Book Review: Shoe Dog
By Dylan Sinn
It’s difficult to know what to call Shoe Dog.
The book is ostensibly Nike co-founder Phil Knight’s autobiography, but it contains only cursory mentions of his childhood and just as little about the last handful of decades, when he became the public-facing leader of one of the world’s largest athletic apparel companies.
It’s much more a biography of Nike itself, tracing the organization’s journey from a “crazy idea” floating in the 24-year-old Knight’s mind in 1962 to a publicly traded fitness goliath in 1980.
Regardless of what you decide to call it, the story of Nike is a good one. Knight’s passion for his company, which borders on obsession as he fights to drag it onto firm financial footing, is the driving force behind not only the company’s growth, but also the book’s frenetic pace.
The readers catch up with Knight as he’s coming off a year in the Army, possessing degrees from Oregon and Stanford, but still without any idea of how he should define success in his life or how to go about achieving it.
Once he decides to start a shoe company, he vows to run it with “an athlete’s single-minded dedication and purpose.” The action starts from there and doesn’t stop as “Buck” (Knight’s nom de guerre as he fights what he calls “war without bullets”) struggles through one crisis after another, picking up followers who are as dedicated to the cause as he is along the way.
Knight’s attitude for getting the company, originally called Blue Ribbon Sports, off the ground is simple: “Don’t stop.” He never does, and at times his devotion to the company is all that keeps it afloat.
It’s clear that Nike should not exist today. Under a less committed leader, the company likely would have folded half a dozen times in its first decade of existence.
One (of many) moments in Blue Ribbon’s early history that could have forced the company out of business also illustrates Knight’s resilience. In 1966, Blue Ribbon wasn’t making any shoes of its own, but rather distributing a Japanese company’s shoes in the United States. Blue Ribbon only had one store, in Santa Monica, California.
The Japanese company, Onitsuka, thought about changing to a different distributor, leading to this exchange between Knight and an Onitsuka executive at Onitsuka’s headquarters in Japan:
Onitsuka wanted for its U.S. distributor someone bigger, more established, a firm that could handle the workload. A firm with offices on the East Coast.
“But, but,” I spluttered, “Blue Ribbon does have offices on the East Coast.”
Kitami rocked back in his chair. “Oh?”
“Yes,” I said. “We’re on the East Coast, the West Coast, and soon we may be in the Midwest. We can handle national distribution, no question.”
“Well,” Kitami said. “This change things.”
And with that, Knight’s company had its first exclusive distribution contract. Of course, he still needed someone to run the brand new East Coast store. He was able to convince Jeff Johnson, the company’s first employee, to move from California to Massachusetts to open the store and run it.
That Johnson agreed to go is just one example of Knight’s remarkable ability to find talented people who believed in the company as much as he did and were willing to leave secure jobs for a company that had a decidedly insecure future.
Shoe Dog is full of stories such as that one, incidents that pushed Blue Ribbon, and later Nike, to the brink of collapse before Knight and his lieutenants were able to come up with another creative solution. That the reader knows the company will inevitably win the dispute does little to dampen the suspense.
The book’s fast pace, jumping from problem to solution and back again, slows down sporadically as Knight details parts of his private life. His early years with his wife, whom he meets when she is a student in an accounting class he’s teaching at Portland State University, and, later his foibles as a father, require several heartfelt digressions that add a personal touch to the company history.
The book’s most raw emotion comes when Knight talks about Steve Prefontaine, the Oregon runner who died in 1975 driving home from an after-race party. Prefontaine was a Nike employee and endorser and Knight admits to being “star struck” in the runner’s presence and inspired by his performance in the 5000 meters at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
I knew that race would forever be part of me, and I vowed it would also be part of Blue Ribbon. In our coming battles, with Onitsuka, with whomever, we’d be like Pre. We’d compete as if our lives depended on it. Because they did.
Knight ends the story in 1980, after Nike goes public and its co-founder’s net worth becomes $178 million overnight. The book’s final chapter skips forward a quarter century, to a restless Knight reflecting on some of the company’s triumphs and failures in the interim (he makes certain to touch on the company’s controversial labor practices in China and what it’s done to improve them).
In the end, he realizes that he’d really like to do it all over again. After such a wild ride, it’s not difficult to see why.
Dylan Sinn is graduate student at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.