative of sport's traditional purity of purpose, yet a handful of highly paid athletes seemed willing to deny the nation this experience because of loyalty not to the "glory of sport" or the "honor of our teams," as the Olympic oath has it, but to a company in Oregon that makes their shoes.

Barkley—a veritable Tocqueville when moved to observe a complex social phenomenon and distill its essence—underscored the sense that Mammon was about to triumph over patria in Barcelona by proclaiming that he had "two million reasons not to wear Reebok," the number referring to the dollars Barkley would receive during the year from Nike (though Charles managed to double the actual sum). If Barkley had more than a million reasons to refuse to be a human billboard for Reebok, then Jordan was in the process of accumulating 20 million reasons—$20 million over the course of a year for helping an athletic footwear and apparel company mark the look and the feel and even the popular fantasies of daily life as few organizations before it have done.

In a time when most Americans understand that Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan share more than initials and a first name, an era in which even most school kids realize that he doesn't wear a hat bearing a Nike logo just to keep his head warm, word still reached Beaverton that the Barcelona flap could destabilize the company's carefully nurtured relationship with those who regard Nike as synonymous with athletes and athletics. Seven years earlier, in the spring of 1985, when the first Air Jordan commercial appeared on TV, many Americans had never heard of a slender NBA rookie named Jordan. Then that spring a basketball rolled across an urban court and a handsome kid in baggy shorts standing at the center of the prime-time image caught the ball off the toe of one of his technicolor shoes. He began to move across the I blacktop to the keening sound of jet engines revving before take- off, and by the time the engines had roared at critical scream, Jordan was aloft in a slow-motion tableau so magically drawn out that children who couldn't generate the vertical leap to touch a doorknob could climb right inside the moment.

Jordan stayed in the air, his legs splayed, for 10 seconds, en-j chanting spectators who had never been to a basketball game, The 30 seconds of film moved people all over the country up close to Michael Jordan's genius and his grace, and because of a brilliant alchemy that has since made Nike such a profound force in the culture, the shoes on his feet became as magic carpets. So often since then have Jordan's singular physical gifts been decorated with a superhero's mythos that it is now difficult to locate a three-year-old—or, for that matter, a Trobriand Islander or an Inuit hunter—who can't tell you that Jordan is a Nike man. Schoolchildren recently surveyed in China agreed that the two greatest men in history were Zhou Enlai and Michael Jordan, who plays basketball for a living in Chicago, Illinois.

Inside Nike, Jordan and the dozens of other marquee athletes on its team of "consultants" are living representations of the company's belief in the highest moral tenor of athletic pursuit. "Michael holds us to our values," Nike executives will say. Those values inform the corporate goal of "enhancing people's lives through sports and fitness." Over and over these executives proclaim that Nike's success is predicated upon a commitment to "keeping the magic of sport alive."

Among the human passions that can be successfully draped over consumer products—sex, rock 'n' roll, money, sports—all the nobility and pathos of sport has been embraced by the people of Nike as an animating principle and reason for being. The chairman of Nike, Philip Knight, understands that the secret of Nike's success resides along a delicate and emotionally charged progression that connects the company, the consumers and the abiding fantasies that are tethered to sports. On their way to the feet and the closets of the world, the shoes pass through what Knight calls the "life force" of sport. Knight believes that sport "is the culture of the United States" and that, before long, it will define the culture of the entire world.

Knight and the other leaders of Nike were stunned by the perception that Jordan's loyalty to the corporate cause in Barcelona was bad for America and for sports. The whole idea of Nike had been to build a pedestal for sports such as the world had never seen. Nike employees labor for "an athlete's company," an organization run by and for athletes. Although company officials acknowledge that six of 10 Nike customers will never wear their shoes for their intended use, employees still work with the intensity of athletes on a roll, to serve not the consumer but the serious athlete who at least dwells in the imagination of millions of people living in these muscular and sports-minded times.

With impressive speed Nike has come to signify status, glamour, competitive edge and the myriad intricacies of cool. Especially for the young, Nike shoes conjure up a yearning and fascination that for much of the century has been inspired by cars. Just as generations coming of age during a loftier moment for industrial capitalism dwelled on the automobile, young people all over the world now grow up dreaming at night of Nikes. The company receives dozens of drawings every week from children who understand the technicalities of heel counters, crash pads and functional grooves in the way that many of their fathers understood overhead camshafts and four-barreled carbs. One eight-year-old scrawled "The New Air Jet, just $303!" across the bottom of a drawing of a combination basketball shoe and tactical-assault weapon that now hangs in the office of a Nike designer. A "brand power survey" that Nike commissions each year indicates that in a perfect world, the shoes that 77% of the teenage boys in America want—as opposed to ones they actually have or can afford—are Nikes.

Only weeks before Jordan and his Nike teammates sparked international controversy in Barcelona, a new palace of shoes called Nike Town opened in downtown Chicago. The 68,000 square feet of retail space is replete with a basketball court, giant tanks of tropical fish and vivid Nike imagery from ceiling to floor. Within a few weeks Nike Town had supplanted the Lincoln Park Zoo and the Shedd Aquarium as the most popular tourist attraction in Chicago.

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.

That residents of the Nike-consuming public assumed Knight to be in control of the situation was not difficult to understand. Orchestration, after all, is something Nike does as well as any company in the world. While other sports-apparel companies offered hospitality suites in Barcelona, Nike had converted a nightclub into an elegant ring of quiet, enclosed "pods" in which athletes and other VIPs could relax and chat. The place was full of fax machines and phones and food and, as always, mountains of athletic apparel and shoes to give away. But there was no joy in Barcelona when Jordan and the others decided to take their anti-Reebok stance. Knight complained that the USOC was acting as if he had "a magic wand."

Nike's director of sports marketing, Steve Miller, an ex-Detroit Lion and former athletic director at Kansas State, huddled in Barcelona with the company's chief pro basketball executive, Howard White, who had been a point guard at Maryland in the early '70s and later coached there. Howard talks to Jordan often and says he believes that "Nike and Michael have become inseparable—like one thing, like one family." White knew the public would not understand that Jordan's refusal to budge had roots in a fight Jordan and Nike had been waging against the NBA ever since Jordan turned pro.

Even before that first Air Jordan commercial aired, the league had banned the shoe, and at the All-Star Game seven years later Jordan and Nike were still battling the NBA. The league's caricature T-shirt for the '92 game showed only nine of the 10 All-Star starters because Jordan had legally "taken back his face" and transferred the rights to his likeness and name to the company that was so instrumental in making him universal.

Nike's association with elite U.S. athletes dwarfs that of any other company. Of the 320 or so NBA players, 265 wear Nike shoes, 82 of them by contract. Half the teams that have won the NCAA basketball championship in the past 10 years have worn Nikes, and more than 60 big-time colleges are "Nike schools" because their coaches are Nike coaches. Two hundred seventy-five NFL players wear Nikes, as do 290 major league baseball players. If the medals won by the Nike track and field athletes at Barcelona were added up, Team Nike would have beat out the Unified Team.

The latest annual report from Nike all but drips with corporate attitude, mocking "conventional wisdom" in light of the recent triumphs of various Nike athletes: "No one will ever break [Bob] Beamon's long jump record at sea level, Andre Agassi can't win on grass. Nolan Ryan is too old. Communist athletes won't understand capitalist financial incentives. A black man can never be a good company spokesman in white America."

So while Nike piously proclaims that its mission is to protect the lofty ideals of sport, the company also values iconoclasts with big-time attitudes more than it does any national governing body or league. Nike executives love Barkley, Agassi, John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase and even Deion Sanders—the kinds of athletes that embarrass grown-ups. In the eyes of Nike, the McEnroe many observers consider to be spoiled and immature is, in fact, an anti-elitist thorn in the side of a hidebound tennis establishment. Asked about Sanders's dumping a bucket of water on sportscaster Tim McCarver during last year's baseball playoffs, Nike president Dick Donahue asked, "What's wrong with that?"

When Knight started his business the dominant athletic shoe company was Adidas, an elitist German concern that Nike's founding fathers thought was deeply hooked into corrupt and aristocratic international sports authorities. The Nike guys, on the other hand, were athletes—most of them former competitive runners—and through their athletic pursuits they had acquired "authenticity." The company is powered to this day by a cultlike belief in authenticity. The word is repeated like a mantra in Beaverton. Authentic shoes for authentic athletes.

But for all its reverence of its upstart past, Nike has grown up to be a large and prominent institution. The company's anti-bureaucratic and antiauthoritarian streaks—and even its dedication to gifted athletes who swim against the tide—have lately become obscured at times by the sort of faceless and morally questionable imagery more often associated with corporate Goliaths like Exxon and General Motors. This was never part of the plan.

Only eight weeks after the events in Barcelona, press reports emanating from Charlotte, N.C., revealed another example of Nike's apparently doing business in ways that were typical of other big, profit-minded businesses. Shortly after the Charlotte Hornets had drafted Georgetown's star center, Alonzo Mourning, a reporter aware of Mourning's unusual shoe contract asked Mourning who he would be working for during the coming season. "I work for Nike," said Mourning.

The sports-business grapevine spread the word that Nike was at it again. Before the draft Mourning had signed a revolutionary agreement calling for Nike to pay him a large guaranteed sum to play pro basketball and endorse various products. Mourning says he was more than willing to "let Nike experiment with me," as he later put it, because Nike was the means by which an American athlete becomes what Mourning calls a "household name."

Like Jordan and Barkley and Agassi before him, Mourning was after something not deliverable by performance alone. When it came time to negotiate with the Hornets, Mourning held out, and fans and reporters were quick to blame Nike. After a series of reports in the Charlotte Observer indicating that Mourning might never play for Charlotte because of the financial security Nike had already assured him, one angry letter to the editor asserted that Nike's $16 million deal with Mourning had "taken the spirit out of the game."

He finally came to terms with the Hornets in November 1992. Just a week earlier a million-dollar ad campaign against Nike was announced by an association of labor unions and manufacturers called Made in the USA. The association had stated that consumers would be asked in magazine and newspaper ads to send their "dirty, smelly worn-out" sneakers to Phil Knight. The idea was to call attention to the loss of domestic shoe-manufacturing jobs to low-cost foreign producers—which make almost every branded athletic shoe sold in the U.S.—and to repeated accusations that third world factory workers making Nikes earn as little as 14 cents per hour.

More than 200 U.S. corporations are, in fact, larger than Nike in terms of revenue, but it's hard these days to think of another company that generates so much popular passion. National TV news programs picked up on the mention of low wages and poor working conditions endured by Nike workers abroad, and the Made in the USA campaign generated so much publicity from the mere announcement of its intentions that the association never bothered to run more than one ad.

"We've become a discrete set of values for our consumers," says Nike p.r. director Liz Dolan, looking back on almost a year of incidents that had in some ways marred the perception of the company. "Because we're connected to sports, our success is perceived as something bad. If a computer company in the Silicon Valley grew so quickly that profits had doubled by the year, created thousands of new high-wage jobs and delivered buckets of money to its shareholders, the public would be thrilled."

Seven years ago Knight proclaimed that "some company will become the IBM of the sports-apparel industry within the next five years." But now that Nike logos mark the landscape far more prominently than those of IBM, now that Nike has risen above most of the other organizations connected to sports, the corporate quest is to not become the floundering IBM of the sports business. Nike is clearly the most efficient and powerful organization in sports, yet it exists in a hypercompetitive sphere that has been dominated by four shoe dynasties over the past 25 years. Knight believes that these empires, unlike auto or computer dynasties—but just like sports dynasties and batters on streaks—tend to ascend to brief, Icarian moments. Make the mistake of talking to a Nike exec about the company's "ownership" of half the basketball-shoe market or 75% of the cleatedshoe market or 40% of the running-shoe market, and he or she will break in with, "It's borrowed. No market in this business ever is owned."

"The brand cycles in this industry last only around seven years," says Knight. "You've got to reawaken the customer every season, yet there are these larger cycles. First Converse had its day, then Adidas, then Nike. The cycle took us from zero to a billion dollars in a short time, and suddenly Reebok had its years in the sun. Then Nike was reinvented during the late '80s, and now we're back on top."

"There is no doubt that this industry is looking for something new," says Gary Jacobson, a Wall Street analyst who specializes in the athletic-shoe industry. One of every three athletic shoes sold in the U.S. may be a Nike, but the American market has become saturated. The American closet is so full of colorful shoes that consumers tend to replace only those that have worn out. Nike talks of the urgency of deploying the "global power brand," of figuring out how to dominate the imagery of sports abroad as in the U.S.

So much of Nike's public presence is hitched to the abbreviated careers of its athletes that staying on top means establishing a presence at every draft, in every sport or tournament and on every team. "If we're a giant, then we're a pretty fragile giant," says Knight. "Every six months is like a new life. We can't take our eye off the ball, because if we lose it, we'll have a bitch of a time getting it back."

But as the company strives to maintain its lead, corporate imperatives seem to collide with the perceived values that Nike claims it is protecting. Nike has therefore become a lightning rod for all the popular ambivalence about the convergence of American business and American sports, and for an increasing uneasiness over the way sports preoccupy the public consciousness. Lately it has occurred to Knight that the sheer force of Nike's image-making has perhaps created expectations capable of blindsiding the company—and Knight, as all who know him confirm, is a man who likes to see what's coming.

It was a Japanese reporter who rose at the Nike-organized press event in a Barcelona movie theater before the medals-stand showdown. "Mr. Jordan," he said, "how does it feel to be God?" Jordan grinned his famous grin and deflected the question, but over the next several months, Nike's leaders began to wonder if, as Knight had said, "the hype had finally gone too far."

"Do I think Nike creates images for athletes that exceed their capacity to perform as athletes or even as people?" Knight says. "My short answer is yes, but it's not just us. It's TV that defines the athletes. They perform on television, and we just expand on the image. Maybe these two things do come together and create something that nobody can live up to."

In 1988 Jordan was on the verge of leaving Nike to form his own marketing company. Before Nike raised his guaranteed fee and increased the equity portion of his deal, Jordan was at a meeting where, he recalls, Knight said in a moment of pique, "Michael Jordan without Nike won't mean anything."

But by 1992 Jordan was being asked how it felt to be God and was long over his anger at Knight's words (which, Knight contends, were misinterpreted in the first place). And after nine years with Nike, Jordan says he has begun to weary under the weight of his image. "Nike has done such a job of promoting me that I've turned into a dream," he says. "In some ways it's taken me away from the game and turned me into an entertainer. To a lot of people I'm just a person who stars in commercials."

Knight sent Jordan a written confirmation that he didn't consider the medals-stand uniform a violation of Jordan's Nike contract. "But Phil didn't realize how loyal I really am," says Jordan. "I think I surprised him."

Before the medals ceremony Jordan said to his attorney, David Falk, "I have to believe what I believe in." Jordan told Falk he was going to put tape over the Reebok emblem in defiance of Olympic officials. "I've got a better idea," Falk said.

So after a week in which Reebok had garnered more publicity from a few cents' worth of contested thread than from all their millions of dollars' worth of prime-time advertising, Jordan and his five fellow Nike endorsers, as well as the six players under contract to other shoe companies, all mounted the medals stand with their collars rolled back to obscure the Reebok name. Jordan stood in the middle with Old Glory draped over the emblem.

Gavitt was philosophical as the "incident" in Barcelona finally passed into sports-hype history. "Michael was nothing but a superstar through the whole thing," he said. "And Phil Knight did everything he could to help. But you've got to say one thing about those guys at Nike: Like 'em or not, they march to the beat of a very separate drummer."

Except that at Nike they don't really march. They all run like people afraid of being caught from behind.

II. On Campus

At 8:30 a.m., Knight's black Acura NSX, sporting a NIKEMN license plate, growled through a gap in an earthen wall surrounding the 74 acres of the Nike World Campus, 10 miles west of Portland. Knight readily admits to having a "thing" about cars. He's not into collecting them—though he does have a Lamborghini Diablo and a Ferrari Testarossa, and he did have a Porsche 911 Turbo until he racked it up last year. "I get sleepy going slow," said Knight. "Fast is safer for me. I've collected 85 speeding tickets over years of staying wide awake."

Then Knight flashed a huge grin, his ever-present Oakley sunglasses reflecting in silver hues a panorama of the corporate Xanadu before him. At times he has worn hair arrangements reminiscent of Little Lord Fauntleroy, the early Beatles and a 15th-century monk, but these days Knight—with his longish red-blond curls, close-cropped beard and wraparound shades—looks for all the world, at age 55, like a prosperous, if mellowed, rock star. "I hear that people around here say, 'Phil Knight is our Walt Disney, except he's not dead yet,' " he said. "Kind of a compliment and an insult at the same time, I guess."

A few days earlier Knight's personal net worth had increased by nearly $115 million in a single day due to a $4.50 appreciation in Nike's share price on the New York Stock Exchange. Four weeks before that, when Wall Street analysts figured Nike's quarterly earnings would come in lower than their original estimates, the stock price had shed $15 over four days, and the roughly 25 million shares owned by Knight lost close to $390 million in value—a sum surpassing that spent on Nike's legendary TV advertising over the past two years. "The first time the stock lost $12 in a day it shook me up a little," Knight says, "but now I've unlinked that stuff from personal feelings. Those numbers are just...surreal."

Beyond a fountain leading from 48 flagpoles flying the colors of the nations in which Nike conducts business, younger employees could be seen walking to work beneath covered walkways that connect the John McEnroe Building to the Alberto Salazar Building and the Dan Fouts Building and the Bo Jackson Fitness Center beyond it. None of the young soldiers of Nike wore a suit and tie like the boss, and many seemed to be wearing shoes cooked up in the Nike labs—exotic sports sandals or prototype footwear that in one or two cases wound around the lower part of their legs, in the style of Roman centurions.

With its man-made lakes, stands of trees, ribbons of jogging trails and buildings commemorating the life's work of individuals in some cases no older than 35, the Nike campus is like a shrine to quality-of-life and athletic pursuits contrived as a company town. Nike people refer to the world outside as "the biosphere" or "the real world." "Beyond the berm"—a reference to the close-cropped grass knoll surrounding the campus—lies the America Nike serves and "enriches" through sports and fitness. Inside the berm is Nikeworld, where almost everyone is fit and healthy, where the company pays you extra to ride your bike to work instead of driving, where nobody can smoke and where it's quite all right to work out at the Bo Jackson Fitness Center for two hours at lunchtime, because your entire department will probably be at work until nine at night, nose to the grindstone.

The average age of a Nike employee is 31. The Joan Benoit Samuelson Center is occasionally referred to as the student union building, and when Nolan Ryan recently came to the World Campus for the dedication of the building that bears his name, only a small crowd was present for a ceremony featuring the pitcher because only employees older than 40 were invited.

On campus, employees can get a haircut, do their laundry, get a massage or a complete fitness evaluation, buy Nike products and even shop in a store stocked with the kinds of items appreciated by spouses or children who haven't seen a long-laboring loved one in a while. Carloads of Nike children can be seen being hauled around the Mike Schmidt Building on their way to the Joe Paterno Day Care Center.

Despite the company's startling youthfulness, innumerable employees talk of having opted for a new or second life in Beaverton. "I taught English...." "I'm a reformed accountant...." "I was drafted by the Chargers, but then I blew out my knee...." There are former lawyers who once wrote Nike's briefs, former editors of trade magazines who once covered the company, former politicos and a lot of former vagabonds and ski bums. One executive, David Rikert, is a former Harvard Business School professor who once wrote a case study about Nike.

Former pro and college athletes, former Olympians and near-Olympians, work on every floor of every building. Former distance runner Alberto Salazar works down the hall from Rudy Chapa, another world-class runner who occasionally beat Salazar during their college days. Company road races and bike races are often won in near-world-class times. The sheer athleticism of the corporate culture makes nonjock employees feel the need to follow teams and scores as a matter of protective coloration.

After several rounds of grueling interviews, a recent candidate for an important job managing Nike's environmental programs, a former government official with both a Ph.D. and a law degree, was told by a member of the selection committee that he had just one more question: "Who's Deion Sanders?"

"Well, I don't really know," the candidate replied.

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.