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If Michael Jordan is God, then Phil Knight put him in heaven. By paying Jordan and other athletes millions to endorse his shoes, the chairman and CEO of Nike has helped turn them into household names, (make that household gods) and shaped sports to his liking. His pantheon includes Jordan and Charles Barkley, Andre Agassi and Deion Sanders, Alonzo Mourning and Monica Seles. Knight, 58, who lives in Beaverton, Oregon, is the master of the mantra of the age ("Just Do It") and the proprietor of the unmistakable swoosh, the icon that has turned the lowly sneaker into winged sandals, an aid to Everyman and Everywoman as they attempt to approximate the divine. Each pair promises the inspiration of Nike's athletes: the myth-defying rebelliousness that has let them fly to the sun without melting their wings. Knight's stars are frontiersmen, exponents of an in-your-face brand of American optimism. And thus sports, as Knight has asserted, are "the culture of the United States." By exporting the culture he has conquered the world for America.
Knight, however, does not believe empires last forever. Business cycles will displace front-runners, even Nike (which made $397 million last year). The pursuit of cheap labor, for example, can redound on the mighty. But Knight also believes in the eternal return--that Nike's pre-eminence can be restored again and again. Geoff Hollister, a sports consultant who has worked with Knight for 25 years, advises rivals: "Laugh at him once, and see how long it takes for him to catch up with you." Swoosh.
GERALDINE LAYBOURNE Television Executive
Researchers for Nickelodeon did a survey a few years ago asking young viewers to compare TV networks to food. Fox, the kids said, is like junk food. The Disney Channel is ice cream. And Nickelodeon, they decided, resembles pizza and spaghetti. Geraldine Laybourne, longtime creative chief of the children's cable network, loved that answer. "We're good for them, but we're so much fun that being good for them isn't boring."
Today this may seem an obvious approach to children's TV. But it was something of a radical notion in 1980, when Laybourne, a former schoolteacher and the mother of two, first joined the fledgling cable operation. Children's TV at the time was divided fairly neatly into two realms: "educational" fare, mostly on PBS, and all the other junk that kids watched, mainly bad cartoons. "Our dream was to bring back variety to television for kids," Laybourne said. Nickelodeon programming, from the raucous game show Double Dare to rude cartoons like Ren & Stimpy, hit a happy middle ground: it didn't insult kids' intelligence or their sense of fun either.