Everything depended on Chicago. Our every thought, our every
conversation at the start of 1972, began and ended with Chicago, because
Chicago was the site of the National Sporting Goods Association Show.
Chicago was important every year. The sporting goods show was where
sales reps from across the nation got their first look at all the new athletic
products, from all the different companies, and voted up or down, via the
sizes of their orders. But this 1972 show was going to be more than
important. It was going to be our Super Bowl and our Olympics and our Bar
Mitzvah, because it was where we’d decided to introduce the world to Nike.
If sales reps liked our new shoe, we’d live to see another year. If not, we
wouldn’t be back for the 1973 show.
Onitsuka, meanwhile, was eyeing Chicago, too. Days before the start of
the show, without a word to me, Onitsuka gave the Japanese press an
announcement trumpeting their “acquisition” of Blue Ribbon. The
announcement set off shock waves everywhere, but especially at Nissho.
Sumeragi wrote me, asking, in essence, “What the—?”
In my impassioned two-page reply I told him that I had nothing to do
with Onitsuka’s announcement. I assured him that Onitsuka was trying to
bully us into selling, but they were our past, and Nissho, like Nike, was our
future. In closing I confessed to Sumeragi that I hadn’t yet mentioned any of
this to Onitsuka, so mum’s the word. “I ask that you keep the above
information in strict confidence for obvious reasons. In order to maintain
our present distribution system for future Nike sales, it’s important that we
have about one or two more months of shipments from Onitsuka, and if
these shipments were cut off it would be very harmful.”
I felt like a married man caught in a tawdry love triangle. I was assuring
my lover, Nissho, that it was only a matter of time before I divorced my
spouse, Onitsuka. Meanwhile, I was encouraging Onitsuka to think of me as
a loving and devoted husband. “I do not like this way of doing business,” I
wrote Sumeragi, “but I feel it was thrust upon us by a company with the
worst possible intentions.” We’ll be together soon, darling. Just have patience.
Right before we all left for Chicago, a wire came from Kitami. He’d
thought up a name for “our” new company. The Tiger Shoe Company. He
wanted me to unveil it in Chicago. I wired back that the name was beautiful,
lyrical, sheer poetry—but alas it was too late to unveil anything at the show.
All the signs and promotional literature had been printed already.
ON DAY ONE of the show
I walked into the convention center and found
Johnson and Woodell already busy arranging our booth. 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.
Johnson and Woodell loved the orange, and loved the lowercase “nike,”
lettered in white on the side of the box. But as they opened the boxes and
examined the shoes themselves, both men were shaken up.
These shoes, the first wave produced by Nippon Rubber, didn’t have the
quality of Tigers, nor of the samples we’d seen earlier. The leather was
shiny, and not in a good way. The Wet-Flyte looked literally wet, as if
covered with cheap paint or lacquer that hadn’t dried. The upper was coated
with polyurethane, but apparently Nippon was no more proficient than
Bowerman at working with that tricky, mercurial substance. The logo on the
side, Carolyn’s wing-whoosh thingamajig, which we’d taken to calling a
swoosh, was crooked.
I sat down and put my head in my hands. I looked at our orange
pyramids. My mind went to the pyramids of Giza. Only ten years before I’d
been there, riding a camel like Lawrence of Arabia across the sands, free as a
man could be. Now I was in Chicago, saddled with debt, head of a teetering
shoe company, rolling out a new brand with shoddy workmanship and
crooked swooshes. All is vanity.
I gazed around the convention center, at the thousands of sales reps
swarming the booths, the other booths. I heard them oohing and aahing at all
the other shoes being introduced for the first time. I was that boy at the
science fair who didn’t work hard enough on his project, who didn’t start
until the night before. The other kids had built erupting volcanoes, and
lightning machines, and all I had was a mobile of the solar system made with
mothballs stuck to my mother’s coat hangers.
Darn it, this was no time to be introducing flawed shoes. Worse, we had
to push these flawed shoes on people who weren’t our kind of people. They
were salesmen. They talked like salesmen, walked like salesmen, and they
dressed like salesmen—tight polyester shirts, Sansabelt slacks. They were
extroverts, we were introverts. They didn’t get us, we didn’t get them, and
yet our future depended on them. And now we’d have to persuade them
somehow that this Nike thing was worth their time and trust—and money.
I was on the verge of losing it, right on the verge. Then I saw that
Johnson and Woodell were already losing it, and I realized that I couldn’t
afford to. Like Penny, they beat me to the panic attack punch. “Look,” I
said, “fellas, this is the worst the shoes will ever be. They’ll get better. So if
we can just sell these . . . we’ll be on our way.”
Each gave a resigned shake of the head. What choice do we have?
We looked out, and here they came, a mob of salesmen, walking like
zombies toward our booth. They picked up the Nikes, held them to the
light. They touched the swoosh. One said to another, “The hell is this?”
“Hell if I know,” said the other.
They started to barrage us with questions. Hey—what IS this?
That’s a Nike.
The hell’s a Nike?
It’s the Greek goddess of victory.
Greek what now?
Goddess of vic—
And what’s THIS?
That’s a swoosh.
The hell’s a swoosh?
The answer flew out of me: It’s the sound of someone going past you.
They liked that. Oh, they liked it a whole lot.
They gave us business. They actually placed orders with us. By the end of
the day we’d exceeded our grandest expectations. We were one of the smash
hits of the show. At least, that’s how I saw it.
Johnson, as usual, wasn’t happy. Ever the perfectionist. “The
irregularities of this whole situation,” he said, left him dumbfounded. That
was his phrase, the irregularities of this whole situation. I begged him to take his
dumbfoundedness and irregularity elsewhere, leave well enough alone. But
he just couldn’t. He walked over and button-holed one of his biggest
accounts and demanded to know what was going on. “Whaddya mean?” the
man said. “I mean,” Johnson said, “we show up with this new Nike, and it’s
totally untested, and frankly it’s not even all that good—and you guys are
buying it. What gives?”
The man laughed. “We’ve been doing business with you Blue Ribbon
guys for years,” he said, “and we know that you guys tell the truth. Everyone
else bullshits, you guys always shoot straight. So if you say this new shoe, this
Nike, is worth a shot, we believe.”
Johnson came back to the booth, scratching his head. “Telling the truth,”
he said. “Who knew?”
Woodell laughed. Johnson laughed. I laughed and tried not to think
about my many half truths and untruths with Onitsuka.
GOOD NEWS TRAVELS fast. Bad news travels faster than Grelle and
Prefontaine. On a rocket. Two weeks after Chicago, Kitami walked into my
office. No advance notice. No heads-up. And he cut right to the car chase.
“What is this, this . . . thing,” he demanded, “this . . . NEE-kay?”
I made my face blank. “Nike? Oh. It’s nothing. It’s a sideline we’ve
developed, to hedge our bets, in case Onitsuka does as threatened and yanks
the rug out from under us.”
The answer disarmed him. As it should have. I’d rehearsed it for weeks. It
was so reasonable and logical that Kitami didn’t know how to respond. He’d
come spoiling for a fight, and I’d countered his bull rush with a rope-a-dope.
He demanded to know who made the new shoes. I told him they were
made by different factories in Japan. He demanded to know how many
Nikes we’d ordered. A few thousand, I said.
He gave an “Ooh.” I wasn’t sure what that meant.
I didn’t mention that two members of my scrappy hometown Portland
Trail Blazers had just worn Nikes during a rout of the New York Knicks,
133–86. The Oregonian had recently run a photo of Geoff Petrie driving past
a Knick (Phil Jackson, by name), and visible on Petrie’s shoes was a swoosh.
(We’d just made a deal with a couple of other Blazers to supply them with
shoes, too.) Good thing the Oregonian didn’t have a wide circulation in
Kitami asked if the new Nike was in stores. Of course not, I lied. Or
fibbed. He asked when I was going to sign his papers and sell him my
company. I told him my partner still hadn’t decided.
End of meeting. He buttoned and unbuttoned the coat of his suit and said
he had other business in California. But he’d be back. He marched out of my
office and I immediately reached for the phone. I dialed our retail store in
Los Angeles. Bork answered. “John, our old friend Kitami is coming to
town! I’m sure he’ll come by your store! Hide the Nikes!”
“He knows about Nike, but I told him it isn’t in stores!”
“What you’re asking of me,” Bork said, “I don’t know.”
He sounded frightened. And irritated. He didn’t want to do anything
dishonest, he said. “I’m asking you to stash a few pairs of shoes,” I cried,
then slammed down the phone.
Sure enough, Kitami showed up that afternoon. He confronted Bork,
badgered him with questions, shook him down like a cop with a shaky
witness. Bork played dumb—or so he told me later.
Kitami asked to use the bathroom. A ploy, of course. He knew the
bathroom was somewhere in the back, and he needed an excuse to snoop
back there. Bork didn’t see the ploy, or didn’t care to. Moments later Kitami
was standing in the stockroom, under a bare lightbulb, glowering at
hundreds of orange shoe boxes. Nike, Nike, everywhere, and not a drop to
Bork phoned me after Kitami left. “Jig’s up,” he said. “What happened?” I
asked. “Kitami forced his way into the stockroom—it’s over, Phil.”
I hung up, slumped in my chair. “Well,” I said, out loud, to no one, “I
guess we’re going to find out if we can exist without Tiger.”
We found out something else, too.
Soon after that day, Bork quit. Actually, I don’t remember if he quit or
Woodell fired him. Either way, not long after that, we heard Bork had a new
Working for Kitami.
I SPENT DAYS and days staring into space, gazing out windows, waiting for
Kitami to play his next card. I also watched a lot of TV. The nation, the
world, was agog at the sudden opening of relations between the United
States and China. President Nixon was in Beijing, shaking hands with Mao
Zedong, an event nearly on a par with the moon landing. I never thought I’d
see it in my lifetime, a U.S. president in the Forbidden City, touching the
Great Wall. I thought of my time in Hong Kong. I’d been so close to China,
and yet so far. I thought I’d never have another chance. But now I thought,
One day? Maybe?
At last Kitami made his move. He returned to Oregon and asked for a
meeting, at which he requested that Bowerman be present. To make that
easier for Bowerman, I suggested Jaqua’s office down in Eugene as the site.
When the day came, as we were all filing into the conference room, Jaqua
grabbed my arm and whispered, “Whatever he says, you say nothing.” I
On one side of the conference table were Jaqua, Bowerman, and I. On the
other side were Kitami and his lawyer, a local guy, who didn’t look like he
wanted to be there. Plus, Iwano was back. I thought he might have halfsmiled at me, before remembering that this wasn’t a social call.
Jaqua’s conference room was bigger than ours in Tigard, but that day it
felt like a dollhouse. Kitami had asked for the meeting, so he kicked it off.
And he didn’t beat around the bonsai tree. He handed Jaqua a letter.
Effective immediately, our contract with Onitsuka was null and void. He
looked at me, then back to Jaqua. “Very very regret,” he said.
Furthermore, insult to injury, he was billing us $17,000, which he claimed
we owed for shoes delivered. To be exact, he demanded $16,637.13.
Jaqua pushed the letter aside and said that if Kitami dared to pursue this
reckless course, if he insisted on cutting us off, we’d sue.
“You cause this,” Kitami said. Blue Ribbon had breached its contract with
Onitsuka by making Nike shoes, he said, and he was at a loss to understand
why we’d ruined such a profitable relationship, why we’d launched this, this,
this—Nike. That was more than I could bear. “I’ll tell you why—” I blurted.
Jaqua turned on me and shouted: “Shut up, Buck!”
Jaqua then told Kitami that he hoped something could still be worked
out. A lawsuit would be highly damaging to both companies. Peace was
prosperity. But Kitami was in no mood for peace. He stood, motioned to his
lawyer and Iwano to follow. When he got to the door, he stopped. His face
changed. He was about to say something conciliatory. He was preparing to
offer an olive branch. I felt myself softening toward him. “Onitsuka,” he said,
“like to continue use Mr. Bowerman . . . as consultant.”
I pulled on my ear. Surely I hadn’t heard him correctly. Bowerman shook
his head and turned to Jaqua, who said that Bowerman would henceforth
consider Kitami a competitor, aka a sworn enemy, and would help him in no
Kitami nodded. He asked if someone could please drive him and Iwano to
I TOLD JOHNSON to get on a plane. “What plane?” he said. “The next
plane,” I said.
He arrived the following morning. We went for a run, during which
neither of us said anything. Then we drove to the office and gathered
everyone into the conference room. There were about thirty people there. I
expected to be nervous. They expected me to be nervous. On any different
day, under any other circumstances, I would have been. For some reason,
however, I felt weirdly at peace.
I laid out the situation we faced. “We’ve come, folks, to a crossroads.
Yesterday, our main supplier, Onitsuka, cut us off.”
I let that sink in. I watched everyone’s jaw drop.
“We’ve threatened to sue them for damages,” I said, “and of course
they’ve threatened to file a lawsuit of their own. Breach of contract. If they
sue us first, in Japan, we’ll have no choice but to sue them here in America,
and sue fast. We’re not going to win a lawsuit in Japan, so we’ll have to beat
them to the courthouse, get a quick verdict here, to pressure them into
“Meanwhile, until it all sorts out, we’re completely on our own. We’re set
adrift. We have this new line, Nike, which the reps in Chicago seemed to
like. But, well, frankly, that’s all we’ve got. And as we know, there are big
problems with the quality. It’s not what we hoped. Communications with
Nippon Rubber are good, and Nissho is there at the factory at least once a
week, trying to get it all fixed, but we don’t know how soon they can do it. It
better be soon, though, because we have no time and suddenly no margin for
I looked down the table. Everyone was sinking, slumping forward. I
looked at Johnson. He was staring at the papers before him, and there was
something in his handsome face, some quality I’d never seen there before.
Surrender. Like everyone else in the room, he was giving up. The nation’s
economy was in the tank, a recession was under way. Gas lines, political
gridlock, rising unemployment, Nixon being Nixon—Vietnam. It seemed
like the end times. Everyone in the room had already been worrying about
how they were going to make the rent, pay the light bill. Now this.
I cleared my throat. “So . . . in other words,” I said. I cleared my throat
again, pushed aside my yellow legal pad. “What I’m trying to say is, we’ve
got them right where we want them.”
Johnson lifted his eyes. Everyone around the table lifted their eyes. They