by Joe Donlon,
So, what's it like talking to a man worth billions of dollars? In this case, it's just like talking with one of your friends.
Last week, I got a chance to spend some time with Phil Knight -- which I knew going in -- was pretty rare. He doesn't do media, really - but he agreed to talk with us about a new exhibit through August 26th at the Oregon Historical Society. It's a very impressive display -- sponsored by the Smithsonian, called 'Sports: Breaking Records - Breaking Barriers.' It features athletes -- who did just that.. like Mia Hamm, Althea Gibson, Roberto Clemente, and Muhammad Ali.
On it's stop in Portland, however, there is a bonus. Nike contributed never before seen artifacts - that fill up an adjoining room. It's a very thorough look back at the beginnings of Nike and includes some of the first shoes Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman made for his runners at the University of Oregon -- plus shoes worn by Steve Prefontaine, Michael Johnson, and others.
Knight walked in -- by himself -- in a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and sport coat (and of course, a pair of Nikes). It was the first time he had seen the display, and it had quite an impact on him. We spent the first part of our time with him - walking around the exhibit, and talking about what the athletes meant to him. He recalled his father taking him to the British Empire games in Vancouver, B.C. to watch what would later be called 'The Miracle Mile'. In that race, Roger Bannister and John Landy BOTH ran a sub four minute mile - which was a first. Knight - will never forget it. He was 15, and wanted to wear the same shoes Bannister wore -- which was a lesson he later used to build Nike.
The stories continued to flow, as we entered the Nike section -- which starts with a tunnel that leads the eye directly to an enormous poster of Bill Bowerman. Knight has often said, 'Without Bowerman - there would be no Nike." The legendary track coach left an enormous impression on Knight, and his respect and appreciation are obvious. "Bowerman didn't call himself a track coach," Knight told me. "He called himself a professor of competitive response. Mostly he was teaching you how to compete with yourself -- how to better yourself."
After our tour, we sat down for an extended interview. On the media - he said, "I like talking to people. I don't like being careful about what I'm saying." That's why he avoids interviews.
He talked at length about that, and how Nike went from being a media darling -- to an international target - and how he feels about Nike critics. We hit on numerous issues -- from endorsements, those famous Nike commercials, and even the tragic death of his oldest son in 2004. He started to break down before I finished the question, and I wasn't sure he would even address it. But he did, and his answer was very touching.
To be honest, we weren't sure what we were going to get from the interview. In the end, he spent almost two hours with us -- and we had to break up our report into three long segments. You can see them on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of this week on Newschannel 8 at 6. I think you'll learn a lot about the company, and even more about the man who built it.