As you may know by now, readers, I am a lifelong hoops player and fan. So you won't be surprised to learn how much I enjoyed the National Association of Basketball Coaches' Court of Honor Foundation gala last week, which honored Nike Chairman and Co-Founder Phil Knight.
At the risk of sounding like a little kid, it was one heck of an enchanted evening, blending my passions for basketball, media, and accountability.
The greatest minds in college basketball -- Duke's Mike Krzyzewki, Jim Boeheim from Syracuse, Kentucky's John Calipari, and many others -- convened in one room to pay homage to the man who, I would argue, made both basketball and advertising what they are today.
Phil Knight started the company that would become Nike back in 1964, in partnership with his University of Oregon running coach and mentor, Bill Bowerman (who would help design the iconic Cortez, Nike's first running shoe). Knight and Bowerman shared the belief that anyone with a body is an athlete, and set out to help all athletes reach their full potential. Thus Nike was born, with Knight hanging out at track meets to sell shoes from the trunk of his car and generating $8,000 in revenue in year one. (Today, Nike does $20 billion annually.)
If I were to assemble a list of the greatest visionaries of the 20th century, Phil Knight would be right up there at the top with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Knight took what might have been just a shoe company, and turned it into the first lifestyle juggernaut.
What became clear during the gala was Knight's long-time appreciation of coaches and their ability to mentor, which is the key to educating today's athlete and non-athlete alike. And while Knight has been responsible for putting many an athlete on a pedestal (literally, if you visit the Nike campus), it's the coaches whom he canonizes.
The gala was an embodiment of that principle. Coach K orchestrated the evening and Coach PJ Carlesimo served as emcee, with top college coaches speaking throughout the dinner about the ways in which Knight created a community among them. From the constant (though good-natured) ribbing that characterized the evening's banter I could tell that I was among a Band of Brothers.
Based on the one opportunity I had to spend substantial time with Knight 10 years ago (concerning the V Foundation, named for the legendary late college basketball coach Jim Valvano), I understood the coaches' affection for Knight.
Hall of Fame Georgetown Coach and Nike Board Member John Thompson pointed out during the dinner that Knight always looked first at what players did "away from the ball," when they were out of the limelight. This is what Knight has embodied: clarity, conviction, and the courage to do the right thing. Courage, in this case, means accountability, but a different accountability than that we've discussed on this blog before: accountability to one's self.
Those of us in the media-measurement world could stand to learn a thing or two from him.
Nike, after all, might be one of the seminal television advertisers in history. Its "Just Do It" ads, Spike Lee commercials, and ads for Air Jordans -- and, more recently, the controversial Tiger Woods and LeBron James spots -- helped position Nike as a culture-defining, risk-taking brand. If the ads haven't always sold more shoes, they have created a brand proposition to entice the world. (Auto makers face a similar challenge at the moment: how best to balance lifestyle brand-building over the long term with the post-recession focus on selling cars and achieving ROI against media spend.)
Clearly, the coaches are huge believers in the importance of coaching in kids' lives. The Court of Honor raised funds for Ticket to Reading Rewards, a program that encourages middle-school kids to read more outside the classroom. Talk about ROI!
While I have always admired the coaches, I left the event with a new appreciation for the legacy of Phil Knight. By celebrating coaches, he has fostered a community that has made a difference. By occasionally ignoring short-term returns, he helped an industry evolve. By creating a company that was true to his vision, he put a lasting "dent in the universe."