POSTED: Sep 10, 2012 7:49 AM ET
Nike founder Phil Knight (left), with rapper Jay-Z and baseball star Ken Griffey Jr. in 2003.
Phil Knight laughed and said, "We were just trying to sell a few shoes. We had no idea." It was impossible to envision, in the mid-1980s, how the world would change.
His company, Nike, ended up selling more than a few Air Jordan shoes. The namesake, young Michael Jordan, grew into a global advertising sensation. Unimaginable profits streamed in. The standards of athletes and the marketing of athletic apparel changed forever. And so Phil Knight, a former middle-distance runner at Oregon who has not played organized basketball since high school, a business magnate who has never worked for an NBA team or college hoops program, makes the basketball Hall of Fame.
Yes, Mars Blackmon. It's definitely the shoes.
The Nike machine is obviously not based on one superstar in one sport. But the Air Jordan phenomenon was unquestionably a business and cultural game-changer for the NBA around the globe. That achievement became the pinpoint for Knight being named to the Hall.
"I think, to some extent, the game's and Nike's growth have paralleled each other," Knight said. "You can really kind of look at that moment and that player. Michael Jordan has done more to expand the game probably than any one individual. I think we were not just along for the ride, but I think we helped promote that. That was really the start. That 1984 year really was when it kind of was on its way to overdrive."
In enshrining Knight into the Hall in the contributor category, without the same layers of voting scrutiny North American players and coaches face, officials of the Springfield, Mass., basketball museum cited Nike's connection to many greats of the game, including Jordan and Sheryl Swoopes, the first woman to have her own signature line. The company sponsors the U.S. Olympic basketball team -- whose head, Jerry Colangelo, is also chairman of the Hall -- and is a marketing partner with the Hall, a relationship that has not gone unnoticed by critics of Knight's enshrinement.
"I think we've done some things to expand the popularity of the game," Knight said. "Obviously we've taken the emotion of the basketball arena and around people like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and really kind of expanded it in the public perception. I think we've helped that way. I think how Nike got to know the officials that were good is in our work with the U.S. Olympic team. Not only the uniform and the shoes, but also getting posters made out in front of the Statue of Liberty and having special events in Beijing which I think were quite helpful to expanding the game around the world.
"What really kind of got it all started, of course, was Air Jordan -- when it first came out, [it] was a pretty dramatic shoe. David Stern banned the shoe. He said it had to be either white or black, it couldn't be such dramatic colors. And then everybody wanted the shoe. David Stern now laughs and says that he gave us a big boost, and he did. That was really the kind of the start of the whole process as far as getting publicity and attention to the stars and the game."
Knight reported he was shocked when Colangelo called with news of the election. The Nike head said he didn't even know there was such a thing as a contributor category for candidates who have made historic off-the-court impacts.
Reaction to Knight heading to Springfield was predictably mixed, especially in a Hall selection process that is controversial anyway. Knight has received the tribute even while saying most of the credit for the shoe explosion belongs to Jordan. He avoids the debate -- "It doesn't surprise me. I was surprised they asked me, and I'm delighted they did. If there's debate, I understand it."
USA Today put it to a public vote in February: "Is Nike co-founder Phil Knight a good choice for the Hall of Fame?"
The discussion over Knight's election to the Hall, which continues to cloak its voters and results in secrecy, won't stop soon. When the official enshrinement takes place Friday night in Springfield, one of the presenters, fittingly, is Jordan. The other is former Georgetown coach John Thompson, now a member of the Nike board of directors.
"I can tell you when I spoke to him, he broke down on the phone," Colangelo said. "He was so emotionally moved by that. But when you think about an innovator, how many people have changed the world of basketball like Phil Knight? And the lives he's touched. Coaches, players and kids. That's the kind of person that needs to be considered for recognition. When his name came up, on that committee, it was like unanimous. Bingo."
Knight said that he could not have imagined receiving the honor seven months ago, but there he will be, Jordan by his side, a quarter-century later. Jordan would have been great anyway, but the Air Jordans and Nike's marketing pushed him to a different level entirely, and he and Knight got sloppy rich together. Knight and the Nike swoosh logo, Jordan and Jumpman, Spike Lee's Mars Blackmon ... yeah, they sold a few shoes together. Now we have an even better idea of what it meant.
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