Nike Co-Founder Phil Knight Recalls ‘Insane’ 1990s Air Jordan Killings

The runaway success of Nike’s Air Jordan range after it debuted in 1985 was like nothing the sportswear company’s co-founder Phil Knight had ever seen.

He was in awe — it was a cultural phenomenon, the 78-year-old recalled in an interview on “CBS Sunday Morning.” But when a wave of shootings, stabbings and murders over the sneakers reached a fever pitch nearly five years later, he said the public’s fandom turned into insanity.

“That was just a shock. I think the reaction was, this is insane and it’s a shock,” Knight explained on the program while promoting his new book, “Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike,” available Tuesday.

Michael Jordan and Air Jordan sneakers
Michael Jordan and Air Jordan sneakers.
CREDIT: Getty / Brooklyn Museum of Art

One of the most high-profile tragedies involving Air Jordan sneakers was the 1989 death of ninth-grader Michael Eugene Thomas, who at 15 years old was murdered for the footwear that he had for only two weeks. James David Martin, 17, strangled him for the $115.50 pair of shoes.

As the face of the brand, Michael Jordan was in shock, too.

“I never thought because of my endorsement of a shoe, or any product, that people would harm each other,” Jordan told Sports Illustrated at the time. “Everyone likes to be admired, but when it comes to kids actually killing each other, then you have to re-evaluate things.”

Incredibly, years later, not much had changed.

In February, a trial began for the 2012 murder of 22-year-old Joshua Woods, who was fatally shot when he was robbed of Air Jordan sneakers on the day of the footwear’s release. In 2011, police used pepper spray to quell a riot over the first release of Nike retro Air Jordans at a Seattle mall.

Knight further recalled in the CBS interview how Nike was criticized for its first deal with Jordan — a contract that paid the athlete around $250,000 for the first year.

Fortune magazine ran a story about how Nike has lost its way paying so much money for this basketball player,” he recalled of the University of North Carolina’s rising star who had not yet hit the court as a Chicago Bull.

“But he’d been Player of the Year in the NCAA,” Knight explained.

Through shoe and apparel sales of Brand Jordan, the retired baller is believed to earn $2 billion a year.

Of course, Knight’s business savvy earned him a fortune, too — an estimated $25 billion at the helm of the sportswear giant since 1964. He added that he would like to donate a large portion of it to a good cause.

“By the time, you know, the lives of my children and their kids run out, I will have given most of it to charity,” he said.

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