Even by New York City standards, it was an impressive party.To celebrate the opening of the Manhattan Nike Town at 57th and Madison in October, Nike held a gala. Its five-story footwear cathedral was outfitted with a giant movie screen, automated product displays and 66,000 square feet of Nike gear. More than 400 staffers, VIPs such as Donald Trump and Carl Lewis and select members of the media crowded into the space to toast Nike's new digs.When Nike CEO Phil Knight walked in, the employees hovering above on the balconies broke into a syncopated cheer: "JUST DO IT! JUST DO IT! JUST DO IT!"It lasted nearly 10 minutes."The chant was echoing all around the building," says Nike employee Vizhier Corpuz. "It was unbelievable. They had so much pride in the company they were working for. I was almost crying."To Corpuz, 30, Nike isn't just a 9-to-5 gig."The Swoosh represents something other than just a company," she says. "It represents a whole value system."Nelson Farris, 47-year-old head of corporate education, agrees. The longtime employee, who has a Swoosh tattooed just above his ankle, says working at Nike is a profound experience. "It stops being a job," he says, "and starts to become a way that you are defining the way you are living on earth."Are we talking about a company that makes sneakers? Or is it the Peace Corps?As it turns out, the real Nike story isn't about its hyper revenues and profits, nor about its unfair labor practices in Southeast Asia, nor its radical redefinition of marketing. Instead, it's how the Beaverton company has done what other billion-dollar firms only dream of: making employees feel like their work has more in common with Mother Teresa than Henry Ford.Coleman Horn, a former Nike designer who left last year to work at Reebok, says he misses the spirit at Nike, a spirit he has difficulty capturing in words. "It's ineffable," he says. "If it exists at Reebok, I haven't seen any signs of it.""It's definitely different over there," says John Horan, editor of Sporting Goods Intelligence, the footwear industry bible. "Where else do you have people tattooing themselves with the company logo?"Roy Agostino, 33, Nike's director of international public relations, says he first realized it was more than just another company when he saw a Nike poster featuring a lone jogger facing off against a steep hill. The poster read, "There is no finish line.""It was that profound, multidimensional thought," Agostino says with a straight face, "that made me realize, 'Hey this isn't just some typical company.'"For other employees, it's Nike's rebel spirit-be it challenging NBA officials over shoe styles or shaking up the Olympics committee over uniform and advertising regulations. It's not exactly Muhammad Ali dodging the Vietnam War or African-American athletes raising their fists in protest at the '68 Olympics, but for many, it seems to work.For Aaron Cooper, whose long, rock-star hair, baggy shorts, Nike socks and 5 o'clock shadow give him the aura of a beach-bum philosopher, the moment of truth came when he first went "bro-ing.""Bro-ing" is industry chatter for going into the hood and saying, "Hey bro, want to check out some shoes?" It's a play on the term "pro-ing," or "pro deal," which originated in the ski industry around the tradition of letting skiers test out new skis. Every three months, Nike introduces a dozen new basketball shoes, and it has become standard procedure for marketing and design staff to visit Philadelphia, Chicago and New York with bags of samples to get reactions from ghetto kids.Cooper, a white 26-year-old art-school grad from Pasadena who designs basketball shoes, claims that, for him, going into the city was more than market research. It opened his eyes about the importance of his product. "I don't want this to sound arrogant, because it's not that way," says Cooper, sitting in his workspace on the fourth floor of the Michael Jordan Building. In Harlem last summer, Cooper says, "We go to the playground, and we just dump the shoes out. It's unbelievable. The kids go nuts. That's when you realize the importance of Nike. Having kids tell you Nike is the number one thing in their life-number two is their girlfriend."Some people see "bro-ing" as crass commercialism, especially because Nike shoes typically cost more than $100. Cooper sees it differently. "It's the broad scope of recognizing them as athletes, not just consumers," he says.Cooper isn't the only Beaverton employee who believes that Nike deeply affects people's lives. Juliet Hochman, a former Olympic rower, Harvard grad and founder of a grassroots organization that works with kids in South Africa, says, "Nike is like a well-funded nonprofit. Nike is in the business of active hero creation."For Hochman, providing heroes and role models-especially for young girls-is important work.Sitting in her cubicle shadowed by a poster from her South Africa days ("Vote for Justice, Democracy and Good Government"), Hochman says she was "walloped by adolescence"-she was an awkward teen, not a "thin, pretty girl that all the boys liked, but clumsy and big instead." Sports, she says, "was the only place I could run to." Sports gave her self-esteem in a world that didn't seem to be offeringany.Today, Hochman, 30, runs PLAYCORE, a Nike program that provides college-age coaches for inner city teen-age boys' and girls' sports leagues.According to Corpuz, who directs Nike's marketing campaign for the new Women's NBA, "Juliet's work is part of the bottom line, part of marketing the brand." To Hochman, though, the work is about something much more important."Yes, we have Nike Swooshes around at the events, and yes, it's important that they associate the event with Nike, but I can't tell you how lucky I feel to be working for this company," Hochman says. "I feel good using the Nike brand as a means to an end. And if the end is improving people's lives, I'm more than happy to do that."Several former Nike staffers characterize this type of commitment by saying employees like Hochman "have drunk the Kool Aid.""Yeah, that's true," says ex-staffer Horn, "but they give you good reason."If looking at a company's bottom line is like taking its temperature, then visiting a company's front lobby is like taking an X-ray of its psyche. At Merix, one of Portland's premier high-tech firms, a larger-than-life circuit board dominates the headquarters lobby. At Precision Castparts, Portland's largest steel parts manufacturer, the lobby houses a giant steel casing for an aircraft engine.Drive out to Nike's lush headquarters on Murray Boulevard in Beaverton and you won't see homages to sneaker design or jars of glue and needles in the trophy cases. There is no elaborate chart detailing Nike's stitching process. Instead, there are posters of hockey players and basketball legends like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell (who retired long before Nike was making basketball shoes). Thereare oversized photos of tennis balls. There are basketballs, Wimbledon trophies, a Wilson tennis racket. Nike, it seems, celebrates products it doesn't even make.That's because Nike doesn't consider itself a manufacturing company-or even a shoe company. It's a sports company.Nike didn't reach this conclusion until 1985, 13 years after it was founded. The decision, says corporate education director Farris, was "the most important moment in Nike's history."In 1985, after lapping Adidas as America's top sports-shoe company, Nike was blindsided by a colorful aerobics shoe called Reebok. In response, founder and CEO Phil Knight, who declined to be interviewed for this story, decided to refashion Nike as a sports company, rather than a shoe company.The decision had a number of consequences. First, it changed Nike's marketing approach. The company began dabbling in image rather than product advertising-a strategy that led to the "Just Do It" mantra.Second, it drew Nike into a larger range of products, including apparel.Perhaps more important, the decision helped motivate employees like Cooper and Hochman in a way that working for a shoe manufacturer never could. Employees now were doing more than selling shoes. They were selling sports, an ideology based on the pursuit of excellence in which people's lives are improved through competition, fair play, fitness and self-esteem. The new Nike wasn't simply about shoes and slam dunks, but about promoting a higher way of life.Since 1985, Nike has reinforced the gospel of sports to its employees in a number of ways. The process begins during a worker's first week on campus, when, according to former Nike designer Peter Kallen, you "get ingrained and go through orientation."All new employees view a video of sports highlights with a soundtrack about the soul of the athlete and the competitive spirit.Along with the ideology comes a new language. Managers are "coaches," designers who get promoted are "player coaches," meetings are "huddles" and employees' careers are measured from "sprinter" to "long-distance runner."Nike also uses its stable of professional athletes to promote the doctrine among staff. Management sends out weekly e-mails to update employees on recent successes of Nike athletes. Nike also brings in its stars to speak to staff and host events on campus. Michael Jordan comes in to talk to the basketball shoe designers about how important their product is to the game. Bo Jackson talks to staff about the role of sports in his life. John McEnroe came to campus to face off in a tennis match against Knight. (The two men wore microphones and talked to the employees about Nike's mission as they batted the ball around.) More recently, Tiger Woods came and spoke about Nike's role in helping minority kids.Then there's the Nike campus itself.Microsoft, like Nike, calls its corporate headquarters a "campus." But where the staid Microsoft campus resembles a Christian college during finals week, Nike's campus looks more like the University of Michigan on game day.Red Swooshes float on computer screen savers, Swooshes are imprinted on notebooks and styrofoam coffee cups-there is no place on campus to hide. Not the outdoor pool patio (the giant beach umbrellas are stamped with a Swoosh), not the company basketball gym (mid-court boasts a gigantic Swoosh), not even the men's bathroom, where Penny Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning posters smile at you from behind the ubiquitous logo. There seem to be Swooshes stitched into every piece of available fabric in sight: on collars, on socks, on shorts, on T-shirts-even on custodians' caps.Beyond the cheerleading Swooshes that decorate the campus, however, Nike's Beaverton headquarters is a literal shrine to sports.Plaques of athletes from Moses Malone to John Stallworth to Mike Tully line the "Wall of Fame" breezeway, Sports Illustrated covers wallpaper the cafeteria, video screens beam in sports coverage all over campus, and buildings are named after sports heroes from Nolan Ryan to Joan Benoit Samuelson.Nike headquarters is as much a sports complex as a work site.In addition the tennis court, soccer field and running trails, there's the Bo Jackson Fitness Center, a three-story complex that houses a high-tech weight room, a basketball court, aerobics rooms and handball courts.It's hardly surprising that having an athletic background helps a prospective Nike employee. The unspoken rule at Nike is that jocks count for more, says Kallen."I wouldn't say it's a prerequisite," he says, "but it sure helps during your interview. If they ask you what your hobbies are and you say movies, they're probably just gonna look at you and say [rather skeptically]-'huh.'""You really can't believe in the product unless it's attached to your life," says former Nike designer Cathy Baily. "People believe in it because it's an athletic culture there." Baily says a majority of people at Nike take hour-and-a-half lunches to do their sports.Tennis lessons, intramural teams and contests are scheduled weekly and daily. On a recent afternoon, people were stretching out and prepping for the "Over the Wall" obstacle course. "Sign Up Now!" posters blared. "The Wall Is Coming-the Swoosh challenge.""People take it very seriously," says Horn. "I was on [a company] ultimate Frisbee team-I thought just for fun-and there was this one woman from the marketing department who used to push and shove and just bite my head off when I didn't take it super seriously."The consummate athlete employee is founder Phil Knight, a decent middle-distance college runner from the storied University of Oregon track team. Known to outsiders as reclusive and shy, Knight is actually a strong presence on campus-speaking at events, hanging out in the campus sports deli without his infamous shades and dashing off e-mails to the staff. Knight is known among staff as an eloquentand motivational speaker. Agostino says Knight "gives you chills when he speaks." Farris says Knight's speeches "bring you to your knees."More than anyone, Knight-a runner who started a company to serve runners-commands the respect of Nike employees. It is Knight, not Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, who can come down from the mountain and represent Nike's ethical and spiritual mission.To the outside world, however, Nike is looking less and less ethical. The United Methodist Church, shareholders in the company, recently asked the Nike board of directors to address working conditions in Southeast Asia. Every newspaper in America, it seems, has run a story on Nike's overseas factories.As if anyone needed more evidence that Nike is dangerously close to emerging as the new symbol of the corporate villain, last week Gary Trudeau, perhaps the most powerful satirist in the country, kicked off a series of Doonesbury cartoons lampooning the company's factories in Vietnam."I really don't care for them anymore," says Jackie Duncan, a 25-year-old who recently heard some of the negative buzz. Hanging out in Pioneer Square in her Nikes, Duncan says, "I'm gonna tell everyone I know not to buy Nike. I'm gonna buy my daughter Filas instead."The question is: How does this bad PR affect the true believers in Beaverton?In a word, they're angry."They just don't report the whole story," Farris says. "We are being misrepresented.""I get so angry I can't even talk about it," says designer Cooper. "It fires me up. It bothers me personally because I'm a part of Nike. When I go to meet anybody, and they see my face-I'm Nike. And so if somebody bags on Nike or disrespects Nike, they're disrespecting me."Every Nike staffer we spoke with said the accusations of harsh working conditions, low pay and lack of independent monitoring in factories in Indonesia aren't true.Indeed, the accusations have only strengthened the belief on campus that Nike is a force for good in the world.Farris says Nike's factories in countries like Indonesia and Vietnam are an extension of the company's greater mission: creating opportunity for the underprivileged."I think we're doing a great job, quite frankly, to help evolve some of these cultures," he says. "Two dollars a day-remember, we're talking about another culture that's just emerging. This is a good situation in that culture.""We're paying fair wages under the economic rules," Farris continues. "I mean, America did the same thing. We had kids working in coal mines. It's an evolutionary process. These cultures are evolving."Despite the belief on campus that the outside world just has it plain wrong, the accusations are taking their toll."I know this has had an impact on all of you at work and home," Knight wrote in an e-mail to staff on April 14. "And it's not over yet. Nike will continue to be used as a target."Judging from the mood on campus, however, Knight should hardly be worried that his staff is suffering from a lack of self-esteem. If Nike's effort to redefine itself from a simple athletic-shoe company to one with a more important calling has accomplished anything, it's that the employees in Beaverton seem immune to outside criticism."It's one thing when you're a cigarette company, and you know your shit stinks," says Corpuz. "But at Nike, we know the kind of great things we're doing."Critics of the Swoosh certainly have their work cut out for them. Nike is that rare company whose corporate mission has been embraced by the public. Either that, or more people are swayed by watching Michael Jordan and the NBA playoffs than by reading Doonesbury and editorials in The New York Times."I really don't read the papers that much," says Liz MacDaniels, an executive assistant at a local engineering firm.Standing outside her workout club in Southwest Portland, MacDaniels looks like she spent her last paycheck in NikeTown. From gym bag to sweats, from T-shirt to shoes, she is covered in Swoosh."The Swoosh stands for endurance," she says. "It stands for excellence."