I grew up in the 1950’s playing basketball hour after hour on city playgrounds.
The public courts of the day were nothing like those found today in most American towns. There were no lights, a steel, kidney-shaped backboard (ugh!) with bent rims, occasionally a steel chain net and no lines painted to properly delineate the free throw line and out of bounds. The surface was often rough and cracked. You had to know where the ball would give a true bounce and where you could lose control because of the uneven surface.
But we played on for endless hours in all weather. The worst nights were when there was no moon to play by. We had to quit play early on those nights. Every Christmas I would find a new Voit basketball under the tree. It was a glorious site, sparkling, hard, looking just like a ball you would see the pros play with on television. I could not wait to get the presents unwrapped, finish the never ending holiday breakfast, get to Mass and, then, finally, get my new Voit to the courts.
The only other sporting good product that came remotely close to the joy of seeing my new ball every year was when I bought a new pair of Chuck Taylor Converse All Star shoes. Back in that day, Chuck’s as they were universally called, were the gold standard of sports shoe. You could buy black or white Chuck’s. There were cheaper knock off brands of athletic shoes, but though we were poor, no kid in our neighborhood would hit the court in anything but a pair of Chuck’s.
Chuck Taylor Converse All Star’s were a pretty basic affair. The shoes had a cloth, flexible, soft upper construction. The upper was glued to a layered rubberized sole. There was an iconic round logo glued to the outside of the shoes letting everyone rest assured that these were real Chuck’s. The designer of the shoes was the former star basketball player and coach, Chuck Taylor.
Until the mid-1960’s Chuck’s remained the shoe of choice for all levels of basketball players from Pee Wee to professional. At about this time a new development in the evolution of athletic performance enhancement came to market. This new product changed the way athletes train and play, the way sports were funded and athletes were paid and revolutionized modern personal care and entertainment habits.
Bill Bowerman was a decorated World War II hero. After the war he returned to his native Oregon where he became one of the great track coaches of all time at the University of Oregon. His squads won national championships, his athletes won numerous national and Olympic championships. Bowerman created numerous training techniques that he utilized to pull more speed, endurance and confidence out of his athletes. He always was looking for an edge.
In 1962 Bill Bowerman took a trip to New Zealand, and almost unbelievably, was introduced to jogging which was popular in that island nation. Before this time, jogging as part of a healthy exercise regimen was virtually unknown in America. He returned home and published a small 100 page book titled “Jogging”. It sold over one million copies and started the jogging craze in the United States.
In any endeavor where achieving great speed is the goal of the activity, the enemy of maximum performance is weight. Race cars go faster if they can be made lighter. Bowerman was passionate about improving athletic performance. It was this passion that pushed him to design and launch one of the great consumer products, and brands, of all times.
In his home workshop, Bill Bowerman was a constant tinkerer. While seeking to craft a novel performance running shoe, he had the idea to impound his wife’s waffle iron and use the griddle to score the soles of prototype training shoes he was experimenting with. He seared the rubberized soles with the waffle iron and found that by removing sections of the rubber, the shoes were more aerodynamic, lighter weight and provided substantially more grip than the available shoes of that day.
The iconic Cortez running shoe, still popular to this day, was born. Athletes were ecstatic with the fit, comfort and added speed that the Cortez shoes provided.
Coach Bowerman approached a former runner athlete of his, Phil Knight, with a proposition. He would design and test the shoes, if Knight would handle the business side of a new enterprise. They sealed their deal with a handshake and Nike was born.
For many years the Nike brand has been synonymous with the growth and commercialization of sport at all levels, internationally, domestically, amateur and professional. Athletes, coaches, professional teams and universities sign multi-million dollar contracts to wear Nike gear and display the famous “swoosh” branding logo on their uniforms, footwear, balls and sport bags. Nike retail stores are in most shopping malls.
Sponsorships pioneered by Nike have resulted in the explosion of televised sporting events. New sports such as beach volleyball and extreme sports have boomed and penetrated sports fans consciousness. Basketball has spread from an American centered game to enjoying huge international growth largely because of Nike sponsorship deals and in country marketing. Almost inevitability, when sporting history is made, or records broken, Nike is involved either in marketing the event or providing athletic enhancement products.
Nike is a multi-billion dollar corporate success. There is almost no sport, organized or recreational, that does not feel the tentacles of the Nike reach. The brand is one of the most recognizable in the world. For years the Company has been considered one of America’s best employers in annual worker surveys. The State of Oregon and the University of Oregon have received munificent benefits from the generosity and immense profitability of Nike.
Bill Bowerman was not seeking to build a financial fortune when he inadvertently did so by achieving his real goal of seeking more speed for his athletes. His Cortez shoes were the “alpha” product that became the cornerstone for building one of the world’s great brands. He died in 1999.
Coach Bowerman was a war hero, athlete, coach and teacher, beloved by each of the students and athletes that came under his sway. His legacy is burnished every time a recreational jogger dons Nike shoes and shorts to make a run, or the University of Kentucky basketball team takes to the court in Nike uniforms. The benefits that society continues to enjoy from his creativity and passion will make each of our lives richer for as long as Nike successfully expands sporting opportunities and seeks more performance benefits for its products.