I have long thought Nike an odious behemoth. To my mind their pieces are inevitably dull and black, harbouring that cumbersome swoosh. Beyond the clothes, the operation gives off a dour corporate sheen. Take the way they muscled New Balance out of Liverpool’s latest kit deal, proffering a battery of social media savvy and celebrity endorsements. What does that have to do with football, anyway?
Then it happened. The pretty girl who works at my local edgy sportswear shop told me she was reading it. Then an ex-colleague, more Burberry shirt than basketball shoe, harped on about it for weeks. Shoe Dog, first published in 2016, is suddenly all the rage in Mumbai. When my eye caught it in a bookshop, curiosity got the better of me. Nike is undeniably good at what it does, I thought, perhaps I could learn the dark arts.
After a tedious opening account of his post-college travel, the story bounds along at a canter worthy of Steve Prefontaine. I couldn’t put the the damn book down. Knight slips back into some of his opening sentimentality towards the epilogue, but by then I liked the guy enough not to begrudge him. There are many ‘business memoirs’ from which you can take great value, but which are a chore to read. This is not one of them. You will learn few conventional lessons about business here, and that’s a good thing.
It is hard not to feel affection for the cast of misanthropes Knight assembles and the crazy idea that they pursue. The infuriatingly in-touch Johnson seems equally deserving of sympathy and censure while I only wish more accountants were like the bombastic Hayes. At times laugh-out-loud funny, Shoe Dog is a happy-go-lucky tale which seems to reach into a rich soup of Americana and offer up a nostalgic parable of graft and enterprise.
Distilled to its raw ingredients, this book is about a bunch of guys who have passion for an idea, they work at it, they pull it off. Knight paints a one-sided picture to be sure, a fact he occasionally alludes to. History, after all, is written by he with the biggest paycheque. I’m unconvinced that some episodes really did play out as he describes, though it really doesn’t matter. This isn’t a historical record or a business book, it’s a story, and it’s all the better for it.
It turns out that Nike Inc, or its genesis at least, isn’t really what I thought it was. Today the company seems to rattle out a sequence of interchangeable mercenaries, or sponsored athletes, puppeteering them like the vampire squid of sporting goods. Though take Prefontaine, the totemic 70s runner who looms large in both the book and Knight’s affections. The fidelity with which Knight writes of watching Pre run can be nothing but the authentic fervour of sporting fandom. The sorrow he felt at the runner’s demise nothing short of genuine. Nike, it seems, has a soul.
A recurring motif in the book is the transition from the unreal to the real, from an ostensibly simple scheme to the listing of a multi-billion dollar enterprise; begrudgingly, I found myself almost fond of Nike by the conclusion. A parallel shift has of course been the transition of athletic wear from sporting equipment to mainstream fashion, a movement during which sporting brands have taken on a life of their own. I pondered, then, the other deities in the pantheon of sportswear which, these days, one sees just as often in the cafe as on the squash court.
I am a fully paid-up member of the stripe-toting Adidas ubermensch. To me Adidas is the walk to Anfield with my father, the building anticipation as thousands of feet climb the steps of the Kop. Thirteen thousand pairs of feet, twenty-six thousand trainers, seventy-eight thousand stripes; relatively fewer swooshes. Many will think of football hooligans. I have a soft spot for Fila; so does the mafia. Umbro reminds me of frosty mornings, not of inner city poverty. Head, the ping of the squash ball just above the tin. Onitsaku Tiger, the muse of Nike’s previous incarnation as Blue Ribbon Sports, doesn’t get a second thought.
What is apparent is that despite the efforts behind the scenes, despite Mr Knight’s wholesome years of toil, these brands take on a life beyond the companies that make them. Patagonia has recently been unnerved by the popularity of its Synchilla gilet on the pavements of Midtown, and actively sought to disassociate itself from the financial analyst cadre.
Shoe Dog ends in 1980 as Knight finally gives in, after much soul searching, and makes an IPO. Son C, as he calls the company, has certainly grown up since then. As trainers have evolved into a culture of their own, which often seems far removed from any sporting endeavour, Nike has developed into an enterprise rather different to the one you’ll read about in Shoe Dog. Your call on if they’re the good guys or the bad guys.
Shortly after reading Shoe Dog, I needed some new shorts for the gym. I set off from my apartment, past the edgy sportswear shop with the pretty girl, before taking a detour from my usual route. I called into the Nike shop to try on a pair of shorts. Jet black, huge white swoosh, NIKE PRO emblazoned on the waistband. Ghastly I thought. Though I did notice they were made in Vietnam, something which should make Phil happy. I thanked the assistant before leaving the shop, weaving between the rickshaws as I crossed Linking road, and entering Adidas.