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SHOE DOG: Phil Knight writes a memoir of Nike

Nike founder Phil Knight’s insightful memoir is not only about running


The 1960s, despite turmoil everywhere, proved kind to me. My freelance writing career had taken off with sales to Sports Illustrated, Good Housekeeping and The New York Times Magazine, among other publications. I published my first book (about the Civil War, no less). Rose and I settled into a new home overlooking Lake Michigan. I ranked among distance running’s elite: fifth in the Olympic Trials, fifth (first American) in the Boston Marathon, winning a major 25-K championship in New York, defeating John Kelley, America’s best marathoner from the previous decade.


Between 1963 and 1965, I was coached by Fred Wilt, a two-time Olympian. In addition to dictating workouts, Fred sought a decent running shoe. We tried shoes from Finland, from Germany, even from Russia. An American shoe? One did not exist.


Then Fred located a Japanese company, Onitsuka. Needing a new pair, I would trace the outline of my feet on two pieces of paper and air-mail them to Japan. Onitsuka would hand-make a pair of shoes, so perfect they took 15 minutes off my PR when I next ran Boston. Well, Fred’s coaching also helped.


Simultaneously and in a parallel universe, an individual who had run for Bill Bowerman at the University of Oregon took a trip around the world, stopping in Japan, where he secured distribution rights to Onitsuka’s shoes, even though he had neither a warehouse nor an office. His name was Phil Knight and he sold shoes (renamed Tiger) out of the trunk of his car. He hired as his first employee Jeff Johnson, an amateur photographer. Knight paid him $2 an hour.


Sales boomed. Onitsuka  tried to reclaim the distribution rights. Knight started a new shoe company. Johnson came up with a brand name: Nike. An artist designed the “swoosh” look for shoes and eventually clothing. Bowerman borrowed his wife’s waffle iron to create polyurethane soles for a model called the “Waffle Trainer,” a shoe that every runner just had to own. Knight rode the running boom of the 1970s into a position as the most successful running shoe company in the world.


At some point, I talked to Jeff Johnson, who had a side hobby shooting photographs at major races for Runner’s World and Track & Field News. I told Jeff about my getting  hand-made shoes from Onitsuka, possibly even before Knight began selling  the Japanese company’s shoes.


I half expected Jeff to deny the story, figuring I might be seeking fame as the first American runner to have worn the Nike prototype shoes. But Jeff smiled, confessing they had a photo on a wall in Nike’s Los Angeles store. “You were the only runner anybody knew wearing our shoes,” he said.


That was not entirely true. Fred Wilt also coached by mail a University of Minnesota graduate living and training in England. His name was Leonard (Buddy) Edelen, and in 1963 he set a world marathon record running 2:14:28. Buddy placed 6th in the Olympic Marathon the following year. I’m reasonably confident Buddy also wore hand-made Onitsuka shoes, courtesy Fred Wilt. I’m surprised that Phil Knight did not know that fact; at least he does not mention it in his memoir, Shoe Dog.


A disclaimer: I almost never read running books. Running occupies most of my work week. I relax by reading books on other subjects, most recently a biography of John Quincy Adams. But Shoe Dog is not a running book. It is not even a running shoe book. It is more a business book, its most fascinating pages about the struggle by Knight to manage a company strangled by its own success, revenues doubling so fast that during the 1970s Knight could not get banks to loan him enough money to pay his Japanese suppliers. The banks figured running was a fad, that Nike shoes were a fad. Obviously they were wrong. In almost a throwaway line (not bragging), Phil Knight mentions that he is worth $10 billion.


Knight writes well. In fact, better than "well." No co-author is credited on the cover or in the acknowledgements. At worst Phil must have had a very good editor at Scribner, the publishing house. If Shoe Dog has a flaw, it ends too soon: in 1980


That was the year when Nike went public providing enough cash to pay all Knight’s creditors. It made Bill Bowerman, among others, a millionaire. Soon after, I profiled Phil knight for an article in Success Magazine. I remember Phil as being pleasant, friendly, cooperative, providing key quotes for the article. I also worked with Nike on several projects, one of them being a computerized shoe costing $300 that never made it to market!


On one of my visits to Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, I arrived to see a welcome banner on the front of the building. It was not welcoming me, but another individual who soon arrived in a stretch limousine. I wasn’t a college basketball fan, so I didn’t recognize the individual or the name on the banner, which said, “Welcome, Michael Jordan.”


Michael who?


But that could be subject for an entire second memoir filling in the details between 1980 and today. I hope Phil Knight decides to write one.