Nike founder Phil Knight's new book reveals remarkable history

This isn't usually the emotional reaction elicited from a business book, but something about Nike co-founder Phil Knight's memoir "Shoe Dog," which hits stores Tuesday, tugged at my heartstrings.

After Nike went public in December 1980, Knight was suddenly worth $178 million. It's a nice chunk of change he claims didn't mean much to him at the time, and -- to the reader in me -- was nothing more than validation that he had financially succeeded.

What broke me down was the story of the parents of Bob Woodell, Nike's fourth employee, who was hired in 1967 after a lunch meeting that Woodell had to pay for because Knight didn't have money in his wallet.

Woodell was a successful long jumper for Oregon's track and field team who was paralyzed after a boating accident one day after helping the Ducks win the 1966 national title.

In 1970, Knight's Japanese shoe import business was six years old, but he was still stressing over every big purchase order check it had to send to the manufacturer Onitsuka. That year, in search of funds for a $20,000 payment, Woodell and his parents scraped together $8,000 to give Knight. No interest on the money. No paperwork. They had emptied their life savings.

When Knight received the check, he asked Woodell's mother why she did it.

"Because," Knight quotes her as saying, "if you can't trust the company your son is working for, then who can you trust."

Ten years later, Woodell sat his parents down to deliver the news that the company had gone public.

"What does that mean?" his parents asked.

"It means your original eight thousand dollar loan to Phil is worth $1.6 million," Woodell said. Their investment had grown by 20,000 percent.

As innocently as they had given Knight that money in 1970, his mother's response was simply, "I don't understand."

I've covered Nike extensively over the past 16 years, and the fact that I've never heard many of the stories Knight tells in "Shoe Dog" is a credit to the book.

Knight wasn't going to do what so many publishers would want him to do: unload every story about MJ, Tiger and Bo.

But there's none of that -- other than Tiger Woods being the first to call Knight after Knight's son died, Michael Jordan leaving Knight a front-row seat at the funeral when his father died and a line about Knight's regret in not re-signing Bo Jackson when his playing career was done.

Stories of entrepreneurship and how the company that became Nike and made Knight one of the richest people in the world almost didn't make it.

"I left a lot out too," joked Knight.

Nike isn't what it is simply because of MJ and the Air Jordan franchise, as the narrative has led us to believe. It is what it is because of everything before Nike signed him.

Among the crazy stories:

  • When he gets to Japan, Knight is asked the name of his new company. He pulls Blue Ribbon Sports out of thin air after thinking of all the blue ribbons he won in races as a kid.

  • Knight becomes the exclusive US distributor of Onitsuka's shoes by fighting off a wrestling coach from Long Island and lying to the Japanese company that he has an East Coast office

  • Knight decides he has to make his own shoes after he steals a piece of paper out of an Onitsuka executive's briefcase that revealed that he was touring the US to explore other partners.

  • Knight's initial reaction to the Nike name: "Maybe it'll grow on us."

  • Knight's first thoughts on the Nike swoosh: "It'll have to do."

What's also unusual about "Shoe Dog" is Knight's willingness to reveal things that might make other authors uncomfortable. How his son Matt, who passed away in 2004, didn't want to wear Nikes for a three-year period because it symbolized time spent away from his father. How he left his wife, Penny, two days after she had given birth to twins to catch an Oregon-Arizona State football game.

"We lost," Knight recalled.

The strategy of this book is to focus on the minutiae behind Nike's early years. In doing so, it not only provides a fresh historical perspective on one of the most profiled companies in the world, but it builds characters of the people behind the brand, many of whom we've never heard of.

I cried when Woodell's story came full circle, and it wasn't because of the financial reward his parents got. It was because, by the end of the book, I felt like I knew Woodell. That I was closer to his story. It was an emotion that I've certainly never encountered while reading a business book.