When Pete Sampras took the court at Wimbledon to defend his title on June 20, he wore voluminous shorts bearing the Nike "swoosh"--part of his new megabuck endorsement deal. But the superstar almost didn't get the $18 million, five-year deal. According to a just-issued book on Nike, Donald Katz's Just Do It, senior execs last year decided to pass on Sampras: They figured his "bland" and "robotic" style weren't big selling points with the public. Nike already had aboard the equally colorless Jim Courier--mainly to offset its other big tennis name, Andre Agassi, whose flamboyance disturbed older consumers. So Nike talent scouts saw Sampras as a needless expense.

But Nike founder and CEO Philip Knight overruled his executives, the Katz book says, based on his gut feeling that the three strongest male U.S. players would create excitement. Adding spice: Knight is quoted as saying the trio will "be the three amigos who hate each other."

That may be hyping run-of-the-mill rivalry in a sport whose appeal has waned in recent years. The threesome's managers say they get along, and that Sampras and Courier are golfing buddies. Sampras' rep and Nike won't talk about how their deal got done.

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