The lucky breaks that built Nike, from signing Jordan to the rise of jogging

The lucky breaks that built Nike, from signing Jordan to the rise of jogging
Next week Nike will release an Air Jordan in a "lucky green" colorway.Courtesy Nike
  • The new "Air" movie has reignited interest in Nike's rich corporate history.
  • An early Nike employee joked the company had a certain "horseshoe" energy.

Nike just released an Air Jordan in "lucky green." The timing couldn't be more fitting.

The shoe will drop as Americans flock to see "Air," the new movie about Nike's underdog effort to sign Michael Jordan. The film has a 93% Rotten Tomatoes score, despite criticism from Nike veterans that it flubbed some of the facts. The movie has reignited interest in Nike's rich corporate history, which, while grounded in the world-class execution of a simple business plan, still brims with some cosmic and entertaining good fortune.

"Luck plays a big role," Nike cofounder Phil Knight wrote in the closing of his 2016 memoir, "Shoe Dog." "Yes, I'd like to publicly acknowledge the power of luck. Athletes get lucky, poets get lucky, businesses get lucky."

For Knight, it started before he sold a single pair of sneakers.

In 1962, Knight pitched the Japanese company Onitsuka on becoming its US running shoe importer. Unbeknownst to Knight, Onitsuka at the time was looking for someone to do just that.


The lucky breaks that built Nike, from signing Jordan to the rise of jogging
Nike cofounders Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight, pictured in 1999, enjoyed a string of corporate good fortune.John Gress/AP

Knight then partnered with his college running coach, Bill Bowerman, to formally launch Nike. At the time, jogging was an activity for oddballs.

"It may be hard for anyone born after 1960 to believe, but runners in those days were regarded as eccentric at best, subversive and dangerous at worst," Kenny Moore wrote in his authorized 2006 biography of Bowerman.

That all started to change in 1967 when Bowerman co-wrote "Jogging," a book credited with kickstarting a running boom in America.

All of a sudden, the market for Knight's self-professed "crazy idea" became an entire country, not just a handful of outcast runners.

The lucky breaks continued.


One specific example: In 1974, Jimmy Connors won Wimbledon. Nike had passed on paying him $1,500 to endorse the brand, but Connors wore Nikes at the tournament anyway because the company that paid him made shoes that hurt his feet.

"And everybody in the world saw it," Vanity Fair wrote in 1993. "For free."

Around that time, Americans started to ditch the loafers for daily mall and grocery store trips. Sneakers became commonplace.

"A lot of things have come together, Knight told Vanity Fair in 1993. "Our more casual way of life today. A desire to dress more comfortably."

The company's ongoing good fortune prompted Nike's then-head of tennis to tell Vanity Fair that it's as if Knight carried a horseshoe around with him. In true early-Nike fashion, he even graphically described where Knight probably kept it.

The lucky breaks that built Nike, from signing Jordan to the rise of jogging
Knight, shown tossing up the ceremonial opening tip at a 2009 basketball game, has publicly acknowledged the role luck played in growing Nike.Chris Pietsch/AP

The luck continued with the 1984 signing of Jordan, subject of the new feature film. As the movie accurately depicts, Nike was the long shot in the race to sign Jordan.

Nike caught that break, too.

Jordan's endorsement and a string of Air products released three years later catapulted Nike from $920 million in annual revenue to $3.8 billion a decade later.

In its last fiscal year, Nike reported $46.7 billion in sales.

In his memoir, Knight playfully acknowledged all the good fortune and coincidences.


That first meeting took place in Kobe, Japan. Onitsuka made a shoe called a Tiger. After he left Japan, Knight traveled around the world, stopping at the Jordan River.

Get it?

Kobe. Tiger. Jordan.

Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, and Michael Jordan are three of the most important endorsers in Nike history.

He goes on.


Steve Prefontaine's best time in the mile: 3:54.6. Nike on a dialpad: 6453. The same numbers. Just reversed.

"Am I allowed to think that some coincidences are more than coincidental?" Knight wrote. "Can I be forgiven for thinking, or hoping, that the universe, or some guiding daemon, has been nudging me, whispering to me? Or else just playing with me?"

Next week, Nike will release the "Black and Lucky Green" Air Jordan 1. Nike describes the sneaker as a "tribute to MJ's charmed performance" against the Celtics.

"Air" remains in theaters.

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