THAT IS, IF there was anything to finance. As feared, Onitsuka had filed
suit against us in Japan. So now we had to file quickly against them in the
United States, for breach of contract and trademark infringement.
I put the case in the hands of Cousin Houser. It wasn’t a tough call.
There was the trust factor, of course. Kinship, blood, so on. Also, there was
the confidence factor. Though he was only two years older, Cousin Houser
seemed vastly more mature. He carried himself with remarkable assurance.
Especially before a judge and jury. His father had been a salesman, and a
good one, and Cousin Houser learned from him how to sell his client.
Better yet, he was a tenacious competitor. When we were kids Cousin
Houser and I used to play vicious, marathon games of badminton in his
backyard. One summer we played exactly 116 games. Why 116? Because
Cousin Houser beat me 115 straight times. I refused to quit until I’d won.
And he had no trouble understanding my position.
But the main reason I chose Cousin Houser was poverty. I had no money
for legal fees, and Cousin Houser talked his firm into taking my case on
Much of 1973 was spent in Cousin Houser’s office, reading documents,
reviewing memos, cringing at my own words and actions. My memo about
hiring a spy—the court would take a dim view of this, Cousin Houser
warned. And my “borrowing” Kitami’s folder from his briefcase? How could
a judge view that as anything but theft? MacArthur came to mind. You are
remembered for the rules you break.
I contemplated hiding these painful facts from the court. In the end,
however, there was only one thing to do. Play it straight. It was the smart
thing, the right thing. I’d simply have to hope the court would see the
stealing of Kitami’s folder as a kind of self-defense.
When I wasn’t with Cousin Houser, studying the case, I was being
studied. In other words, deposed. For all my belief that business was war
without bullets, I’d never felt the full fury of conference-room combat until I
found myself at a table surrounded by five lawyers. They tried everything to
get me to say I’d violated my contract with Onitsuka. They tried trick
questions, hostile questions, squirrelly questions, loaded questions. When
questions didn’t work, they twisted my answers. A deposition is strenuous for
anyone, but for a shy person it’s an ordeal. Badgered, baited, harassed,
mocked, I was a shell of myself by the end. My condition was worsened by
the sense that I hadn’t done very well—a sense Cousin Houser reluctantly
At the close of those difficult days, it was my nightly six-mile run that
saved my life. And then it was my brief time with Matthew and Penny that
preserved my sanity. I’d always try to find the time and energy to tell
Matthew his bedtime story. Thomas Jef erson was toiling to write the
Declaration of Independence, you see, struggling to find the words, when little Matt
History brought him a new quill pen and the words seemed to magically flow . . .
Matthew almost always laughed at my bedtime stories. He had a liquid
laugh, which I loved to hear, because at other times he could be moody,
sullen. Cause for concern. He’d been very late learning to talk, and now he
was showing a worrisome rebellious streak. I blamed myself. If I were home
more, I told myself, he’d be less rebellious.
Bowerman spent quite a bit of time with Matthew, and he told me not to
worry. I like his spirit, he said. The world needs more rebels.
That spring, Penny and I had the added worry of how our little rebel
would handle a sibling. She was pregnant again. Secretly, I wondered more
about how we were going to handle it. By the end of 1973, I thought, it’s
very possible I’ll have two kids and no job.
AFTER TURNING OUT the light next to Matthew’s bed, I’d usually go and
sit in the living room with Penny. We’d talk about the day. Which meant
the looming trial. Growing up, Penny had watched several of her father’s
trials, and it gave her an avid fondness for courtroom drama. She never
missed a legal show on TV. Perry Mason was her favorite, and I sometimes
called her Della Street, after Mason’s intrepid secretary. I kidded her about
her enthusiasm, but I also fed off it.
The final act of every evening was my phone call to my father. Time for
my own bedtime story. By then he’d left the newspaper, and in his
retirement he had loads of time to research old cases and precedents, to spin
out arguments that might be useful to Cousin Houser. His involvement, plus
his sense of fair play, plus his bedrock belief in the rightness of Blue
Ribbon’s cause, was restorative.
It was always the same. My father would ask about Matthew and Penny,
and then I’d ask about Mom, and then he’d tell me what he’d found in the
law books. I’d take careful notes on a yellow legal pad. Before signing off
he’d always say that he liked our chances. We’re going to win, Buck. That
magical pronoun, “we”—he’d always use it, and it would always make me
feel better. It’s possible that we were never closer, maybe because our
relationship had been reduced to its primal essence. He was my dad, I was
his son, and I was in the fight of my life.
Looking back, I see that something else was going on. My trial was
providing my father with a healthier outlet for his inner chaos. My legal
troubles, my nightly phone calls, were keeping him on high alert, and at
home. There were fewer late nights at the bar of the club.
“ I ’M BRINGING SOMEONE else onto the team,” Cousin Houser told me
one day. “Young lawyer. Rob Strasser. You’ll like him.”
He was fresh out of UC Berkeley School of Law, Cousin Houser said, and
he didn’t know a damn thing. Yet. But Cousin Houser had an instinct about
the kid. Thought he showed tremendous promise. Plus, Strasser had a
personality that was sure to mesh with our company. “The moment Strasser
read our brief,” Cousin Houser told me, “he saw this case as a holy crusade.”
Well, I liked the sound of that. So the next time I was at Cousin Houser’s
firm I walked down the hall and poked my head into the office of this
Strasser fellow. He wasn’t there. The office was pitch-dark. Shades drawn,
lights off. I turned to leave. Then I heard . . . Hello? I turned back.
Somewhere within the darkness, behind a big walnut desk, a shape moved.
The shape grew, a mountain rising from a dark sea.
It slid toward me. Now I saw the rough contours of a man. Six-three, 280
pounds, with an extra helping of shoulders. And fire-log arms. This was one
part Sasquatch, one part Snuffleupagus, though somehow light on his feet.
He minced toward me and thrust one of his fire logs in my direction. I
reached, we shook.
Now I could make out the face—brick red, covered by a full strawberryblond beard—and glazed with sweat. (Hence the darkness. He required
dimly lit, cool spaces. He also couldn’t bear wearing a suit.) Everything
about this man was different from me, from everyone I knew, and yet I felt a
strange, instant kinship.
He said that he was thrilled to be working on my case. Honored. He
believed that Blue Ribbon had been the victim of a terrible injustice. Kinship
became love. “Yes,” I said. “Yes, we have.”
DAYS LATER STRASSER came out to Tigard for a meeting. Penny was in
the office at the time and when Strasser glimpsed her walking down a hall
his eyes bulged. He tugged on his beard. “My God!” he said. “Was that
“She’s Penny Knight now,” I said.
“She dated my best friend!”
“Smaller when you’re my size.”
Over the coming days and weeks Strasser and I discovered more and more
ways our lives and psyches intersected. He was a native Oregonian, and
proud of it, in that typical, truculent way. He’d grown up with a bug about
Seattle, and San Francisco, and all the nearby places that outsiders saw as our
betters. His geographical inferiority complex was exacerbated by his
ungainly size, and homeliness. He’d always feared that he wouldn’t find his
place in the world, that he was doomed to be an outcast. I got that. He
compensated, at times, by being loud, and profane, but mostly he kept his
mouth shut and downplayed his intelligence, rather than risk alienating
people. I got that, too.
Intelligence like Strasser’s, however, couldn’t be hidden for long. He was
one of the greatest thinkers I ever met. Debater, negotiator, talker, seeker—
his mind was always whirring, trying to understand. And to conquer. He saw
life as a battle and found confirmation for this view in books. Like me, he
read compulsively about war.
Also, like me, he lived and died with the local teams. Especially the
Ducks. We had a huge laugh over the fact that Oregon’s basketball coach
that year was Dick Harter, while the football coach was still Dick Enright.
The popular cheer at Oregon State games was: “If you can’t get your Dick
Enright, get your Dick Harter!” After we stopped laughing, Strasser started
up again. I was amazed by the pitch of his laughter. High, giggly, twee, it
was startling from a man his size.
More than anything else we bonded over fathers. Strasser was the son of a
successful businessman, and he, too, feared that he’d never live up to his old
man’s expectations. His father, however, was an exceptionally hard case.
Strasser told me many stories. One stayed with me. When Strasser was
seventeen his parents went away for the weekend, and Strasser seized the
moment to throw a party. It turned into a riot. Neighbors called the police,
and just as the patrol cars arrived, so did Strasser’s parents. They’d come
home early from their trip. Strasser told me that his father looked around—
house in shambles, son in handcuffs—and coldly told the cops, “Take him
I asked Strasser early on how he gauged our chances against Onitsuka. He
said we were going to win. He said it straight out, no hesitation, as if I’d
asked him what he’d had for breakfast. He said it the way a sports fan would
talk about “next year,” with uncompromising faith. He said it the way my
father said it every night, and there and then I decided that Strasser was one
of the chosen, one of the brethren. Like Johnson and Woodell and Hayes.
Like Bowerman and Hollister and Pre. He was Blue Ribbon, through and
WHEN I WASN’T obsessing about the trial, I was fixated on sales. Every day
I’d get a telex from our warehouses with a “pair count,” meaning the exact
number of pairs shipped that day to all customers—schools, retailers,
coaches, individual mail-order clients. On general accounting principles, a
pair shipped was a pair sold, so the daily pair count determined my mood,
my digestion, my blood pressure, because it largely determined the fate of
Blue Ribbon. If we didn’t “sell through,” sell all the shoes in our most recent
order, and quickly convert that product into cash, we’d be in big trouble.
The daily pair count told me if we were on our way to selling through.
“So,” I’d say to Woodell on a typical morning, “Massachusetts is good,
Eugene looks good—what happened in Memphis?”
“Ice storm,” he might say. Or: “Truck broke down.”
He had a superb talent for underplaying the bad, and underplaying the
good, for simply being in the moment. For instance, after the dummy
reversal, Woodell occupied an office that was hardly deluxe. It sat on the top
floor of an old shoe factory, and a water tower directly overhead was caked
with a century’s worth of pigeon poop. Plus, the ceiling beams were gapped,
and the building shook every time the die cutters stamped out the uppers. In
other words, throughout the day a steady rain of pigeon poop would fall on
Woodell’s hair, shoulders, desktop. But Woodell would simply dust himself
off, casually clear his desk with the side of his hand, and continue with his
He also kept a piece of company stationery carefully draped over his
coffee cup at all times, to ensure it was only cream in his joe.
I tried often to copy Woodell’s Zen monk demeanor. Most days,
however, it was beyond me. I boiled with frustration, knowing that our pair
count could have been so much higher if not for our constant problems with
supply. People were crying out for our shoes, but we just couldn’t get them
out on time. We’d traded Onitsuka’s capricious delays for a new set of
delays, caused by demand. The factories and Nissho were doing their jobs,
we were now getting what we ordered, on time and intact, but the booming
marketplace created new pressures, making it harder and harder to correctly
allocate what we got.
Supply and demand is always the root problem in business. It’s been true
since Phoenician traders raced to bring Rome the coveted purple dye that
colored the clothing of royals and rich people; there was never enough
purple to go around. It’s hard enough to invent and manufacture and market
a product, but then the logistics, the mechanics, the hydraulics of getting it
to the people who want it, when they want it—this is how companies die,
how ulcers are born.
In 1973 the supply-and-demand problems facing the running-shoe
industry were unusually knotty, seemingly insoluble. The whole world was
suddenly demanding running shoes, and the supply wasn’t simply
inconsistent, it was slowing to a sputter. There were never enough shoes in
We had many smart people working on the problem, but no one could
figure out how to significantly boost supply without taking on huge
inventory risks. There was some consolation in the fact that Adidas and Puma
were having the same problems—but not much. Our problems could tip us
into bankruptcy. We were leveraged to the hilt, and like most people who
live from paycheck to paycheck, we were walking the edge of a precipice.
When a shipment of shoes was late, our pair count plummeted. When our
pair count plummeted, we weren’t able to generate enough revenue to repay
Nissho and the Bank of California on time. When we couldn’t repay Nissho
and the Bank of California on time, we couldn’t borrow more. When we
couldn’t borrow more we were late placing our next order.
Round and round it went.
Then came the last thing we needed. A dockworkers’ strike. Our man
went down to Boston Harbor to pick up a shipment of shoes and found it
locked tight. He could see it through the locked fence: boxes and boxes of
what the world was clamoring for. And no way to get at it.
We scrambled and arranged for Nippon to send a new shipment—
110,000 pairs, on a chartered 707. We split the cost of jet fuel with them.
Anything was preferable to not bringing product to market on time.
Our sales for 1973 rose 50 percent, to $4.8 million, a number that
staggered me the first time I saw it on a piece of paper. Wasn’t it only
yesterday that we’d done $8,000? And yet there was no celebration. Between
our legal troubles and our supply woes, we might be out of business any
minute. Late at night I’d sit with Penny and she’d ask, for the umpteenth
time, what we were going to do if Blue Ribbon went under. What was the
plan? And for the umpteenth time I’d reassure her with optimistic words that
I didn’t wholly believe.
Then, that fall, I had an idea. Why not go to all of our biggest retailers
and tell them that if they’d sign ironclad commitments, if they’d give us large
and nonrefundable orders, six months in advance, we’d give them hefty
discounts, up to 7 percent? This way we’d have longer lead times, and fewer
shipments, and more certainty, and therefore a better chance of keeping cash
balances in the bank. Also, we could use these long-term commitments from
heavyweights like Nordstrom, Kinney, Athlete’s Foot, United Sporting
Goods, and others, to squeeze more credit out of Nissho and the Bank of
California. Especially Nissho.
The retailers were skeptical, of course. But I begged. And when that
didn’t work I made bold predictions. I told them that this program, which
we were calling “Futures,” was the future, for us and everyone else, so they’d
better get on board. Sooner rather than later.
I was persuasive because I was desperate. If we could just take the lid of our
annual growth limits. But retailers continued to resist. Over and over we
heard: “You newbies at Nike don’t understand the shoe industry. This new
idea will never fly.”
My bargaining position was suddenly improved when we rolled out
several eye-popping new shoes, which customers were sure to demand. The
Bruin was already popular, with its outsoles and uppers cooked together to
give a more stable ride. Now we debuted an enhanced version, with bright
green suede uppers. (Paul Silas of the Boston Celtics had agreed to wear a
pair.) Plus, two new Cortezes, a Leather and a Nylon, both of which figured
to be our bestselling shoes yet.
At last, a few retailers signed on. The program started to gain traction.
Before long, the stragglers and holdouts were desperate to be included.
SEPTEMBER 13, 1973. My fifth wedding anniversary. Once again Penny
woke me in the middle of the night to say she wasn’t feeling well. But this
time, on the drive to the hospital, I had more on my mind than just the baby.
Futures program. Pair count. Pending trial. So of course I got lost.
I circled back, retraced my steps. My brow beginning to bead with sweat,
I turned down a street and saw the hospital up ahead. Thank goodness.
Once again they wheeled Penny away, and once again I waited, and
wilted, in the bullpen. This time I tried to do some paperwork, and when the
doctor came and found me, and told me I had another son, I thought: Two
sons. A pair of sons.
The ultimate pair count.
I went to Penny’s room and met my new boy, whom we named Travis.
Then I did a bad thing.
Smiling, Penny said the doctors told her she could go home after two
days, instead of the three they’d required after Matthew. Whoa, I said, hold
on there, the insurance is willing to pay for another day in the hospital—
what’s your hurry? Might as well kick back, relax. Take advantage.
She lowered her head, cocked an eyebrow. “Who’s playing and where is
it?” she said.
“Oregon,” I whispered. “Arizona State.”
She sighed. “Okay,” she said. “Okay, Phil. Go.”