For my one-hour TV special on Nike (next Tuesday at 10 pm and 1 am ET), I sat down with Nike president Charlie Denson and talked to him about a variety of topics.
Me: I'm always amazed by the group of people that started at Nike. You've been there since 1979 when you were an assistant manager for Nike's first retail store in Portland. What was it like at the time?
Denson: At the time, it was really just a collection of people who knew each other. My job interview was over lunch at a restaurant. A friend of mine who still works for the company hired me. The first time he asked me to to do this, I said, 'No. I have to go get a real job. My athletic career is over and I've always been a sports junkie, but I have to get out into the business world.' The third time, I agreed to do it. Maybe I could take a couple years and have fun and then I could go and get a real job. And the great thing is, I've never had to go look for a real one.
Me: I know you're close with Michael Jordan. Take me back to the time in 1984 when you guys signed him for $500,000 a year. What was going on at the time?
Denson: I think at the time we were really starting to emerge as a sports company. So even though our first endorsee was Ilie Nastase, we were still primarily known as a running company. And so we just started to push into basketball in the NBA. We had George Gervin and Moses Malone was part of the mix. And so, you know, Michael coming out of North Carolina, just winning the national championship, he was somebody that we thought was great and could be a great person to personify what the Nike brand was all about.
Me: He wore Converse in college and loved adidas. They didn't give him a chance. When did you guys realize you made the right decision?
Denson: We probably first knew when the NBA banned the first Air Jordan. That turned out to be good for us and we pushed the envelope a little bit by making an ad out of it. You know, it would be great to say today that we had this all planned out from the get go, but at the time I have to admit I don't think there was any real illusions that this was going to become as big and as important as it has become today.
Me: The Jordan Brand is generating something like $800 million today and 40 of the top 50 signature basketball shoes in 2007 were the Air Jordan brand. How long can this go on?
Denson: We talked about it when Michael neared his final retirement period and it has always been a point of conversation. You know, to some degree, I'm surprised. I knew Michael would always go from legend to legacy, but half the kids who are wearing his shoes and aspire to be like him today may have never even seen him play.
Me: There are people who are putting the pressure on LeBron to be as successful with Nike as Jordan. What are realistic expectations here?
Denson: People like to compare everybody to Michael Jordan whether it's on the floor or in the boardroom. LeBron has been fantastic for us. He's done everything you could expect him to do on the floor and he continues to grow as an athlete, as an endorsee and as a business person. You know, people forget that Michael's savvy comes from more than 20 years of education. I feel LeBron is learning at the same pace and in some cases, I'd say LeBron may even be more mature from a development standpoint. He does have to win that elusive championship and then people can one day refer to him in the group of the best ever.