Nike founder Phil Knight helped build his estimated $25 billion fortune by marketing his sneakers with some of the most famous athletes in history.

Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are just some of the superstars from the Nike stable who helped drive the company to unprecedented heights.

Knight recently published his memoir Shoe Dog, which includes fascinating anecdotes about his relationships with Nike's favourite sons.

Knight knew from the early stages of his company the importance of athlete endorsements.


"If we were going to compete with Adidas - not to mention Puma and Gola, and Diadora and Head, and Wilson and Spalding, and Karhu and Etonic and New Balance and all the other brands popping up in the 1970s - we'd need top athletes wearing and talking up our brand," Knight wrote.

The first of these was colourful Romanian tennis player Ilie Nastase, who actually started wearing a pair of Nike Match Points before he was sponsored by Knight.

Knight got word of it and signed Nastase for $10,000 at a steakhouse in Omaha. "After I got him to sign on the dotted line, after I locked the papers in my briefcase, we ordered a celebratory dinner," Knight wrote.

"A bottle of wine, another bottle of wine. At some point, for some reason, I started speaking with a Romanian accent, and for some reason Nasty started calling me Nasty, and for no reason I could think of his supermodel wife started making goo-goo eyes at everyone, including me, and by night's end, stumbling up to my room, I felt like a tennis champion, and a tycoon, and a kingmaker."

But without doubt the most mutually beneficial relationship Knight had with an athlete was with Jordan. In his book, Knight recalls the night he spent staying at Jordan's house in Chicago.

"I pick up the phone next to the bed in the guestroom and discover that there's a voice on the line," he wrote. "'May I help you?' It's room service. Genuine, round-the-clock, whatever-your-heart desires room service. I set down the phone, my mouth hanging open."

Another memorable moment came in July 2005, when Knight was approached by James - who had just completed his second season with the Cleveland Cavaliers - in the middle of an event.

"Phil, can I see you a moment?" James asked.

"Of course."

"When I first signed with you," James said, "I didn't know all that much about the history of Nike. So I've been studying up."


"You're the founder."

"Well. Co-founder. Yes. It surprises a lot of people."

"And Nike was born in 1972."

"Well. Born? Yes. I suppose."

"Right. So I went to my jeweller and had them find a Rolex watch from 1972."

The watch was engraved: "With thanks for taking a chance on me."

"It wasn't much of a chance," Knight wrote. "He was pretty close to a sure thing. But taking a chance on people - he's right. You could argue that's what it's all been about."

"They're all like sons, and brothers - family," Knight adds. "No less. When Tiger's father, Earl, dies, the church in Kansas holds fewer than 100, and I'm honoured to be included. When Jordan's father is murdered, I fly to North Carolina for the funeral and discover with a shock that a seat is reserved for me in the front row."

After first travelling to Asia in 1962 to convince Japanese shoe executives to allow him to sell their sneakers in America, Knight continued on a round-the-world trip.

"I think often of that momentous trip when I was 24," he writes. "I think of myself standing high above Athens, gazing at the Parthenon, and I never fail to experience the sensation of time folding in on itself.

"Amid the (Nike) campus buildings (in Oregon), along the campus walkways, there are enormous banners: action photos of the super athletes, the legends and giants and titans who've elevated Nike to something more than a brand. Jordan. Kobe. Tiger.

"Again, I can't help but think of my trip around the world.

"The River Jordan.

"Mystical Kobe, Japan.

"That first meeting at Onitsuka, pleading with the executives for the right to sell Tigers ... Can this all be a coincidence?"