I sat in the federal courthouse in downtown Portland, at a little wooden
table, alongside Strasser and Cousin Houser, staring at the high ceiling. I
tried to take deep breaths. I tried not to look to my left, at the opposing
table, at the five raptor-eyed lawyers representing Onitsuka and four other
distributors, all of whom wanted to see me ruined.
It was April 14, 1974.
We’d tried one last time to avoid this nightmare. In the moments before
the trial began we’d offered to settle. We’d told Onitsuka: Pay us eight
hundred thousand dollars in damages, withdraw your suit in Japan, we’ll
withdraw ours, and we’ll all walk away. I didn’t think there was much chance
of acceptance, but Cousin Houser thought it worth a try.
Onitsuka rejected the offer instantly. And made no counter. They were
out for blood.
Now the bailiff shouted, “Court is in session!” The judge swooped into
the courtroom and banged his gavel and my heart jumped. This is it, I told
The head lawyer for Onitsuka’s side, Wayne Hilliard, gave his opening
statement first. He was a man who enjoyed his work, who knew he was good
at it. “These men . . . have unclean hands!” he cried, pointing at our table.
“Unclean . . . hands,” he repeated. This was a standard legal term, but
Hilliard made it sound lurid, almost pornographic. (Everything Hilliard said
sounded somewhat sinister to me, because he was short and had a pointy
nose and looked like the Penguin.) Blue Ribbon “conned” Onitsuka into this
partnership, he bellowed. Phil Knight went to Japan in 1962 and pretended
there was a company called Blue Ribbon, and thereafter he employed
subterfuge, theft, spies, whatever necessary, to perpetuate this con.
By the time Hilliard was done, by the time he’d taken his seat next to his
four fellow lawyers, I was ready to find in favor of Onitsuka. I looked into
my lap and asked myself, How could you have done all those terrible things
to those poor Japanese businessmen?
Cousin Houser stood. Right away it was clear that he didn’t have
Hilliard’s fire. It just wasn’t in his nature. Cousin Houser was organized,
prepared, but he wasn’t fiery. At first I was disappointed. Then I looked
more closely at Cousin Houser, and listened to what he was saying, and
thought about his life. As a boy he’d suffered a severe speech impediment.
Every “r” and “l” had been a hurdle. Even into his teens he’d sounded like a
cartoon character. Now, though he retained slight traces of the impediment,
he’d largely overcome it, and as he addressed the packed courtroom that day,
I was filled with admiration, and filial loyalty. What a journey he’d made.
We’d made. I was proud of him, proud he was on our side.
Moreover, he’d taken our case on contingency because he’d thought it
would come to trial in months. Two years later he hadn’t seen a dime. And
his costs were astronomical. My photocopying bill alone was in the tens of
thousands. Now and then Cousin Houser mentioned that he was under
intense pressure from his partners to kick us to the curb. At one point he’d
even asked Jaqua to take over the case. (No thanks, Jaqua said.) Fire or no,
Cousin Houser was a true hero. He finished speaking, seated himself at our
table, and looked at me and Strasser. I patted his back. Game on.
AS THE PLAINTIFFS, we presented our case first, and the first witness we
called was the founder and president of Blue Ribbon, Philip H. Knight.
Walking to the stand I felt as if it must be some other Philip Knight being
called, some other Philip Knight now raising his hand, swearing to tell the
truth, in a case marked by so much deceit and rancor. I was floating above
my body, watching the scene unfold far below.
I told myself as I settled deep into the creaky wooden chair in the witness
stand and straightened my necktie, This is the most important account you’ll
ever give of yourself. Don’t blow it.
And then I blew it. I was every bit as bad as I’d been in the depositions. I
was even a little worse.
Cousin Houser tried to help me, to lead me. He struck an encouraging
tone, gave me a friendly smile with each question, but my mind was going in
multiple directions. I couldn’t concentrate. 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.
By the end of his questioning, I had made a slight recovery. The
adrenaline was gone and I was starting to make sense. But now it was the
other side’s turn to have a go at me.
Hilliard drilled down, down. He was relentless and I was soon reeling. I
hemmed, hawed, couched every other word in strange qualifiers. I sounded
shady, shifty, even to myself. When I talked about going through Kitami’s
briefcase, when I tried to explain that Mr. Fujimoto wasn’t really a corporate
spy, I saw the courtroom spectators, and the judge, look skeptical. Even I
was skeptical. Several times I looked into the distance and squinted and
thought, Did I really do that?
I scanned the courtroom, looking for help, and saw nothing but hostile
faces. The most hostile was Bork’s. He was sitting right behind the Onitsuka
table, glaring. Now and then he’d lean into the Onitsuka lawyers,
whispering, handing them notes. Traitor, I thought. Benedict Arnold.
Prompted by Bork, presumably, Hilliard came at me from new angles, with
new questions, and I lost track of the plot. I often had no idea what I was
The judge, at one point, scolded me for not making sense, for being
overly complicated. “Just answer the questions concisely,” he said. “How
concisely?” I said. “Twenty words or less,” he said.
Hilliard asked his next question.
I ran a hand over my face. “There’s no way I can answer that question in
twenty words or less,” I said.
The judge required lawyers on both sides to stay behind their tables while
questioning witnesses, and to this day I think that ten yards of buffer might
have saved me. I think if Hilliard had been able to get closer, he might have
cracked me, might have reduced me to tears.
Toward the end of his two-day cross I was numb. I’d hit bottom. The
only place to go was up. I could see Hilliard decide that he’d better let me go
before I started to rise and make a comeback. As I slid off the stand I gave
myself a grade of D minus. Cousin Houser and Strasser didn’t disagree.
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!”
Heaven have mercy on anyone who, thinking James the Just was being a
bit dramatic, dared to laugh.
Portland was still a small town—minuscule, really—and we’d heard
through the grapevine that someone had recently bumped into James the
Just at his men’s club. The judge was having a martini, moaning about our
case. “Dreadful case,” he was saying to the bartender and anyone who’d
listen, “perfectly dreadful.” So we knew he didn’t want to be there any more
than we did, and he often took out his unhappiness on us, berating us over
small points of order and decorum.
Still, despite my horrid performance on the stand, Cousin Houser and
Strasser and I had a sense that James the Just was inclining toward our side.
Something about his demeanor: He was slightly less ogreish to us. On a
hunch, therefore, Cousin Houser told the opposing counsel that, if they
were still considering our original settlement, forget it, the offer was no
longer on the table.
That same day, James the Just called a halt to the trial and admonished
both sides. He was perturbed, he said, by all he was reading about this case
in the local newspapers. He was damned if he was going to preside over a
media circus. He ordered us to cease and desist discussing the case outside
Johnson sat behind our table, often sending notes to Cousin Houser, and
always reading a novel during sidebars and breaks. After court adjourned
each day, he’d unwind by taking a stroll around downtown, visiting different
sporting goods stores, checking on our sales. (He also did this every time he
found himself in a new city.)
Early on he reported back that Nikes were selling like crazy, thanks to
Bowerman’s waffle trainer. The shoe had just hit the market, and it was sold
out everywhere, meaning we were outpacing Onitsuka, even Puma. The
shoe was such a hit that we could envision, for the first time, one day
approaching Adidas’s sales numbers.
Johnson got to talking with one store manager, an old friend, who knew
the trial was under way. “How’s it going?” the store manager said. “Going
well,” Johnson said. “So well, in fact, we withdrew our settlement offer.”
First thing the next morning, as we gathered in the courtroom, each of us
sipping our coffee, we noticed an unfamiliar face at the defense table. There
were the five lawyers . . . and one new guy? Johnson turned, saw, and went
white. “Oh . . . shit,” he said. In a frantic whisper he told us that the new guy
was the store manager . . . with whom he’d inadvertently discussed the trial.
Now Cousin Houser and Strasser went white.
The three of us looked at each other, and looked at Johnson, and in
unison we turned and looked at James the Just. He was banging his gavel and
clearly about to explode.
He stopped banging. Silence filled the courtroom. Now he started
yelling. He spent a full twenty minutes tearing into us. One day after his gag
order, he said, one day, someone on Team Blue Ribbon had walked into a
local store and run his mouth. We stared straight ahead, like naughty
children, wondering if we were about to be a mistrial. But as the judge
wound down his tirade, I thought I detected the tiniest twinkle in his eye.
Maybe, I thought, just maybe, James the Just is more performer than ogre.
Johnson redeemed himself with his testimony. Articulate, dazzlingly anal
about the tiniest details, he described the Boston and the Cortez better than
anyone else in the world could, including me. Hilliard tried and tried to
break him, and couldn’t. What a pleasure it was to watch Hilliard bang his
head against that cement-like Johnson unflappability. Stretch versus the crab
was less of a mismatch.
Next we called Bowerman to the stand. I had high hopes for my old
coach, but he just wasn’t himself that day. It was the first time I ever saw him
flustered, even a bit intimidated, and the reasons quickly became obvious.
He hadn’t prepared. Out of contempt for Onitsuka, and disdain for the
whole sordid business, he’d decided to wing it. I was saddened. Cousin
Houser was annoyed. Bowerman’s testimony could have put us over the top.
Ah well. We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that at least he hadn’t
done anything to hurt us.
Next Cousin Houser read into the record the deposition of Iwano, the
young assistant who’d accompanied Kitami on his two trips to the United
States. Happily, Iwano proved to be as guileless, as pure of heart, as he’d first
seemed to me and Penny. He’d told the truth, the whole truth, and it flatly
contradicted Kitami. Iwano testified that there was a firm, fixed plan in place
to break our contract, to abandon us, to replace us, and that Kitami had
discussed it openly many times.
We then called a noted orthopedist, an expert on the impact of running
shoes on feet, joints, and the spine, who explained the differences among the
many brands and models on the market, and described how the Cortez and
Boston differed from anything Onitsuka ever made. Essentially, he said, the
Cortez was the first shoe ever that took pressure off the Achilles.
Revolutionary, he said. Game-changing. While testifying, he spread out
dozens of shoes, and pulled them apart, and tossed them around, which
agitated James the Just. Apparently the judge was OCD. He liked his
courtroom neat, always. Repeatedly he asked our orthopedist to stop making
a mess, to keep the shoes in orderly pairs, and repeatedly our orthopedist
ignored him. I started to hyperventilate, thinking James the Just was going
to find our expert witness in contempt.
Lastly we called Woodell. I watched him wheel his chair slowly to the
stand. It was the first time I’d ever seen him in a coat and tie. He’d recently
met a woman, and gotten married, and now, when he told me that he was
happy, I believed him. I took a moment to enjoy how far he’d come since
we’d first met at that Beaverton sandwich shop. Then I immediately felt
awful, because I was the cause of his being dragged through this muck. He
looked more nervous up there than I’d been, more intimidated than
Bowerman. James the Just asked him to spell his name and Woodell paused
as if he couldn’t remember. “Um . . . W, double o, double d, . . .” Suddenly,
he started to giggle. His name didn’t have a double d. But some ladies had
double Ds. Oh boy. Now he was really laughing. Nerves, of course. But
James the Just thought Woodell was mocking the proceedings. He reminded
Woodell that he was in the courtroom of James the Just. Which only made
Woodell giggle more.
I put a hand over my eyes.
WHEN ONITSUKA PRESENTED
their case, they called as their first
witness Mr. Onitsuka. He didn’t testify long. He said that he’d known
nothing about my conflict with Kitami, nor about Kitami’s plans to stab us
in the back. Kitami interviewing other distributors? “I never informed,” Mr.
Onitsuka said. Kitami planning to cut us out? “I not know.”
Next up was Kitami. As he walked to the stand the Onitsuka lawyers rose
and told the judge they would need a translator. I cupped my ear. A what?
Kitami spoke perfect English. I recalled him boasting about learning his
English from a record. I turned to Cousin Houser, my eyes bulging, but he
only extended his hands, palms facing the floor. Easy.
In two days on the stand Kitami lied, again and again, through his
translator, through his teeth. He insisted that he’d never planned to break
our contract. He’d only decided to do so when he discovered we’d done so
by making Nikes. Yes, he said, he’d been in touch with other distributors
before we manufactured the first Nike, but he was just doing market
research. Yes, he said, there was some discussion of Onitsuka’s buying Blue
Ribbon, but the idea was initiated by Phil Knight.
After Hilliard and Cousin Houser had given their closing arguments, I
turned and thanked many of the spectators for coming. Then Cousin
Houser and Strasser and I went to a bar around the corner and loosened our
neckties and drank several ice-cold beers. And several more. We discussed
different ways it might have gone, different things we might have done. Oh,
the things we might have done, we said.
And then we all went back to work.
IT WAS WEEKS later. Early morning. Cousin Houser phoned me at the
office. “James the Just is going to rule at eleven o’clock,” he said.
I raced to the courthouse and met him and Strasser at our old table.
Oddly, the courtroom was empty. No spectators. No opposing counsel,
except Hilliard. His fellow lawyers had been unable to get here on such short
James the Just came barging through the side door and ascended the
bench. He shuffled some papers and began speaking in a low monotone, as if
to himself. He said favorable things about both sides. I shook my head. How
could he have favorable things to say about Onitsuka? Bad sign. Bad, bad,
bad. If only Bowerman had been more prepared. If only I hadn’t melted
under pressure. If only the orthopedist had kept his shoes in order!
The judge looked down at us, his protruding eyebrows longer and
shaggier than when the trial began. He would not rule on the matter of the
contract between Onitsuka and Blue Ribbon, he said.
I slumped forward.