No brilliant idea was ever born in a conference room

P A R T T W O

“No brilliant idea was ever born in a conference room,” he assured the
Dane. “But a lot of silly ideas have died there,” said Stahr.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon
1975
There was no victory party. There was no victory dance. There wasn’t
even a quick victory jig in the halls. There wasn’t time. We still didn’t have a
bank, and every company needs a bank.
Hayes made a list of banks with the most deposits in Oregon. They were
all much smaller than First National or Bank of California, but oh well.
Beggars, choosers, etc.
The first six hung up on us. Number seven, First State Bank of Oregon,
didn’t. The bank was in Milwaukie, a little town half an hour up the road
from Beaverton. “Come on over,” said the bank president when I finally got
him on the phone. He promised me one million dollars in credit, which was
about his bank’s limit.
We moved our account that day.
That night, for the first time in about two weeks, I put my head on a
pillow and slept.
THE NEXT MORNING I lingered with Penny over breakfast and we talked
about the upcoming Memorial Day weekend. I told her I didn’t know when
I’d craved a holiday so much. I needed rest, and sleep, and good food—and I
needed to watch Pre run. She gave me a wry smile. Always mixing business
with pleasure.
Guilty.
Pre was hosting a meet that weekend in Eugene, and he’d invited the top
runners in the world, including his Finnish archnemesis, Viren. Though
Viren had pulled out at the last minute, there was still a gang of amazing
runners competing, including one brash marathoner named Frank Shorter,
who’d taken gold at the 1972 Games, in Munich, the city of his birth.
Tough, smart, a lawyer now living in Colorado, Shorter was starting to
become as well known as Pre, and the two were good friends. Secretly I had
designs on signing Shorter to an endorsement deal.
Friday night Penny and I drove down to Eugene and took our place with
seven thousand screaming, roistering Pre fans. The 5,000-meter race was
vicious, furious, and Pre wasn’t at his best, everyone could see that. Shorter
led going into the last lap. But at the last possible moment, in the last two
hundred yards, Pre did what Pre always did. He dug down deep. With
Hayward vibrating and swaying, he pulled away and won in 13:23.8, which
was 1.6 seconds off his best time.
Pre was most famous for saying, “Somebody may beat me—but they’re
going to have to bleed to do it.” Watching him run that final weekend of
May 1975, I’d never felt more admiration for him, or identified with him
more closely. Somebody may beat me, I told myself, some banker or creditor
or competitor may stop me, but by God they’re going to have to bleed to do
it.
There was a postrace party at Hollister’s house. Penny and I wanted to
go, but we had a two-hour drive back to Portland. The kids, the kids, we said
as we waved good-bye to Pre and Shorter and Hollister.
The next morning, just before dawn, the phone rang. In the dark I groped
for it. Hello?
“Buck?”
“Who’s this?”
“Buck, it’s Ed Campbell . . . down at Bank of California.”
“Bank of Cal—?”
Calling in the middle of the night? Surely I was having a bad dream.
“Damn it, we don’t bank with you anymore—you threw us out.”
He wasn’t calling about money. He was calling, he said, because he’d
heard Pre was dead.
“Dead? That’s impossible. We just saw him race. Last night.”
Dead. Campbell kept repeating this word, bludgeoning me with it. Dead
dead—dead. Some kind of accident, he murmured. “Buck, are you there?
Buck?”
I fumbled for the light. I dialed Hollister. He reacted just as I had. No, it
can’t be. “Pre was just here,” he said. “He left in fine spirits. I’ll call you
back.”
When he did, minutes later, he was sobbing.
AS BEST ANYONE could tell, Pre drove Shorter home from the party, and
minutes after dropping Shorter off he’d lost control of his car. That
beautiful butterscotch MG, bought with his first Blue Ribbon paycheck, hit
some kind of boulder along the road. The car spun high into the air, and Pre
flew out. He landed on his back and the MG came crashing down onto his
chest.
He’d had a beer or two at the party, but everyone who saw him leave
swore that he’d been sober.
He was twenty-four years old. He was the exact age I’d been when I left
with Carter for Hawaii. In other words, when my life began. At twenty-four
I didn’t yet know who I was, and Pre not only knew who he was, the world
knew. He died holding every American distance record from 2,000 meters to
10,000 meters, from two miles to six miles. Of course, what he really held,
what he’d captured and kept and now would never let go of, was our
imaginations.
In his eulogy Bowerman talked about Pre’s athletic feats, of course, but
insisted that Pre’s life and his legend were about larger, loftier things. Yes,
Bowerman said, Pre was determined to become the best runner in the world,
but he wanted to be so much more. He wanted to break the chains placed on
all runners by petty bureaucrats and bean counters. He wanted to smash the
silly rules holding back amateur athletes and keeping them poor, preventing
them from realizing their potential. As Bowerman finished, as he stepped
from the podium, I thought he looked much older, almost feeble. Watching
him walk unsteadily back to his chair, I couldn’t conceive how he’d ever
found the strength to deliver those words.
Penny and I didn’t follow the cortege to the cemetery. We couldn’t. We
were too overwrought. We didn’t talk to Bowerman, either, and I don’t
know that I ever talked to him thereafter about Pre’s death. Neither of us
could bear it.
Later I heard that something was happening at the spot where Pre died. It
was becoming a shrine. People were visiting it every day, leaving flowers,
letters, notes, gifts—Nikes. Someone should collect it all, I thought, keep it
in a safe place. I recalled the many holy sites I’d visited in 1962. Someone
needed to curate Pre’s rock, and I decided that someone needed to be us.
We didn’t have money for anything like that. But I talked it over with
Johnson and Woodell and we agreed that, as long as we were in business,
we’d find money for things like that.

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