Before Nike and its ubiquitous swoosh, there was a little company called Blue Ribbon Sports, founded in 1964. Track-and-field coach Bill Bowerman partnered with middle-distance runner Phil Knight to open the Portland, Oregon, shop primarily as a local distributor for the Japanese shoe brand Onitsuka Tiger.
By the late 1960s, Bowerman had begun developing his own shoes released under the Onitsuka name, like the famous Cortez design in 1969. In 1971, at the suggestion of their first employee, Jeff Johnson, the owners rebranded as Nike, a name inspired by the mythical Greek goddess of victory. To go along with the new name, Portland State student Carolyn Davidson designed the company’s “swoosh” logo.
That same year, while Bowerman and his wife were making breakfast one day, he became fixated on the grid pattern of their waffle-iron and set out to adapt the shape for the soles of his athletic shoes. Previously, most athletic shoes had flat soles that were less supportive of the foot. Bowerman later received Nike’s first patent for the so-called Waffle Trainer, featuring an inverted waffle-pattern with square rubber-and-latex nubs.
Nike released its own version of the Cortez design in 1972, featuring an outsole lined with thin ridges nearly identical to the Onitsuka version. Nike continued to improve on its patterned soles with 1972’s Moon Shoe, worn by marathoner Bruce Mortenson at that year's Olympic Trials, and 1973’s Waffle Racer, modeled on a prototype worn by Steve Prefontaine at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Developed by former NASA engineer M. Frank Rudy, the brand’s famous Air Cushioned Technology, incorporating air-filled padding into the shoes’ midsoles, debuted in 1978 with the Air Tailwind.
Romanian tennis champ Ilie Nastase, known as the “Bucharest Buffoon,” signed Nike’s first endorsement contract in 1972—a decade later, the company would be the largest supplier of athletic shoes in the United States. In 1985, the company created a new shoe with air-cushioned soles for NBA rookie Michael Jordan, whose star power made the Air Jordans an instant collectible. After the NBA famously banned the original Air Jordan design for disregarding the league’s color guidelines, Nike paid Jordan’s fines so he could keep wearing them on the court.
In 1987, the company dropped a modified version of the air technology with the Air Max 1 running shoes, which relied on a larger air pouch displayed through a small transparent window on the side of the heel. The next year, the first campaign to use the slogan “Just do it” launched with an ad featuring Walt Stack, an 80-year-old San Francisco runner, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.
Since then, Nike has deliberately created a vibrant secondary market for its shoes by offering new designs in several colorways and limiting the total production, thus encouraging fans to collect and trade the scarce products. The company also regularly brings vintage designs out of its vault and reinvigorates them with slight tweaks aimed at modern buyers.