Paul Kimmage: Lance is the elephant in the room in Nike founder's name-dropping memoir
Published 15/05/2016 | 18:12
'The surprise tribute worked really well — Phil Knight was truly not expecting it. He thought he was delivering the closing speech for the big annual sales conference and that all the athletes were there as part of that. Then, as he wrapped up, someone grabbed the mic and one by one we all paid our individual tributes. He is such a humble and genuine person that when you meet him you have to remind yourself of how powerful and successful he is.' Paula Radcliffe: ‘My Story So Far’
In November 2012, a month after Nike issued a statement announcing it was terminating its contract with Lance Armstrong (“Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in any manner”) and severing all ties with the disgraced cycling star, I was driving through the suburbs of Detroit with Betsy Andreu — the whistleblower who had fought more than anyone to expose Armstrong’s lies — when she told me she wasn’t buying it.
Nike, that is.
She wasn’t buying their shoes, or their socks, or their shorts, or their sweats, or their coats, or their bags, or their vests. Ever. And it was the same, she insisted, for her husband, Frankie. The swoosh would never pass their door. When friends enquired about birthday gifts for their kids she’d say: “No Nike.” If they forgot or didn’t know, she would request the receipt and return the swoosh to the store.
Her logic was simple.
But what if they didn’t? A year before his fall, in April 2011, Armstrong was a surprise guest when Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, made a rare appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
“PLEASE WELCOME SEVEN-TIMES TOUR DE FRANCE WINNER LANCE ARMSTRONG!” the host gushes in hyperventilated tones as Armstrong strolls onto the set wearing Nike trainers, beige pants, a Nike Livestrong T-shirt and a yellow Livestrong wristband.
Knight, who is sporting the same wristband, rises from his chair and seems genuinely thrilled as they embrace. “Wow, what a surprise!” he says. “That’s really cool. Thanks.”
Knight has just written a memoir — Shoe Dog — and as I perused the cover in Hodges Figgis on Wednesday . . .
I was intrigued by the flap and the tribute from Andre Agassi:
“I’ve known Phil Knight since I was a kid, but I didn’t really know him until I opened this beautiful, startling, intimate book. And the same goes for Nike. I’ve worn the gear with pride, but I didn’t realise the remarkable saga of innovation and survival and triumph that stood behind every swoosh. Candid, funny, suspenseful, literary — this is a memoir for people who love sport, but above all it’s a memoir for people who love memoirs.”
I reached for my wallet and walked to the till with one question in my head:
Did he know? What will Phil Knight say about Lance Armstrong?
There’s a friend of mine — a professional caddie — who follows Warren Buffett on Twitter and only reads the business pages. He’s getting Shoe Dog for his birthday. There’s a brilliant scene in the final chapter, where Knight and his wife, Penny, are wintering in Palm Springs and decide to go to a movie, The Bucket List.
“It’s a movie about mortality,” Knight observes. “Two men, (Jack) Nicholson and (Morgan) Freeman, both terminally ill with cancer, decide to spend their remaining days doing all the fun things, the crazy things, they’ve always wanted to do, to make the most of their time before they kick the bucket. An hour into the movie, there’s not a chuckle to be had.”
The movie ends and the lights come on and as they walk into the lobby, waiting for their eyes to adjust, they spot two familiar faces — Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. They shake hands and make small talk about their families, business and sport.
“In my head,” he writes, “I can’t help doing some quick math. At the moment I’m worth $10 billion, and each of these men is worth five or six times more. Penny asks if they enjoyed the movie. Yes, they both say, looking down at their shoes, though it was a bit depressing. What’s on your bucket lists? I nearly ask, but I don’t. Gates and Buffett seem to have done everything they’ve ever wanted in this life. They have no bucket lists, surely. Which makes me ask myself: Have I?”
The book is interesting.
It starts on a foggy morning in 1962 with Knight at 24, running on a forest trail near his home in Oregon, trying to define his goal in life: “Like all my friends I wanted to be successful. Unlike my friends I didn’t know what that meant. Money? Maybe. Wife? Kids? House? Sure, if I was lucky. These were the goals I was taught to aspire to, and part of me did aspire to them, instinctively.
“But deep down I was searching for something else, something more. I had an aching sense that our time is short, shorter than we ever know, short as a morning run, and I wanted mine to be meaningful. And purposeful. And creative. And important. Above all . . . different. I wanted to leave a mark on the world.”
He finds it nine years later — a squiggle by a local artist that looks at first like a wing or a whoosh — chosen as the logo for his just-created running shoe. Now they need a name. Some like ‘Bengal’, others like ‘Falcon’, he likes ‘Dimension Six’. There’s a meeting. It’s frantic. They need to file immediately for a patent but the office is divided until a partner mentions something that came to him in a dream.
“What is it?” Knight asks, bracing himself.
“Okay,” he grumbles, “maybe it will grow on us.”
No empire is built without a battle. They travel with a first batch of shoes — badly produced and reeking with cheap lacquer — to a major sales conference in Chicago and somehow manage to bag some orders. There are power struggles and money struggles and battles with customs and the FBI but the brand prevails.
Athlete endorsements are the key to success. Their first signing, a fiery Romanian tennis player called Ilie Nastase, costs $10,000 but dumps them later for adidas (and $100,000). Jimmy Connors wins his first Wimbledon and the US Open in their shoes but signs a deal with someone else.
Farrah Fawcett wears a pair in an episode of Charlie’s Angels and they catch the occasional good bounce with Starsky & Hutch and The Incredible Hulk. But adidas and Puma and Gola and Diadora still reign until finally their stars align.
The game changer is a new design — a sole infused with air — endorsed by a 21-year-old basketball player from the University of North Carolina who is about to make his debut in the NBA. They pay Michael Jordan $250,000 for the year but the ‘Air Jordan’ is soon the best selling shoe in history.
And Knight is soon the most powerful player in sport.
The great names are queuing at his door for an audience and it’s no surprise in Shoe Dog that he gets a little carried away.
“I watch Pete Sampras crush every opponent at one of his many Wimbledons. After the final point he tosses his racket into the stands — to me! (He overshoots and hits the man behind me, who sues, of course.)
“I see Pete’s arch-rival, Andre Agassi, win the US Open, unseeded, and come to my box after the final shot, in tears. ‘We did it, Phil!’ We?
“I smile as Tiger drains the final putt at Augusta — or is it St Andrews? He hugs me — and holds on for many seconds longer than I expect.
“I roll my mind back over the many private, intimate moments I’ve shared with him, and with Bo Jackson, and with Michael Jordan.
“Staying at Michael’s house in Chicago, I pick up the phone next to the bed in the guestroom and discover that there’s a voice on the line. ‘May I help you?’ It’s room service. Genuine, round-the-clock, whatever your heart desires room service. I set down the phone, my mouth hanging open.
“They’re all like sons, and brothers — family. No less. When Tiger’s father, Earl, dies, the church in Kansas holds fewer than one hundred, and I’m honoured to be included. When Jordan’s father is murdered, I fly to North Carolina for the funeral and discover with a shock that a seat is reserved for me in the front row.”
There’s more, much more: Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and John McEnroe, and Steve Prefontaine and Joan Benoit and Mia Hamm and Dan Fouts and Jerry Rice and Ken Griffey Jr and Alberto Salazar are all credited with giving Nike its identity. They’re like friends, family, Knight insists. “It’s never just business. It never will be,” he says. But one friend is not mentioned.
Whatever happened to Lance?
Has he forgotten those groundbreaking commercials they filmed in the cancer wards? The posters? The T-shirts? The bracelets? The messages chalked on the roads and that blazed across our screens?
HOPE RIDES AGAIN.
When did Phil Knight take his Livestrong bracelet off?
Did he know?
There’s a scene in Billions, the new blockbuster series on Sky, where Bobby Axelrod, the outrageously ambitious hedge fund manager, is explaining to Wendy Rhoades, his staff performance manager, what it’s like to be richer than sin.
“You know being a billionaire,” he says, “when you walk into a room it’s like being a woman with a perfect set of tits, or great legs, or eyes like yours. You know exactly what everyone is looking at, and you know exactly what they want.”
It’s not as poetic as Andre Agassi but it makes a lot more sense and would be a great fit for the paperback. Think about it, Phil.