An hour passed before I could go back downstairs. At some point that
night I gave up the Kleenex and just draped a towel over my shoulder. A
move I learned from another beloved coach—John Thompson.
Strasser passed suddenly, too. Heart attack, 1993. He was so young, it was
a tragedy, all the more so because it came after we’d had a falling out.
Strasser had been instrumental in signing Jordan, in building up the Jordan
brand and wrapping it around Rudy’s air soles. Air Jordan changed Nike,
took us to the next level, and the next, but it changed Strasser, too. He felt
that he should no longer be taking orders from anyone, including me.
Especially me. We clashed, too many times, and he quit.
It might have been okay if he’d just quit. But he went to work for Adidas.
An intolerable betrayal. I never forgave him. (Though I did recently—
happily, proudly—hire his daughter, Avery. Twenty-two years old, she
works in Special Events, and she’s said to be thriving. It’s a blessing and a joy
to see her name in the company directory.) I wish Strasser and I had patched
things up before he died, but I don’t know that it was possible. We were
both born to compete, and we were both bad at forgiving. For both of us,
betrayal was extra potent kryptonite.
I felt that same sense of betrayal when Nike came under attack for
conditions in our overseas factories—the so-called sweatshop controversy.
Whenever reporters said a factory was unsatisfactory, they never said how
much better it was than the day we first went in. They never said how hard
we’d worked with our factory partners to upgrade conditions, to make them
safer and cleaner. They never said these factories weren’t ours, that we were
renters, one among many tenants. They simply searched until they found a
worker with complaints about conditions, and they used that worker to vilify
us, and only us, knowing our name would generate maximum publicity.
Of course my handling of the crisis only made it worse. Angry, hurt, I
often reacted with self-righteousness, petulance, anger. On some level I
knew my reaction was toxic, counterproductive, but I couldn’t stop myself.
It’s just not easy to remain even-keeled when you wake up one day, thinking
you’re creating jobs and helping poor countries modernize and enabling
athletes to achieve greatness, only to find yourself being burned in effigy
outside the flagship retail store in your own hometown.
The company reacted as I did. Emotionally. Everyone was reeling. Many
late nights in Beaverton, you’d find all the lights on, and soul-searching
conversations taking place in various conference rooms and offices. Though
we knew that much of the criticism was unjust, that Nike was a symbol, a
scapegoat, more than the true culprit, all of that was beside the point. We
had to admit: We could do better.
We told ourselves: We must do better.
Then we told the world: Just watch. We’ll make our factories shining
And we did. In the ten years since the bad headlines and lurid exposés,
we’ve used the crisis to reinvent the entire company.
For instance. One of the worst things about a shoe factory used to be the
rubber room, where uppers and soles are bonded. The fumes are choking,
toxic, cancer-causing. So we invented a water-based bonding agent that gives
off no fumes, thereby eliminating 97 percent of the carcinogens in the air.
Then we gave this invention to our competitors, handed it over to anyone
who wanted it.
They all did. Nearly all of them now use it.
One of many, many examples.
We’ve gone from a target of reformers to a dominant player in the factory
reform movement. Today the factories that make our products are among
the best in the world. An official at the United Nations recently said so: Nike
is the gold standard by which we measure all apparel factories.
Out of the sweatshop crisis also came the Girl Effect, a massive Nike
effort to break the generational cycles of poverty in the bleakest corners of
the world. Along with the United Nations and other corporate and
government partners, the Girl Effect is spending tens of millions of dollars
in a smart, tough, global campaign to educate and connect and lift up young
girls. Economists, sociologists, not to mention our own hearts, tell us that, in
many societies, young girls are the most economically vulnerable, and vital,
demographic. So helping them helps all. Whether striving to end child
marriage in Ethiopia, or building safe spaces for teenage girls in Nigeria, or
launching a magazine and radio show that deliver powerful, inspiring
messages to young Rwandans, the Girl Effect is changing millions of lives,
and the best days of my week, month, year, are those when I receive the
glowing reports from its front lines.
I’d do anything to go back, to make so many different decisions, which
might or might not have averted the sweatshop crisis. But I can’t deny that
the crisis has led to miraculous change, inside and outside Nike. For that I
must be grateful.
Of course, there will always be the question of wages. The salary of a
Third World factory worker seems impossibly low to Americans, and I
understand. Still, we have to operate within the limits and structures of each
country, each economy; we can’t simply pay whatever we wish to pay. In one
country, which shall be nameless, when we tried to raise wages, we found
ourselves called on the carpet, summoned to the office of a top government
official and ordered to stop. We were disrupting the nation’s entire
economic system, he said. It’s simply not right, he insisted, or feasible, that a
shoe worker makes more than a medical doctor.
Change never comes as fast as we want it.
I think constantly of the poverty I saw while traveling the world in the
1960s. I knew then that the only answer to such poverty is entry-level jobs.
Lots of them. I didn’t form this theory on my own. I heard it from every
economics professor I ever had, at both Oregon and Stanford, and
everything I saw and read thereafter backed it up. International trade always,
always benefits both trading nations.
Another thing I often heard from those same professors was the old
maxim: “When goods don’t pass international borders, soldiers will.”
Though I’ve been known to call business war without bullets, it’s actually a
wonderful bulwark against war. Trade is the path of coexistence,
cooperation. Peace feeds on prosperity. That’s why, haunted as I was by the
Vietnam War, I always vowed that someday Nike would have a factory in or
By 1997 we had four.
I was very proud. And when I learned that we were to be honored and
celebrated by the Vietnamese government as one of the nation’s top five
generators of foreign currency, I felt that I simply had to visit.
What a wrenching trip. I don’t know if I’d appreciated the full depth of
my hatred for the war in Vietnam until I returned twenty-five years after the
peace, until I joined hands with our former antagonists. At one point my
hosts graciously asked what they could do for me, what would make my trip
special or memorable. I got a lump in my throat. I didn’t want them to go to
any trouble, I said.
But they insisted.
Okay, I said, okay, I’d like to meet eighty-six-year-old General Võ
Nguyên Giáp, the Vietnamese MacArthur, the man who single-handedly
defeated the Japanese, the French, the Americans, and the Chinese.
My hosts stared in amazed silence. Slowly they rose and excused
themselves and stood off in a corner, conversing in frantic Vietnamese.
After five minutes they came back. Tomorrow, they said. One hour.
I bowed deeply. Then counted the minutes until the big meeting.
The first thing I noticed as General Giáp entered the room was his size.
This brilliant fighter, this genius tactician who’d organized the Tet
Offensive, who’d planned those miles and miles of underground tunnels, this
giant of history, came up to my shoulders. He was, maybe, five foot four.
And humble. No corncob pipe for Giáp.
I remember that he wore a dark business suit, like mine. I remember that
he smiled as I did—shyly, uncertainly. But there was an intensity about him.
I’d seen that kind of glittery confidence in great coaches, and great business
leaders, the elite of the elite. I never saw it in a mirror.
He knew I had questions. He waited for me to ask them.
I said simply: “How did you do it?”
I thought I saw the corners of his mouth flicker. A smile? Maybe?
He thought. And thought. “I was,” he said, “a professor of the jungle.”
THOUGHTS OF ASIA always lead back to Nissho. Where on earth would
we have been without Nissho? And without Nissho’s former CEO, Masuro
Hayami. I got to know him well after Nike went public. We couldn’t help
but bond: I was his most profitable client, and his most avid pupil. And he
was perhaps the wisest man I ever knew.
Unlike many other wise men, he drew great peace from his wisdom. I fed
off that peace.
In the 1980s, whenever I went to Tokyo, Hayami would invite me for the
weekend to his beach house, near Atami, the Japanese Riviera. We’d always
leave Tokyo late Friday, by rail, and have a cognac along the way. Within an
hour we’d be at the Izu Peninsula, where we’d stop at some marvelous
restaurant for dinner. The next morning we’d play golf, and Saturday night
we’d have a Japanese-style barbecue in his backyard. We’d solve all the
world’s problems, or I’d give him my problems and he’d solve them.
On one trip we ended the evening in Hayami’s hot tub. I recall, above the
foaming water, the sound of the distant ocean slapping the shore. I recall the
cool smell of the wind through the trees—thousands and thousands of
coastal trees, dozens of species not found in any Oregon forest. I recall the
jungle crows cawing in the distance as we discussed the infinite. Then the
finite. I complained about my business. Even after going public, there were
so many problems. “We have so much opportunity, but we’re having a
terrible time getting managers who can seize those opportunities. We try
people from the outside, but they fail, because our culture is so different.”
Mr. Hayami nodded. “See those bamboo trees up there?” he asked.
“Next year . . . when you come . . . they will be one foot higher.”
I stared. I understood.
When I returned to Oregon I tried hard to cultivate and grow the
management team we had, slowly, with more patience, with an eye toward
more training and more long-term planning. I took the wider, longer view.
It worked. The next time I saw Hayami, I told him. He merely nodded,
once, hai, and looked off.
ALMOST THREE DECADES ago Harvard and Stanford began studying
Nike, and sharing their research with other universities, which has created
many opportunities for me to visit different colleges, to take part in
stimulating academic discussions, to continue to learn. It’s always a happy
occasion to be walking a campus, but also bracing, because while I find
students today much smarter and more competent than in my time, I also
find them far more pessimistic. Occasionally they ask in dismay: “Where is
the U.S. going? Where is the world going?” Or: “Where are the new
entrepreneurs?” Or: “Are we doomed as a society to a worse future for our
I tell them about the devastated Japan I saw in 1962. I tell them about the
rubble and ruins that somehow gave birth to wise men like Hayami and Ito
and Sumeragi. I tell them about the untapped resources, natural and human,
that the world has at its disposal, the abundant ways and means to solve its
many crises. All we have to do, I tell the students, is work and study, study
and work, hard as we can.
Put another way: We must all be professors of the jungle.
I TURN OUT the lights, walk upstairs to bed. Curled up with a book beside
her, Penny has drifted off. That chemistry, that in-sync feeling from Day
One, Accounting 101, remains. Our conflicts, such as they are, have centered
mostly on work versus family. Finding a balance. Defining that word
“balance.” At our most trying moments, we’ve managed to emulate those
athletes I most admire. We’ve held on, pressed through. And now we’ve
I slide under the covers, gingerly, so as not to wake her, and I think of
others who’ve endured. Hayes lives on a farm in the Tualatin Valley, 108
rolling acres, with a ridiculous collection of bulldozers and other heavy
equipment. (His pride and joy is a John Deere JD-450C. It’s bright schoolbus yellow and as big as a one-bedroom condo.) He has some health
problems, but he bulldozes ahead.
Woodell lives in central Oregon with his wife. For years he flew his own
private airplane, giving the middle finger to everyone who said he’d be
helpless. (Above all, flying private meant he never again had to worry about
an airline losing his wheelchair.)
He’s one of the best storytellers in the history of Nike. My favorite,
naturally, is the one about the day we went public. He sat his parents down
and told them the news. “What does that mean?” they whispered. “It means
your original eight-thousand-dollar loan to Phil is worth $1.6 million.” They
looked at each other, looked at Woodell. “I don’t understand,” his mother
If you can’t trust the company your son works for, who can you trust?
When he retired from Nike, Woodell became head of the Port of
Portland, managing all the rivers and the airports. A man immobilized,
guiding all that motion. Lovely. He’s also the leading shareholder and
director of a successful microbrewery. He always did like his beer.
But whenever we get together for dinner, he tells me, of course, his
greatest joy and proudest accomplishment is his college-bound son, Dan.
Woodell’s old antagonist, Johnson, lives slap in the middle of a Robert
Frost poem, somewhere in the wilderness of New Hampshire. He’s
converted an old barn into a five-story mansion, which he calls his Fortress
of Solitude. Twice divorced, he’s filled the place to the rafters with dozens of
reading chairs, and thousands and thousands of books, and he keeps track of
them all with an extensive card catalog. Each book has its own number and
its own index card, listing author, date of publication, plot summary—and its
precise location in the fortress.
Scampering and prancing around Johnson’s spread are countless wild
turkeys and chipmunks, most of whom he’s named. He knows them all so
well, so intimately, he can tell you when one is late in hibernating. Beyond,
in the distance, nestled in a field of tall grass and swaying maples, Johnson
has built a second barn, a sacred barn, which he’s painted and lacquered and
furnished and filled with overflow from his personal library, plus pallets of
used books he buys at library sales. He calls this book utopia “Horders,” and
he keeps it lighted, open, free, twenty-four hours a day, for any and all who
need a place to read and think.
That’s Full-time Employee Number One.
In Europe, I’m told, there are T-shirts that read, Where is Jef Johnson?
Like the famous opening line from Ayn Rand, Who is John Galt? The answer
is, Right where he should be.
WHEN IT CAME rolling in, the money affected us all. Not much, and not
for long, because none of us was ever driven by money. But that’s the nature
of money. Whether you have it or not, whether you want it or not, whether
you like it or not, it will try to define your days. Our task as human beings is
not to let it.
I bought a Porsche. I tried to buy the Los Angeles Clippers, and wound
up in a lawsuit with Donald Sterling. I wore sunglasses everywhere, indoors
and out. There’s a photo of me in a ten-gallon gray cowboy hat—I don’t
know where or when or why. I had to get it all out of my system. Even
Penny wasn’t immune. Overcompensating for the insecurity of her
childhood, she walked around with thousands of dollars in her purse. She
bought hundreds of staples, like rolls of toilet paper, at a time.
It wasn’t long before we were back to normal. Now, to the extent that she
and I ever think about money, we focus our efforts on a few specific causes.
We give away $100 million each year, and when we’re gone we’ll give away
most of what’s left.
At the moment we’re in the midst of building a gleaming new basketball
facility at the University of Oregon. The Matthew Knight Arena. The logo
at half court will be Matthew’s name in the shape of a torii gate. From the
profane to the sacred . . . We’re also finishing construction on a new athletic
facility, which we plan to dedicate to our mothers, Dot and Lota. On a
plaque next to the entrance will go an inscription: Because mothers are our first
Who can say how differently everything would have turned out if my
mother hadn’t stopped the podiatrist from surgically removing that wart and
hobbling me for an entire track season? Or if she hadn’t told me I could run
fast? Or if she hadn’t bought that first pair of Limber Ups, putting my father
in his place?
Whenever I go back to Eugene, and walk the campus, I think of her.
Whenever I stand outside Hayward Field, I think of the silent race she ran. I
think of all the many races that each of us have run. I lean against the fence
and look at the track and listen to the wind, thinking of Bowerman with his
string tie blowing behind him. I think of Pre, God love him. Turning,
looking over my shoulder, my heart leaps. Across the street stands the
William Knight Law School. A very serious-looking edifice. No one ever
jackasses around in there.
I CAN’T SLEEP. I can’t stop thinking about that blasted movie, The Bucket
List. Lying in the dark, I ask myself again and again, What’s on yours?
So . . . nothing?
I think about the few things I want to do. Help a couple of universities
change the world. Help find a cure for cancer. Besides that, it’s not so much
things I want to do as things I’d like to say. And maybe unsay.
It might be nice to tell the story of Nike. Everyone else has told the story,
or tried to, but they always get half the facts, if that, and none of the spirit.
Or vice versa. I might start the story, or end it, with regrets. The hundreds—
maybe thousands—of bad decisions. I’m the guy who said Magic Johnson
was “a player without a position, who’ll never make it in the NBA.” I’m the
guy who tabbed Ryan Leaf as a better NFL quarterback than Peyton
It’s easy to laugh those off. Other regrets go deeper. Not phoning Hiraku
Iwano after he quit. Not getting Bo Jackson renewed in 1996. Joe Paterno.
Not being a good enough manager to avoid layoffs. Three times in ten
years—a total of fifteen hundred people. It still haunts.
Of course, above all, I regret not spending more time with my sons.
Maybe, if I had, I could’ve solved the encrypted code of Matthew Knight.
And yet I know that this regret clashes with my secret regret—that I can’t
do it all over again.
God, how I wish I could relive the whole thing. Short of that, I’d like to
share the experience, the ups and downs, so that some young man or woman,
somewhere, going through the same trials and ordeals, might be inspired or
comforted. Or warned. Some young entrepreneur, maybe, some athlete or
painter or novelist, might press on.
It’s all the same drive. The same dream.
It would be nice to help them avoid the typical discouragements. I’d tell
them to hit pause, think long and hard about how they want to spend their
time, and with whom they want to spend it for the next forty years. I’d tell
men and women in their midtwenties not to settle for a job or a profession
or even a career. Seek a calling. Even if you don’t know what that means,
seek it. If you’re following your calling, the fatigue will be easier to bear, the
disappointments will be fuel, the highs will be like nothing you’ve ever felt.
I’d like to warn the best of them, the iconoclasts, the innovators, the
rebels, that they will always have a bull’s-eye on their backs. The better they
get, the bigger the bull’s-eye. It’s not one man’s opinion; it’s a law of nature.
I’d like to remind them that America isn’t the entrepreneurial Shangri-La
people think. Free enterprise always irritates the kinds of trolls who live to
block, to thwart, to say no, sorry, no. And it’s always been this way.
Entrepreneurs have always been outgunned, outnumbered. They’ve always
fought uphill, and the hill has never been steeper. America is becoming less
entrepreneurial, not more. A Harvard Business School study recently ranked
all the countries of the world in terms of their entrepreneurial spirit.
America ranked behind Peru.
And those who urge entrepreneurs to never give up? Charlatans.
Sometimes you have to give up. Sometimes knowing when to give up, when
to try something else, is genius. Giving up doesn’t mean stopping. Don’t
Luck plays a big role. Yes, I’d like to publicly acknowledge the power of
luck. Athletes get lucky, poets get lucky, businesses get lucky. Hard work is
critical, a good team is essential, brains and determination are invaluable, but
luck may decide the outcome. Some people might not call it luck. They
might call it Tao, or Logos, or Jñāna, or Dharma. Or Spirit. Or God.
Put it this way. The harder you work, the better your Tao. And since no
one has ever adequately defined Tao, I now try to go regularly to mass. I
would tell them: Have faith in yourself, but also have faith in faith. Not faith
as others define it. Faith as you define it. Faith as faith defines itself in your
In what format do I want to say all this? A memoir? No, not a memoir. I
can’t imagine how it could all fit into one unified narrative.
Maybe a novel. Or a speech. Or a series of speeches. Maybe just a letter to
I peer into the dark. So maybe there is something on my bucket list after
Another Crazy Idea.
Suddenly my mind is racing. People I need to call, things I need to read.
I’ll have to get in touch with Woodell. I should see if we have any copies of
those letters from Johnson. There were so many! Somewhere in my parents’
house, where my sister Joanne still lives, there must be a box with my slides
from my trip around the world.
So much to do. So much to learn. So much I don’t know about my own
Now I really can’t sleep. I get up, grab a yellow legal pad from my desk. I
go to the living room and sit in my recliner.
A feeling of stillness, of immense peace, comes over me.
I squint at the moon shining outside my window. The same moon that
inspired the ancient Zen masters to worry about nothing. In the timeless,
clarifying light of that moon, I begin to make a list.
—————A C K N OW L E D G M E N T S—————-
I’ve spent a fair portion of my life in debt. As a young entrepreneur I
became distressingly familiar with that feeling of going to sleep each night,
waking up each day, owing many people a sum far greater than I could
Nothing, however, has made me feel quite so indebted as the writing of
Just as there’s no end to my gratitude, there seems no proper, logical
place to begin to express it. And so. At Nike, I wish to thank my assistant,
Lisa McKillips, for doing everything—I mean everything—perfectly,
cheerfully, and always with her dazzling smile; old friends Jeff Johnson and
Bob Woodell for making me remember, and being patient when I
remembered it different; historian Scott Reames for deftly sifting facts from
myths; and Maria Eitel for applying her expertise to weightiest matters.
Of course, my biggest and most emphatic thanks to the 68,000 Nike
employees worldwide for their daily efforts and their dedication, without
which there would be no book, no author, no nothing.
At Stanford, I wish to thank the mad genius and gifted teacher Adam
Johnson for his golden example of what it means to be a working writer and
a friend; Abraham Verghese, who instructs as he writes—quietly, effortlessly;
and numberless graduate students I met with while sitting in the back row of
writing classes—each inspired me with his or her passion for language and
At Scribner, thanks to the legendary Nan Graham for her steadfast
support; Brian Belfiglio, Roz Lippel, Susan Moldow, and Carolyn Reidy for
their bracing, energizing enthusiasm; Kathleen Rizzo for keeping production
moving smoothly forward while always maintaining a sublime calm; above
all, thanks to my supremely talented and razor-sharp editor, Shannon
Welch, who gave me the affirmation I needed, when I needed it, without
either of us fully appreciating how much I needed it. Her early note of praise
and analysis and precocious wisdom was everything.
Randomly, in no order, thanks to the many pals and colleagues who were
so lavish with their time, talent, and advice, including super agent Bob
Barnett, poet-administrator extraordinaire Eavan Boland, Grand Slam
memoirist Andre Agassi, and number artist Del Hayes. A special and
profound thank-you to memoirist-novelist-journalist-sportswriter-musefriend J. R. Moehringer, whose generosity and good humor and enviable
storytelling gifts I relied on through the many, many drafts of this book.
Last, I wish to thank my family, all of them, but particularly my son
Travis, whose support and friendship meant—and mean—the world. And, of
course, a full-throated, full-hearted thanks to my Penelope, who waited. And
waited. She waited while I journeyed, and she waited while I got lost. She
waited night after night while I made my maddeningly slow way home—
usually late, the dinner cold—and she waited the last few years while I
relived it all, aloud, and in my head, and on the page, even though there
were parts she didn’t care to relive. From the start, going on half a century,
she’s waited, and now at last I can hand her these hard-fought pages and say,
about them, about Nike, about everything: “Penny, I couldn’t have done it