His name was M. Frank Rudy, he was a former aerospace engineer, and he
was a true original. One look at him told you he was a nutty professor,
though it wasn’t until years later that I learned the full extent of his
nuttiness. (He kept a meticulous diary of his sex life and bowel movements.)
He had a business partner, Bob Bogert, another brainiac, and 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. I wasn’t even sure how these guys reached us, or how
they’d arranged this meeting.
“Okay, fellas,” I said, “what’ve you got?”
It was a beautiful day, I remember. The light outside the room was a
buttery pale yellow, and the sky was blue for the first time in months, so I
was distracted, a little spring feverish, as 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.”
I frowned and dropped my pencil. “Why?” I said.
“For greater cushioning,” he said. “For greater support. For the ride of a
I stared. “You’re kidding me, right?”
I’d heard a lot of silliness from a lot of different people in the shoe
business, but this. Oh. Brother.
Rudy handed me a pair of soles that looked as if they’d been teleported
from the twenty-second century. Big, clunky, they were clear thick plastic
and inside were—bubbles? I turned them over. “Bubbles?” I said.
“Pressurized air bags,” he said.
I set down the soles and gave Rudy a closer look, a full head-to-toe. Sixthree, lanky, with unruly dark hair, bottle-bottom glasses, a lopsided grin,
and a severe vitamin D deficiency, I thought. Not enough sunshine. Or else
a long-lost member of the Addams Family.
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. As a trained accountant I’d
spent a good part of my life looking at blackboards, but this Rudy fella’s
scribbles were something else. Indecipherable.
Humans have been wearing shoes since the Ice Age, I said, and the
underlying design hasn’t changed all that much in forty thousand years.
There hadn’t really been a breakthrough since the late 1800s, when cobblers
started lasting left and right shoes differently, and rubber companies started
making soles. It didn’t seem all too likely that, at this late date in history,
something so new, so revolutionary, was going to be dreamed up. “Air
shoes” sounded to me like jet packs and moving sidewalks. Comic book stuff.
Rudy still wasn’t discouraged. He kept at it, unflappable, earnest. Finally
he shrugged and said that he understood. He’d tried to pitch Adidas and
they’d been skeptical, too. Abracadabra. That was all I needed to hear.
I asked if I could fit his air soles into my running shoes and give them a
try. “They don’t have a moderator,” he said. “They’d be loose and wobbly.”
“I don’t care about that,” I said.
I squeezed the soles into my shoes, slipped the shoes back on, laced them
up. Not bad, I said, bouncing up and down.
I went for a six-mile run. They were indeed unstable. But they were also
one heck of a ride.
I ran back to the office. Still covered with sweat, I ran straight up to
Strasser and told him: “I think we might have something here.”
THAT NIGHT STRASSER and I went to dinner with Rudy and Bogert.
Rudy explained more of the science behind the air soles, and this second
time around it started to make sense. I told him there was a possibility we
could do business. Then I turned it over to Strasser to close.
I’d hired Strasser for his legal mind, but by 1977 I’d discovered his true
talent. Negotiating. The first few times I asked him to work out a contract
with sports agents, the toughest negotiators in the world, he more than held
his own. I was amazed. So were the agents. 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. I recall one tug-of-war Strasser had over Elvin Hayes, the
Washington Bullets all-star, whom we badly wanted to sign again. Elvin’s
agent told Strasser, “You should give Elvin your whole damn company!”
Strasser yawned. “You want it? Help yourself. We’ve got ten grand in the
“Final offer, take it or leave it.”
The agent took it.
Now, seeing great potential in these “air soles,” Strasser offered Rudy ten
cents for every pair of soles that we sold, and Rudy demanded twenty, and
after weeks of haggling they settled somewhere in the middle. We then
shipped Rudy and his partner back to Exeter, which was becoming our de
facto Research and Development Department.
Of course, when Johnson met Rudy, he did exactly what I’d done. He
slipped some air soles into his running shoes and trotted six brisk miles, after
which he phoned me. “This could be huge,” he said.
“That’s what I thought,” I said.
But Johnson worried that the bubble would cause friction. His foot felt
hot, he said. He had the start of a blister. He suggested putting air in the
midsole as well, to level out the ride. “Don’t tell me,” I said, “tell your new
roommate, Mr. Rudy.”
FRESH OFF HIS successful closing with Rudy, we gave Strasser another
critical assignment. Sign college basketball coaches. Nike had a solid stable
of NBA players, and sales of basketball shoes were rising briskly, but we had
virtually no college teams. Not even the University of Oregon. Unthinkable.
The coach, Dick Harter, told us in 1975 that he’d left the decision up to
his players, and the team vote was 6–6. So the team stayed with Converse.
The next year the team voted for Nike, 9–3, but Harter said it was still
too close, so he was staying with Converse.
I told Hollister to lobby the players steadily over the next twelve months.
Which he did. And the 1977 vote was 12–0 for Nike.
The next day I met Harter in Jaqua’s office, and he told us he still wasn’t
ready to sign.
“Where’s my twenty-five hundred dollars?” he said.
“Ah,” I said. “Now I get it.”
I mailed Harter a check. At last my Ducks would wear Nikes on the
At almost this same odd moment in time, a second strange shoe inventor
showed up on our doorstep. His name was Sonny Vaccaro, and he was just as
unique as Frank Rudy. Short, round, with constantly darting eyes, he spoke
in a soupy voice with an Americanized Italian accent, or an Italianized
American accent, I couldn’t place it. He was a shoe dog, for sure, but a shoe
dog straight out of The Godfather. When he first arrived at Nike he carried
with him several shoes of his own invention, which set off gales of laughter
around the conference room. The guy was no Rudy. And yet in the course of
conversation he claimed to be chummy with every college basketball coach
in the country. Somehow, years before, he’d founded a popular high school
all-star game, the Dapper Dan Classic, and it was a big hit, and through it
he’d gotten to know all the coaching royalty.
“Okay,” I told him, “you’re hired. You and Strasser hit the road, go out
and see if you can crack that college basketball market.”
All the great basketball schools—UCLA, Indiana, North Carolina, and so
on—had long-standing deals with Adidas or Converse. So who was left? And
what could we offer? We hurriedly dreamed up an “Advisory Board,”
another version of our Pro Club, our NBA reward system—but it was small
beer. I fully expected Strasser and Vaccaro to fail. And I expected to see
neither of them for a year, at least.
One month later Strasser was standing in my office, beaming. And
shouting. And ticking off names. Eddie Sutton, Arkansas! Abe Lemmons,
Texas! Jerry Tarkanian, UNLV! Frank McGuire, South Carolina! (I leaped
out of my chair. McGuire was a legend: He’d defeated Wilt Chamberlain’s
Kansas team to win the national championship for North Carolina.) We hit
pay dirt, Strasser said.
Plus, almost as a throw-in, he mentioned two under-the-radar youngsters:
Jim Valvano at Iona and John Thompson at Georgetown.
(A year or two later he did the same thing with college football coaches,
landing all the greats, including Vince Dooley and his national champion
Georgia Bulldogs. Herschel Walker in Nikes—yes.)
We rushed out a press release, announcing that Nike had these schools
under contract. Alas, the press release had a bad typo. Iona was spelled
“Iowa.” Lute Olson, coach at Iowa, phoned immediately. He was irate. We
apologized and said we’d send a correction the next day.
He got quiet. “Well now wait wait,” he said, “what’s this Advisory Board
anyway . . . ?”
The Harter Rule, in full effect.
OTHER ENDORSEMENTS WERE a greater struggle. Our tennis effort had
started so promisingly, with Nastase, but then we’d hit that speed-bump
with Connors, and now Nastase was dumping us. Adidas had offered him
one hundred thousand dollars a year, including shoes, clothes, and rackets.
We had the right to match, but it was out of the question. “Fiscally
irresponsible,” I said to Nasty’s agent, and everyone else who would listen.
“No one will ever see a sports endorsement deal that big ever again!”
So there we were in 1977 without a horse in tennis. We quickly hired a
local pro to be a consultant, and that summer he and I went to Wimbledon.
On our first day in London we met with a group of American tennis officials.
“We’ve got some great young players,” they said. “Elliot Telscher may be
the best. Gottfried is also outstanding. Whatever you do, just stay away from
the kid playing out on Court 14.”
“He’s a hothead.”
I went straight to Court 14. And fell madly, hopelessly in love with a
frizzy-haired high schooler from New York City named John McEnroe.
AT THE SAME time we were signing deals with athletes and coaches and
nutty professors, we were coming out with the LD 1000, a running shoe that
featured a dramatically flared heel. The heel flared so much, in fact, that
from certain angles it looked like a water ski. The theory was that a flared
heel would lessen torque on the leg and reduce pressure on the knee, thus
lowering the risk of tendinitis and other running-related maladies.
Bowerman designed it, with heavy input from Vixie the podiatrist.
Customers loved it.
At first. Then came the issues. If a runner didn’t land just right, the flared
heel could cause pronation, knee problems, or worse. We issued a recall and
braced ourselves for a public backlash—but it never came. On the contrary,
we heard nothing but gratitude. No other shoe company was trying new
things, so our efforts, successful or not, were seen as noble. All innovation
was hailed as progressive, forward-thinking. Just as failure didn’t deter us, it
didn’t seem to diminish the loyalty of our customers.
Bowerman, however, got very down on himself. I tried to console him by
reminding him that there was no Nike without him, so he should continue
to invent, create, fearlessly. The LD 1000 was like a literary genius’s novel
that didn’t quite come together. It happened to the best of them. No reason
to stop writing.
My pep talks didn’t work. And then I made the mistake of mentioning the
air sole we had in development. I told Bowerman about Rudy’s oxygenated
innovation, and Bowerman scoffed. “Pff—air shoes. That’ll never work,
He sounded a bit—jealous?
I considered it a good sign. His competitive juices were already flowing
MANY AFTERNOONS I ’D sit around the office with Strasser, trying to
figure out why some lines were selling and some not, which led to broader
discussions of what people thought of us, and why. We didn’t have focus
groups, or market research—we couldn’t afford them—so we tried to intuit,
divine, read tea leaves. Clearly people liked the look of our shoes, we agreed.
Clearly they liked our story: Oregon firm founded by running geeks. Clearly
they liked what wearing a pair of Nikes said about them. We were more than
a brand; we were a statement.
Some of the credit went to Hollywood. We had a guy out there giving
Nikes to stars, all kinds of stars, big, little, rising, fading. Every time I turned
on the TV our shoes were on a character in some hit show—Starsky &
Hutch, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Incredible Hulk. Somehow, our
Hollywood liaison got a pair of Senorita Cortezes into the hands of Farrah
Fawcett, who wore them in a 1977 episode of Charlie’s Angels. That was all it
took. One quick shot of Farrah in Nikes and every store in the nation was
sold out of Senorita Cortezes by noon the next day. Soon the cheerleaders at
UCLA and USC were jumping and leaping in what was commonly called
the Farrah Shoe.
All of which meant more demand . . . and more problems meeting
demand. Our manufacturing base was broader. Besides Japan, we now had
several factories in Taiwan and two smaller factories in Korea, plus Puerto
Rico and Exeter, but still we couldn’t keep up. Also, the more factories we
brought online, the more strain it put on our cash.
Occasionally our problems had nothing to do with cash. In Korea, for
instance, the five biggest factories were so massive, and the competition
among them so cutthroat, we knew we were going to get knocked off soon.
Sure enough, one day I received in the mail a perfect replica of our Nike
Bruin, including the trademark swoosh. Imitation is flattery, but knockoff is
theft, and this theft was diabolical. The detail and workmanship, without any
input from our people, was startlingly good. I wrote the president of the
factory and demanded he cease and desist or I’d have him thrown in jail for a
And by the way, I added, how would you like to work with us?
I signed a contract with his factory in the summer of 1977, which ended
our knockoff problem for the moment. More important, it gave us the
capacity to shift production in a huge way, if need be.
It also ended once and for all our dependence on Japan.