How Nike Blasted Off


By J.B. Strasser and Laurie Becklund

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich -- 682pp -- $24.95

Quick: What $3 billion U.S. company once called its management retreats "buttface" meetings and smiled upon such executive pastimes as drinking, vomiting, and passing out?

Chairman Philip H. Knight may be the only one left at Nike who remembers those days. Many who helped him build the company into a world powerhouse have left. But their memories live on in this raucous history.

You won't find much grist for B-school case studies. Building on the connections of co-author J. B. Strasser, wife of a former Nike exec, the book's tone is insidey and conversational. Its focus is on friendships and company folklore. At the first meeting with Nike, for instance, young Michael Jordan said what he wanted most for his endorsement was a car. Then there's Knight's initial reaction to the now ubiquitous checkmark logo: "I don't love it. But I think it will grow on me."

If Swoosh weren't 682 pages long, you'd want to take it on your next beach vacation. But its main flaw hides in the word "unauthorized." Knight, Nike's "albino-looking" founder and still chairman, did not cooperate and remains a mystery man. Even friends who did talk seem to find him vague and indecisive, and his motives hard to read.

If the book has a message for others in business, it's not the obvious one: that fun and camaraderie go out when professional managers arrive, as gradually happened at Nike. Rather, it's Knight's ingenuity. He piggybacked off the success of a cheap Japanese brand, Tiger, which he distributed for six years. Then he launched Nike with a credit line from a Japanese trading company. In short, by imitating the imitators--Tiger was a knockoff of Adidas--he helped create a new industry.

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