sat up straighter.
“This is—the moment,” I said. “This is the moment we’ve been waiting
for. Our moment. No more selling someone else’s brand. No more working
for someone else. Onitsuka has been holding us down for years. Their late
deliveries, their mixed-up orders, their refusal to hear and implement our
design ideas—who among us isn’t sick of dealing with all that? It’s time we
faced facts: If we’re going to succeed, or fail, we should do so on our own
terms, with our own ideas—our own brand. We posted two million in sales
last year . . . none of which had anything to do with Onitsuka. That number
was a testament to our ingenuity and hard work. Let’s not look at this as a
crisis. Let’s look at this as our liberation. Our Independence Day.
“Yes, it’s going to be rough. I won’t lie to you. We’re definitely going to
war, people. But we know the terrain. We know our way around Japan now.
And that’s one reason I feel in my heart this is a war we can win. And if we
win it, when we win it, I see great things for us on the other side of victory.
We are still alive, people. We are still. Alive.”
As I stopped speaking I could see a wave of relief swirl around the table
like a cool breeze. Everyone felt it. It was as real as the wind that used to
swirl around the office next to the Pink Bucket. There were nods, murmurs,
nervous chuckles. We spent the next hour brainstorming about how to
proceed, how to hire contract factories, how to play them against one
another for the best quality and price. And how were we going to fix these
new Nikes? Anyone?
We adjourned with a jovial, jittery, elated feeling.
Johnson said he wanted to buy me a cup of coffee. “Your finest hour,” he
“Ach,” I said. “Thanks.” But I reminded him: I just told the truth. As he
had in Chicago. Telling the truth, I said. Who knew?
JOHNSON WENT BACK to Wellesley for the time being, and we turned
our attention to the Olympic track-and-field trials, which in 1972 were being
held, for the first time ever, in our backyard: Eugene. We needed to own
those trials, so we sent an advance team down to give shoes to any
competitor willing to take them, and we set up a staging area in our store,
which was now being ably run by Hollister. As the trials opened we
descended on Eugene and set up a silk-screen machine in the back of the
store. We cranked out scores of Nike T-shirts, which Penny handed out like
With all that work, how could we not break through? And, indeed, Dave
Davis, a shot-putter from USC, dropped by the store the first day to
complain that he wasn’t getting free stuff from either Adidas or Puma, so
he’d gladly take our shoes and wear them. And then he finished fourth.
Hooray! Better yet, he didn’t just wear our shoes, he waltzed around in one
of Penny’s T-shirts, his name stenciled on the back. (The trouble was, Dave
wasn’t the ideal model. He had a bit of a gut. And our T-shirts weren’t big
enough. Which accentuated his gut. We made a note. Buy smaller athletes,
or make bigger shirts.)
We also had a couple of semifinalists wear our spikes, including an
employee, Jim Gorman, who competed in the 1,500. I told Gorman he was
taking corporate loyalty too far. Our spikes weren’t that great. But he
insisted that he was in “all the way.” And then in the marathon we had Nikeshod runners finish fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh. None made the team,
but still. Not too shabby.
The main event of the trials, of course, would come on the final day, a
duel between Prefontaine and the great Olympian George Young. By then
Prefontaine was universally known as Pre, and he was far more than a
phenom; he was an outright superstar. He was the biggest thing to hit the
world of American track and field since Jesse Owens. Sportswriters
frequently compared him to James Dean, and Mick Jagger, and Runner’s
World said the most apt comparison might be Muhammad Ali. He was that
kind of swaggery, transformative figure.
To my thinking, however, these and all other comparisons fell short. Pre
was unlike any athlete this country had ever seen, though it was hard to say
exactly why. I’d spent a lot of time studying him, admiring him, puzzling
about his appeal. I’d asked myself, time and again, what it was about Pre that
triggered such visceral responses from so many people, including myself. I
never did come up with a totally satisfactory answer.
It was more than his talent—there were other talented runners. And it
was more than his swagger—there were plenty of swaggering runners.
Some said it was his look. Pre was so fluid, so poetic, with that flowing
mop of hair. And he had the broadest, deepest chest imaginable, set on
slender legs that were all muscle and never stopped churning.
Also, most runners are introverts, but Pre was an obvious, joyous
extrovert. It was never simply running for him. He was always putting on a
show, always conscious of the spotlight.
Sometimes I thought the secret to Pre’s appeal was his passion. He didn’t
care if he died crossing the finish line, so long as he crossed first. No matter
what Bowerman told him, no matter what his body told him, Pre refused to
slow down, ease off. He pushed himself to the brink and beyond. This was
often a counterproductive strategy, and sometimes it was plainly stupid, and
occasionally it was suicidal. But it was always uplifting for the crowd. No
matter the sport—no matter the human endeavor, really—total effort will
win people’s hearts.
Of course, all Oregonians loved Pre because he was “ours.” He was born
in our midst, raised in our rainy forests, and we’d cheered him since he was a
pup. We’d watched him break the national two-mile record as an eighteenyear-old, and we were with him, step by step, through each glorious NCAA
championship. Every Oregonian felt emotionally invested in his career.
And at Blue Ribbon, of course, we were preparing to put our money
where our emotions were. We understood that Pre couldn’t switch shoes
right before the trials. He was used to his Adidas. But in time, we were
certain, he’d be a Nike athlete, and perhaps the paradigmatic Nike athlete.
With these thoughts in mind, walking down Agate Street toward
Hayward Field, I wasn’t surprised to find the place shaking, rocking,
trembling with cheers—the Coliseum in Rome could not have been louder
when the gladiators and lions were turned loose. We found our seats just in
time to see Pre doing his warm-ups. Every move he made caused a new
ripple of excitement. Every time he jogged down one side of the oval, or up
the other, the fans along his route stood and went wild. Half of them were
wearing T-shirts that read: LEGEND.
All of a sudden we heard a chorus of deep, guttural boos. Gerry Lindgren,
arguably the world’s best distance runner at the time, appeared on the track
—wearing a T-shirt that read: STOP PRE. Lindgren had beaten Pre when
he was a senior and Pre a freshman, and he wanted everyone, especially Pre,
to remember. But when Pre saw Lindgren, and saw the shirt, he just shook
his head. And grinned. No pressure. Only more incentive.
The runners took their marks. An unearthly silence fell. Then, bang. The
starting gun sounded like a Napoléon cannon.
Pre took the lead right away. Young tucked in right behind him. In no
time they pulled well ahead of the field and it became a two-man affair.
(Lindgren was far behind, a nonfactor.) Each man’s strategy was clear.
Young meant to stay with Pre until the final lap, then use his superior sprint
to go by and win. Pre, meanwhile, intended to set such a fast pace at the
outset that by the time they got to that final lap, Young’s legs would be
For eleven laps they ran a half stride apart. With the crowd now roaring,
frothing, shrieking, the two men entered the final lap. It felt like a boxing
match. It felt like a joust. It felt like a bullfight, and we were down to that
moment of truth—death hanging in the air. Pre reached down, found
another level—we saw him do it. He opened up a yard lead, then two, then
five. We saw Young grimacing and we knew that he could not, would not,
catch Pre. I told myself, Don’t forget this. Do not forget. I told myself there
was much to be learned from such a display of passion, whether you were
running a mile or a company.
As they crossed the tape we all looked up at the clock and saw that both
men had broken the American record. Pre had broken it by a shade more.
But he wasn’t done. He spotted someone waving a STOP PRE T-shirt and
he went over and snatched it and whipped it in circles above his head, like a
scalp. What followed was one of the greatest ovations I’ve ever heard, and
I’ve spent my life in stadiums.
I’d never witnessed anything quite like that race. And yet I didn’t just
witness it. I took part in it. Days later I felt sore in my hams and quads. This,
I decided, this is what sports are, what they can do. Like books, sports give
people a sense of having lived other lives, of taking part in other people’s
victories. And defeats. When sports are at their best, the spirit of the fan
merges with the spirit of the athlete, and in that convergence, in that
transference, is the oneness that the mystics talk about.
Walking back down Agate Street I knew that race was part of me, would
forever be part of me, and I vowed it would also be part of Blue Ribbon. In
our coming battles, with Onitsuka, with whomever, we’d be like Pre. We’d
compete as if our lives depended on it.
Because they did.
NEXT, WITH SAUCER eyes, we looked to the Olympics. Not only was our
man Bowerman going to be the head coach of the track team, but our
homeboy Pre was going to be the star. After his performance at the trials?
Who could doubt it?
Certainly not Pre. “Sure there will be a lot of pressure,” he told Sports
Illustrated. “And a lot of us will be facing more experienced competitors, and
maybe we don’t have any right to win. But all I know is if I go out and bust
my gut until I black out and somebody still beats me, and if I have made that
guy reach down and use everything he has and then more, why then it just
proves that on that day he’s a better man than I.”
Right before Pre and Bowerman left for Germany, I filed for a patent on
Bowerman’s waffle shoe. Application no. 284,736 described the “improved
sole having integral polygon shaped studs . . . of square, rectangular or
triangle cross section . . . [and] a plurality of flat sides which provide gripping
edges that give greatly improved traction.”
A proud moment for both of us.
A golden moment of my life.
Sales of Nike were steady, my son was healthy, I was able to pay my
mortgage on time. All things considered, I was in a damned fine mood that
And then it began. In the second week of the Olympic Games, a squad of
eight masked gunmen scaled a back wall of the Olympic village and
kidnapped eleven Israeli athletes. In our Tigard office we set up a TV and no
one did a lick of work. We watched and watched, day after day, saying little,
often holding our hands over our mouths. When the terrible denouement
came, when the news broke that all the athletes were dead, their bodies
strewn on a blood-spattered tarmac at the airport, it recalled the deaths of
both Kennedys, and of Dr. King, and of the students at Kent State
University, and of all the tens of thousands of boys in Vietnam. Ours was a
difficult, death-drenched age, and at least once every day you were forced to
ask yourself: What’s the point?
When Bowerman returned I drove straight down to Eugene to see him.
He looked as though he hadn’t slept in a decade. He told me that he and Pre
had been within a hair of the attack. In the first minutes, as the terrorists
took control of the building, many Israeli athletes were able to flee, slipping
out side doors, jumping out windows. One made his way to the next building
over, where Bowerman and Pre were staying. Bowerman heard a knock,
opened the door of his room, and found this man, a race walker, shivering
with fear, babbling about masked gunmen. Bowerman pulled the man inside
and phoned the U.S. consul. “Send the marines!” he shouted into the phone.
They did. Marines quickly secured the building where Bowerman and the
U.S. team were staying.
For this “overreaction,” Bowerman was severely reprimanded by Olympic
officials. He’d exceeded his authority, they said. In the heat of the crisis they
made time to summon Bowerman to their headquarters. Thank goodness
Jesse Owens, the hero of the last German Olympics, the man who “beat”
Hitler, went with Bowerman and voiced his support for Bowerman’s actions.
That forced the bureaucrats to back off.
Bowerman and I sat and stared at the river for a long while, saying little.
Then, his voice scratchy, Bowerman told me that those 1972 Olympics
marked the low point of his life. I’d never heard him say a thing like that,
and I’d never seen him look like that. Defeated.
I couldn’t believe it.
The cowards never started and the weak died along the way—that leaves us.
Soon after that day Bowerman announced that he was retiring from
A GRIM TIME. Skies were grayer than usual, and low. There was no fall.
We just woke up and winter was upon us. The trees went overnight from full
to bare. Rain fell without stop.
At last, a needed boon. We got word that a few hours north, in Seattle, at
the Rainier International Classic, a fiery Romanian tennis player was
destroying every opponent in his path, and doing it in a brand-new pair of
Nike Match Points. The Romanian was Ilie Nastase, aka “Nasty,” and every
time he hit his patented overhead smash, every time he went up on his toes
and stroked another unreturnable serve, the world was seeing our swoosh.
We’d known for some time that athlete endorsements were important. If
we were going to compete with Adidas—not to mention Puma and Gola,
and Diadora and Head, and Wilson and Spalding, and Karhu and Etonic and
New Balance and all the other brands popping up in the 1970s—we’d need
top athletes wearing and talking up our brand. But we still didn’t have
money to pay top athletes. (We had less money than ever before.) Nor did
we know the first thing about getting to them, persuading them that our
shoe was good, that it would soon be better, that they should endorse us at a
discounted price. Now here was a top athlete already wearing Nike, and
winning in it. How hard could it be to sign him?
I found the number for Nastase’s agent. I phoned and offered him a deal.
I said I’d give him $5,000—I gagged as I said it—if his boy would wear our
stuff. He countered with $15,000. How I hated negotiating.
We settled on $10,000. I felt that I was being robbed.
Nastase was playing a tourney that weekend in Omaha, the agent said. He
suggested I fly out with the papers.
I met Nasty and his wife, Dominique, a stunning woman, that Friday
night, at a steakhouse in downtown Omaha. After I got him to sign on the
dotted line, after I locked the papers in my briefcase, we ordered a
celebratory dinner. A bottle of wine, another bottle of wine. At some point,
for some reason, I started speaking with a Romanian accent, and for some
reason Nasty started calling me Nasty, and for no reason I could think of his
supermodel wife started making goo-goo eyes at everyone, including me,
and by night’s end, stumbling up to my room, I felt like a tennis champion,
and a tycoon, and a kingmaker. I lay in bed and stared at the contract. Ten
thousand dollars, I said aloud. Ten. Thousand. Dollars.
It was a fortune. But Nike had a celebrity athlete endorser.
I closed my eyes, to stop the room from spinning. Then I opened them,
because I didn’t want the room to stop spinning.
Take that, Kitami, I said to the ceiling, to all of Omaha. Take that.
BACK THEN, THE historic football rivalry between my University of
Oregon Ducks and the dreaded Oregon State Beavers was lopsided, at best.
My Ducks usually lost. And they usually lost by a lot. And they often lost
with a lot on the line. Example: In 1957, with the two teams vying for the
conference crown, Oregon’s Jim Shanley was going in for the winning
touchdown when he fumbled on the one-yard line. Oregon lost 10–7.
In 1972, my Ducks had lost to the Beavers eight straight times, sending
me, eight straight times, into a sour funk. But now, in this topsy-turvy year,
my Ducks were going to wear Nikes. Hollister had persuaded Oregon’s head
coach, Dick Enright, to don our new waffle-soled shoes for the Big Game,
the Civil War.
The setting was their place, down in Corvallis. Scattered rain had been
falling all morning, and it was coming down in sheets by game time. Penny
and I stood in the stands, shivering inside our sopping ponchos, peering into
the raindrops as the opening kickoff spun into the air. On the first play from
scrimmage, Oregon’s burly quarterback, a sharpshooter named Dan Fouts,
handed the ball to Donny Reynolds, who made one cut on his Nike waffles
and . . . took it to the house. Ducks 7, Nike 7, Beavers 0.
Fouts, closing out a brilliant college career, was out of his mind that
night. He passed for three hundred yards, including a sixty-yard touchdown
bomb that landed like a feather in his receiver’s hands. The rout was soon
on. At the final gun my Ducks were on top of the Bucktooths, 30–3. I always
called them my Ducks, but now they really were. They were in my shoes.
Every step they took, every cut they made, was partly mine. It’s one thing to
watch a sporting event and put yourself in the players’ shoes. Every fan does
that. It’s another thing when the athletes are actually in your shoes.
I laughed as we walked to the car. I laughed like a maniac. I laughed all
the way back to Portland. This, I kept telling Penny, this is how 1972 needed
to end. With a victory. Any victor boy—this.