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Thanks to a risky bet, Nike got on the right track

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

Everyone thought he was crazy. In 1984, Phil Knight took a huge risk by spending heavily on an endorsement deal with a then-unknown college basketball star.

But Knight, who co-founded Nike in 1971, sensed the charisma of a star-in-the-making and jumped at the chance to sign him. As it turns out, securing a deal with Michael Jordan proved a brilliant move.

Today, Knight laughs off the criticism he faced at the time. “There’s no better example that Nike has lost its way than they paid $250,000 for a North Carolina basketball player,” Fortune magazine reported.

Knight built an entire brand around Jordan featuring sneakers and apparel. Today, Air Jordan products generate $2 billion a year for Nike.

Knight, 77, has a net worth of more than $21 billion. He’s one of the world’s wealthiest self-made business builders, and he plans to step down as Nike’s chairman in 2016.

Known for his brashness, Knight earned a reputation as a ruthless competitor. In 1988, he bragged that he was looking forward to vanquishing rival sneaker company Reebok—and forcing them to fire 280 employees.

Some attacked him for making such heartless comments. But nearly three decades later, he refuses to apologize.

“That’s kind of the nature of the business … there are winners and losers,” he says.

Like most dynamic leaders, Knight followed his passion. He enjoyed running in college and parlayed his hobby into designing sneakers.

He teamed up with the right partner. Enlisting his college track coach, Bill Bowerman, to invent a new kind of running shoe, Knight applied his marketing skills to transform Nike into a dominant global brand.

— Adapted from “Nearing finish line, Knight reflects,” Josh Peter, www.usatoday.com.

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