Arash Markazi
Saturday November 17th, 2007

I've never experienced the runners' high before. The phrase seems like such an oxymoron to me. Then again, I'm the type that circles around a parking lot 16 times just so I can get the closest spot to the front door.

Yet here I am, running (ok, jogging ... ok, ok, walking) around the Nike World Campus with this unusual urge to race around the tree-lined trail that circles the 178-acre property. It's hard not to want to slip into a couple of Waffle Racers and hit the ground running around here. It looks like a grade school playground on recess around lunch time.

Designers are slide tackling each other on the Ronaldo soccer field, sales associates are in a heated game of basketball in the Bo Jackson gym and those crazy accountants are climbing a 44-foot rock wall in the Lance Armstrong facility.

This is a normal weekday afternoon here at One Bowerman Drive, nestled in the greenery of Beaverton, a quaint city less than 10 miles southwest of Portland and 110 miles north of Eugene, where Nike was born on the hallowed grounds of Hayward Field by Phil Knight and his legendary Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman.

Nike's world headquarters are the sporting equivalent to the Googlplex or Microsoft's corporate campus. It's not so much a place of business but a harmonious convergence of work and play for the employees who move within its friendly confines.

The first thing that strikes you -- as you walk over the concrete blocks placed over a gentle waterfall entrance -- are the buildings. All 15 of the sleekly designed structures sprawled throughout the campus are named after influential Nike endorsers. There's the Joe Paterno Child Development Center, a full-time child-care facility, the Tiger Woods Conference Center, used for Nike sales meetings and presentations and the Dream Six maintenance facility named for the six NBA players on the 1992 U.S. Olympic "Dream Team" that wore Nikes. Even the parking garage has a name. Simply called "The Park," each floor is named and themed for historic sports venues, from the Boston Garden to Soldier Field.

Not only are the buildings named after various athletes such as Nolan Ryan, Mike Schmidt, Alberto Salazar and John McEnroe, each one also doubles as museum detailing that athlete's accomplishments. The Tiger Woods Conference Center has an exacta replica of the Pebble Beach 18th tee box, where Woods won the U.S. Open by a record 15 strokes; the Lance Armstrong Athletic Facility displays the Trek bicycle he rode in his first Tour de France victory in 1999; and the Jerry Rice building houses game-worn jerseys and cleats from every stop in Rice's 20-year career, from Mississippi Valley State to the Pro Bowl he made with the Raiders in 2002.

In a corner office of the Rice building, you might be able to spot Kyle Yamaguchi, a footwear developer, whose workplace is surrounded by shoe boxes at the moment. "This is actually pretty normal," he says, pushing boxes out of the way to get to his desk. "It was worse. I just recycled a bunch earlier."

Oh yeah, the campus has recycling bins for sneakers in each building; so when you get tired of your Air Maxes and Air Force Ones, you can toss them in the bin -- where the shoes are eventually grounded up into a basketball court somewhere in the world. The fact that Yamaguchi destroys some of his kicks would bring tears to the eye of most sneaker heads, considering his one-offs are as rare as they come. Before the Zoom LeBron V is ever released, Yamaguchi works with athletes to find just the right look, design and color way they want. The shoes they don't like never leave his desk and are recycled. "You'll never see them," he said. "But maybe one day a kid in Akron, Ohio will be playing on LeBron's grounded-up shoes."

The one shoe on his desk that stands out among the rest is the red and black Zoom Kobe IIIs. Is that an indication that Kobe Bryant could soon be wearing those in Chicago? "No," said Yamaguchi. "These are actually for the Westchester High basketball team, but they would look nice if he ever went to Chicago."

While Yamaguchi's desk and surrounding area might be a cluttered mess, he swears he's organized and takes me to a back room filled from floor to ceiling with sneakers to prove it. He's written on each shoe box and organized the entire room according to player and shoe size. "What's your favorite team?" he asks me. "The Lakers," I say. He turns to his right and looks down, and picks out a pair Air Zoom Huarache 2K4 KBs and tosses them my way. "Check those out," he says. The laser edition of Kobe's first signature Nike shoe is in a Ziploc bag that is marked "Pou Chen Group" (Pou Chen is the world's largest shoe manufacturer) "Promo Looksee." Most of Yamaguchi's days are spent working on these "looksee" samples and making sure that when the athlete takes a "looksee" at them, they like what they see.

You don't have to look to far to get an athlete's perspective on shoes while walking around the campus. While eating lunch at the Tar Heel Café in the Mia Hamm Building, we spot Asafa Powell, a Jamaican sprinter who currently holds the 100-meter world record. Apparently Alberto Salazar, the legendary marathon runner who has a building named after him on campus and currently works for Nike, is supposed to join him for lunch. It isn't unusual to spot world-class athletes walking around the campus, especially during the basketball season when most Nike-sponsored players roll through the campus to meet with representatives, designers and executives and make a pit stop at the greatest sports store in the world.

It's actually the first question anyone asks when you say you went to the Nike campus. "Did you go to the employee store?" It's the equivalent of asking someone who went to the Playboy mansion if they swam in the Grotto. It's a must. The Nike Employee Store was actually the last stop on my tour of the sneaker mecca, not because they were saving the best for last, but because the store is not on campus. It's actually about a mile and dozen right-and-left turns away, which makes sense because once you finally arrive at the nondescript warehouse style structure, you will likely be traveling that far on foot up and down the aisles of shoes, jerseys, shirts and assorted Nike athletic apparel.

Getting into the store is comparable to getting into a hot club on a Saturday night. There's literally a man with a headset, holding a list of names that are allowed into the store that day. If you're not a Nike employee, the only way you can get on the list is if you're a member of the employee's immediate family, a Nike vendor, endorser, contributor or are lucky enough to hold a Nike guest pass (employees get five a year) and coming across one is like finding Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket. Thankfully, I was lucky on this day.

Everything inside the employee store is 50-percent off sticker price and there is a $750 spending limit for shoppers -- although that's usually waved if it's clear that you're not stocking up on every last pair of the Air Jordan Retros. "Spend as much as you want," one employee tells me. "God knows the athletes do whenever they come here." It's appareently normal to see the likes of LeBron James, Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods strolling through the aisles of the store when they stop by the campus. Since the clientele that gets in is so exclusive and monitored, the athletes never have to worry about being hassled when they are shopping for shoes with their names on it. "I wanted to go up to LeBron when he came to the store but that's a big no-no around here," says the employee. "We're supposed to treat them like every other customer, but it's hard when you're looking at his poster on the wall every day."

By the time I finally leave the store and complete my tour of the campus, I am holding a couple of shopping bags and looking for my car, which I parked almost three hours earlier (hey, it's a big store). Just when I think I should have circled the lot a couple more times to find a better spot, I look down at my new Waffle Racers and remember where I'm at. To hell with the closer spot, I'm running.

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