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Nike's Knight deserves Hall spot
Friday night in Springfield, Mass., America’s cobbler-in-chief will be enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, joining such greats as Michael Jordan and Bill Russell, Larry Bird and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Much ink has been spilled over Nike founder Phil Knight’s induction into basketball’s hallowed grounds. What’s a shoe-hawker who made his bones in track and field before he capitalized on the NBA’s success doing alongside people who lived and breathed only basketball for decades? Why would the businessman whose marketing genius took money from the wallets of basketball-obsessed urban youth belong in any Hall of Fame other than one on Wall Street?
Those spilling this sort of ink are either misguided with some naive sense of basketball purity — or looking at basketball history as if it were measured only in championships, in points per game and in MVP awards.
Phil Knight belongs in the basketball Hall of Fame for the same reason Steve Jobs belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Knight did not invent basketball shoes or celebrity endorsements, just as Jobs did not invent MP3 players or digital music. Instead, both men were innovators who saw a great idea and made it better — and, just as important, saw a way to make a buck off it.
There are many ways to prove Knight’s name belongs among these greats. We could always look at the others who’ve been inducted into the Hall of Fame in the “contributor” category and realize that Knight’s contributions to basketball are at least the equal, and likely far greater, than most. (Examples: announcer Dick Vitale, known for his occasionally insightful basketball commentary punctuated by screaming; Meadowlark Lemon, the “Clown Prince” of the Harlem Globetrotters who was a hell of an entertainer but played fake games; Borislav Stankovic — who could forget Borislav Stankovic? — the Serbian basketball administrator who headed the International Basketball Federation for 26 years and aided the NBA’s current international flavor.)
But instead of making silly arguments about why the sanctity of the Hall of Fame isn’t fit for a businessman such as Knight, we should look at his basketball legacy this way: What would the NBA be like without Phil Knight?
The answer: Less profitable. Less exciting. Less global.
Just less, all the way around.
“What Phil Knight did was so important to basketball in the United States as well as American basketball as it was seen all around the world,” said Robert Thompson, a pop culture scholar at Syracuse University. “It was an incredible marketing behemoth. He moved basketball from being just one professional sport to this huge phenomenon.”
Looking at this year’s weak class of inductees, none of them has had as much impact on professional basketball as Knight’s Nike brand has. Sure, Don Nelson is the winningest coach in NBA history — but never coached a team to a championship. Reggie Miller? Five All-Star Games, zero championships. In the grand sweep of sports history, all of this year’s other inductees will be a blip.
Phil Knight, however, was one of those rare men who shaped history instead of just being shaped by it. He has been called the most powerful man in sports; he’s one of America’s richest people. In fact, the last person to be inducted into basketball’s Hall of Fame with stronger credentials than Knight would have been three years ago, when Jordan — the man whose symbiotic relationship with Knight drove the NBA to become a global brand — was brought in.
You could say that Knight’s big break came in 1984, when he signed Jordan to his first endorsement deal, beating out Adidas and Converse. Throw fewer bucks at Jordan back in 1984, and we’d be talking about the Converse Jordans, not the Nike Air Jordans, that are performing some sort of retail magic by selling more shoes now than when Jordan was at the peak of his playing career. In this flawed way of thinking, Phil Knight’s greatness was simply that of a man in the right place at the right time, a man whose shoe company filled a vacuum just as pop culture and the media were changing.
Except that changes in consumerism, pop culture and sports are happening around us all the time. It takes a pure genius — a Phil Knight or a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg — to recognize what those cultural changes mean and exploit them into a multibillion-dollar business.
“The idea of hooking up with sports stars wasn’t a groundbreaking idea, but doing it to the extent that he did it was really extraordinary,” Thompson said. “The whole Jordan connection — this was not just a guy who was doing a product endorsement. This was a guy who became almost an anthropomorphic manifestation of a product. Athletes were celebrities and had been endorsing products and saying they used them and liked them for a long, long time.
“But Michael Jordan wasn’t just endorsing Nike. He became the Nike-shoe-turning-into-a-human-being sort of thing. They became completely inseparable.”
By changing the way sports are marketed, Nike changed the way we look at sports. In no sport was that more obvious than in basketball. You could argue that plenty of bad came along with the commoditization of American professional sports: rampant corruption in youth sports, youngsters being shot over Air Jordans, LeBron James releasing an absurdly expensive $315 shoe, captains of industry such as Knight donating hundreds of millions to college sports programs and fueling the facility wars. You could even mount a short-sighted argument that some businessman doesn’t belong alongside John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens, Magic Johnson and Pistol Pete.
But you can’t deny that the marketing genius of Phil Knight’s company forever changed the NBA more than any other sport. Phil Knight created an aura around Nike that’s more powerful than any other brand. He performed the impossible task of getting the American male excited to spend hundreds of dollars on shoes. He went from the guy hawking shoes from the back of his station wagon to the guy whose company’s endorsement deal is the holy grail in the business of sport.
In a way, the shoe salesman getting inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame might just be Phil Knight’s greatest marketing coup yet. As much as just about anyone, he belongs.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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