Okay, so, this is not at all a social justice book — however 1) I love track and field almost as much as I love reading and writing about social justice and 2) I am traveling this week so needed a fill in review (I wrote this for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials’ souvenir program and we never ended up publishing it…)
He wanted to be a professional athlete, but wasn’t quite good enough. So he fell back on a ‘crazy idea’ that would allow him to stay involved in the sport. Pursuit of that ‘crazy idea’ led him around the world and then back home to Portland – where he and a group of misfit men (who called one another “Buttface”) committed themselves to three things: play – the idea of having fun while creating, building and selling the best running shoes in the history of running; to a culture of innovation – working as a team to do things the right way no matter what others might say or believe; and, of course, to victory – against all comers and against all odds.
It helped that many of the misfits on his team were also distance runners who had endured being coached by the legendary Bill Bowerman (he of hot keys in the steam room and hot rubber on waffle iron fame.) The endurance they’d built in their legs and lungs surely helped as their small business – Blue Ribbon Sports – struggled against bankers who didn’t believe in them, suppliers who couldn’t get shipments to market on time, and competitors who wanted to crush the little company that could.
The origin story arc of Nike is well known – unexceptional runner makes it big by brilliant business acumen and a partnership with an innovative running coach who wanted to help his athletes run faster. But the details of the story – from the perspective of the founder – had never been told in any accurate detail.
In “Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike,” Phil Knight exposes the near failures and often inadvertent successes of the ‘crazy idea’ that became Nike. He tells of his own self-doubts and the bigger doubts of his father (who was his first financier.) Of the twists and turns and steep learning curve required in order to work with business partners who came from another culture and another country (Japan.) And of the underlying fortitude that striving for excellence required.
Mr. Knight often says that the turning point in his life was when Coach Bowerman asked to be a partner in the venture that eventually became Nike. It was a partnership that was based not on an equal sharing of the workload, but on the pairing of different areas of expertise and the deep trust needed for a successful collaboration: Bowerman innovated on shoe design; Knight figured out how to get those innovative shoes built and sold.
Shoe Dog is an intriguing read for anybody with even a passing interest in track and field. But what is surprising is what a page-turner it is! The characters are well drawn, the pacing is perfect and the language is spare, but eloquent. The storytelling about Nike ends just after the company goes public, so there are many chapters left unwritten: Michael Jordan and the ascent of individually branded athletes, the pivot toward sustainability that Mr. Knight hints at in the epilogue, and more of the personal – for example, the partnership with Oregon Health Sciences University to raise millions for cancer research. As with all good books, the end leaves you wishing for more.