Mostly whimsical reflections on life
Nike founder Phil Knight’s memoir titled Shoe Dog has hit the streets, so I thought it was timely to share my memories of the guy we used to call Buck.
Knight’s publisher touts his memoir as “candid” and “gutsy.” My mini-memoir won’t rise to that level, but parallels the time line of Knight’s tale.
As Knight relates in his memoir, he began his shoe business career as an importer under the name Blue Ribbon Sports. Later, his business model called for making Nike shoes in foreign factories. Knight and Nike ran into sale-killing tariffs on shoe imports, which brought him frequently to Washington, DC and the offices of the Oregon congressional delegation.
The two offices most critical to addressing high tariffs were Senator Bob Packwood, who sat on the Senate Finance Committee, and Congressman Al Ullman who ascended to chair the House Ways and Means Committee after Wilbur Mills went for a midnight splash in the Tidal Basin with Fanny Fox. Because Nike was based in Beaverton, he also dropped by to see Congressman Les AuCoin who represented the First Congressional District. I worked for AuCoin.
Knight came across as intense, but highly personable. He built relationships by hosting barbecues at a townhouse near the Senate office buildings. I can truthfully say Buck cooked my steak to perfection.
Politicians inevitably show up on your doorstep, as AuCoin and I did on Knight’s Nike campus. We cooled our heels for a few minutes until Knight bounded from his office with 7-foot, 2-inch Artis Gilmore in tow. AuCoin, the gym rat hoopster, rapped a few minutes with Gilmore about basketball. I stood by feeling like a midget.
A few years later, I returned to Portland and went to work at Tektronix, which had a sprawling campus cattywampus from Nike’s still embryonic empire. The built-out Tek campus featured a network of private roads and walking paths, which Nike employees used for noonday runs until an over-eager Tek official ordered campus security to shoo away anyone wearing a Nike employee badge. That was followed by a stern letter to Nike’s legal department.
While there was a technically valid reason to bar trespassing, the action came across as petty and understandably rubbed Nike people the wrong way. It had the whiff of the old guy on the block telling newbies to get off their turf.
A personal friend who worked at Nike called me to ask for help. I recall talking to my boss, the late Chuck Frost, and suggesting that letting Nike employees run on our campus walkways was a small act go neighborliness and would build goodwill with an emerging Oregon powerhouse. The ban, if it ever was officially imposed, was quietly lifted.
The incident must have ticked off Knight, who built a much more extensive running track on his expanding Nike campus. But the goodwill paid off years later when Nike agreed to buy a chunk of undeveloped land between the two campuses then known as Tek Woods. Nike and Tektronix shared a common goal – to prevent the site from becoming an eyesore to their two pristine campuses.
One of my college classmates worked as an executive assistant for Knight. While she was always discreet, the story she did tell is the one that earned my respect for Knight.
Knight is obsessed with discovering how successful people became successful. As described to me, he would fly people from all over the world to Portland so he could talk with them one-on-one. However, one famous person he desperately wanted to interview said she couldn’t come to him. And so Knight boarded a plane and flew to Calcutta to meet with Mother Teresa.
To critics who see Knight as a buddy to big-time athletes and a benefactor for the University of Oregon football team, this searching side of him goes unnoticed and perhaps unappreciated.
Beyond the college runner, the budding journalist who became a CPA and the ultra-successful entrepreneur, Knight has exceeded expectations, despite some well publicized stumbles. I frankly never would have pegged him for the success he has achieved at Nike or for the philanthropy he has provided.
Given his driven personality, it isn’t surprising Knight invests big in things that will make a big difference. He invested in the Oregon Ducks football team to transform it into a national powerhouse, not just to win a few more games. He invested heavily in a scholars program at Stanford and a new library at the University of Oregon. He and his wife made an enormous contribution as a challenge grant to establish a world-class cancer research center at OHSU.
Some of Knight’s gifts are lesser known. Because our youngest daughter attended Jesuit High School, I came to spend a lot of time in Knight Gym. Travis Knight, his son, attended Jesuit. Some outstanding athletes played in that gym. But it also hosted a speech by Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa and several sessions of the Oregon Supreme Court. It was built to be more than just a gym.
Knight’s life and business success has been tied to sports. But his interests and passions extend past end zones and distance runners. I admit I didn’t see this side of Knight at first. But looking back, it may have been there all along if I had looked hard enough.
Now that Knight has become an author, perhaps he will write a second book about the successful people he went out of his way to talk with and explain how they influenced him. I’m especially interested in what Knowledge Runner learned from Mother Teresa that the rest of would benefit knowing, too.