When Nike was founded in 1964 it was called Blue Ribbon Sports, and the athletic shoe market was dominated by the German shoemaker Adidas. Philip Knight, a runner with a new Stanford MBA in hand, though that imported Japanese shoes might be able to rival Adidas in quality while undercutting them in price. For the next seven years they distributed a then-unknown Japanese brand called Tiger. In 1972, in danger of being taken over or losing distribution rights, the company launched its own brand—hastily name Nike, after the mythological Greek winged goddess of victory. At the same time, they chose a logo no one really liked, a fat check mark which became known as the “Swoosh.”

It was one of many gambles in the company’s early life and it paid off to the tune of $270 million in annual sales by 1980, the year Nike went public. Nike’s growth paralleled the movement of the athletic apparel industry from a specialized niche into the fashion mainstream. SWOOSH goes on to chronicle the first decade as a public company, a decade of ups and downs as the popularity of running peaked in the United States and an upstart called Reebok threatened Nike’s top status.

Nike has always been an idiosyncratic operation, as well as an intensely private company. This is an unauthorized history, but the coauthors have had an intimate relationship with the company for years: J. B. Strasser, a former Nike advertising director, is married to Rob Strasser, one of the men who built the company; journalist Laurie Becklund is her sister. The cooperation of many past and present Nike employees has made the reconstruction of the company’s history possible, in full, rich human detail.

The cliche that a work “reads like a novel,” so often inaccurately said of nonfiction accounts, really applies here. What a bunch of characters these are! One laughs out loud at their exploits, is saddened by their departures, and is grateful for the epilogue which brings the life stories of the main players up to date. Phil Knight, Nike’s founder and chairman, did not cooperate. He flits through pages like a ghost, seen only incompletely even by those closest to him; central to the story, yet oddly absent from it.