"Fortune magazine ran a story about how Nike has lost its way paying so much money for this basketball player," Knight recalled.
Nike paid Michael Jordan about $250,000 for the first year; he hadn't played a single game in the NBA at that point. "No, but he'd been Player of the Year in the NCAA," Knight explained.
The Air Jordan became so popular people were willing to kill for them, and they did. In the early '90s a string of shootings and stabbings over the shoes made headlines.
"That was just a shock. I think the reaction was, this is insane and it's a shock."
"In terms of just the desirability, it had reached this cultural [point], it was more than just a shoe," said Cowan.
"Yeah, that's true."
Nike rarely shied away from controversy. Sometimes, in fact, they courted it, signing athletes whose early promise (such as Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong) was later tarnished.
Cowan asked, "There are those who have been critical, for example of Dennis Rodman and people whose reputation on the court is phenomenal, off the court is a little different. Do you ever worry about those two sides?"
"Sure. We like a little wackiness," said Knight. "We just don't want too much!"
Athletes going rogue wasn't his only trouble. His use of cheap overseas labor, while economical, proved disastrous in the field of public relations. In the '90s, Nike was accused of fostering sweatshop labor; human rights organizations called for boycotts of Nike products.
While Knight resisted the charges at first, he now insists conditions and wages have been improved.
"Initially your reaction to it, you said [it] was making things worse -- you were a little defensive about it," Cowan said.
"I was, yeah. We tried to find the best factories you could to work with, and good shoes come out of good factories. The fact that they could be better is what we should have concentrated on, and what we ultimately did concentrate on."
Knight has softened in his later years. His personal fortune is now estimated to be around $25 billion.
Money, he says, was never the reason he started selling shoes, but now that he has it, he intends to use it.
"By the time, you know, the lives of my children and their kids run out, I will have given most of it to charity," Knight said.
Together with Penny, his wife of 48 years, they've already donated well over a billion dollars to various causes. They pledged $500 million for cancer research at the Oregon Health & Science University.
At Stanford, where he drew up that blueprint for Nike, they've given more than half-a-billion dollars and counting.
But it's at the University of Oregon where Knight's mark is most obvious, from the law school named after his father, to the gleaming new basketball arena, named after his son, Matthew, who died tragically in a diving accident.
"I can get pretty emotional about this place, too," he said at Hayward Field. "After all, I was born here."
The University of Oregon has given Nike something back, too -- a high-profile platform to launch uniforms, helmets and, of course, shoes.
Phil Knight wanted to make history as an athlete himself. But instead he ran a different race -- one that has put that "big fat checkmark" on the face (or at least the feet) of athletics forever.
Cowan asked, "Can you imagine yourself doing anything else?"
"No. I am blessed," Knight replied. "I couldn't imagine a better life."
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