Phil Knight Reminds Us How to Spectate History

Nike's co-founder was phoneless as LeBron James broke the scoring record

A close-up of Nike co-founder Phil Knight.
The 84-year-old told LeBron that he wouldn't miss the record-breaking night for the world.
Sports Illustrated via Getty Ima

Phil Knight, chairman emeritus of Nike Inc., was courtside last night to watch LeBron James pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

No surprises there — James is firmly on the Swoosh’s Mount Rushmore of 21st-century endorsement deals (arguably…Tiger Woods, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rafael Nadal). Knight was always going to be there, somewhere, in the same way that he’s spotted at Hall of Fame induction speeches or big bouts between Duke and UNC.

In fact, when he embraced James in the Arena tunnel after the game, he even said: “I wouldn’t have missed it.”

But those words take on a particularly special meaning in light of a viral photograph, currently making the rounds of sports social media. Amongst a sea of thousands of spectators, Knight (sitting next to James’ two sons) is quite literally the only person to not miss James’ shot — he’s the only one without a phone in front of his face.

Look at that. Focused, engaged…perhaps even a little preemptively triumphant? If you zoom in, there seems to be a bit of a smile in his eyes, at the curl of his lips. LeBron needs two to do it, he’s got a clean look, of course it’s going in.

Perhaps we’re reaching, but it’s clear that Knight had no intention of reaching for his phone. The ball is nearly out of James’ hands — everyone in the arena knows exactly what the next few milliseconds could bring — and yet Knight’s hands fingers remain intertwined in his lap.

Considering that Knight was born before World War II, it makes perfect sense that he doesn’t have the same relationship to smartphones as Bronny James, sitting to his left, or even the assortment of middle-aged adults sitting behind him. But even still, who knew it would be this sastisfying to watch someone simply watching someone else, a nagging need to record the moment for eternity absolutely nowhere to be found?

Every time that Aaron Judge came to bat during his chase of Roger Maris last September, most every fan in the stands was pointing a camera towards home plate. (The only ones who kept their hands free were hoping to catch a million-dollar ball.) This is customary, at this point, and it goes on at concerts and festivals and restaurants, too. Why wouldn’t it? A big ticket is an expensive ticket, and what’s the point of spending that much if you don’t let the world know? Right?

Cognitive psychologists have researched the impact of smartphones on memory over the years. In one study, people struggled to remember or describe objects they captured while walking around a museum — a phenomenon that one author referred to as the “photo-taking impairment effect.” The photo (or video) supplants the moment, and over time, the memory. This is one reason certain musical artists have implored fans at their shows to stop recording songs and simply try to vibe to the music and magic of the show.

Of course, Knight was sitting close enough to the action that he could follow the ball as it traveled through the air. He likely has a whole host of other sensory details to call on from those seconds, too: calls from James’ teammates, the smell of the arena, the squelch of Nike shoes against the hardwood. These are things not available to fans sitting up in the rafters, who may simply want a a happy, noisy, deliriously grainy video of them celebrating King James with their best friend.

Plus: Knight is likely well-trained in seizing moments. He has the opportunity to view athletic achievements year after year. It’s bizarre that properly experincing entertainment is now a learned skill, but considering how distracted we all are now…of course it is.

Cheers to the 84-year-old for adding a special memory to a special life, on his own terms. As he said to James’ mother, Gloria, after the game: “I started the company 59 years ago, I thought I’d seen it all, but tonight was incredible.”

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