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August 31, 2014

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Face-to-face meeting with Phil Knight led Andre Agassi back to the swoosh

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Inductee Andre Agassi speaks during the induction ceremony for the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame on Friday, May 31, 2013, at The Orleans Arena.

2013 Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame

Inductee Dana White delivers his speech during the induction ceremony for the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame Friday, May 31, 2013, at the Orleans Arena. Launch slideshow »
Click to enlarge photo

Inductees Pat Christensen, Andre Agassi, Stephanie Louden, Chris Powell and Dana White attend the induction ceremony for the 2013 Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame at The Orleans Arena on Friday, May 31, 2013.

Click to enlarge photo

Inductees Dana White and Andre Agassi attend the induction ceremony for the 2013 Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame at The Orleans Arena on Friday, May 31, 2013.

Maybe you’ve loped into a sporting-goods store for an important decision regarding sports attire or equipment. You see all the top brands lined up, new and never used, Nike and Adidas among them.

They look great, right? It’s not easy determining which to pick. You’ve laced up the shoes and pulled on the sweats, and gosh if they are not close in quality.

But rarely will your eyes flood with tears for the weight of making that decision.

Andre Agassi, he cried. So did Phil Knight. They have a lot more riding on such a decision than the average consumer, of course. In play are many millions of dollars and a personal relationship that spans more than a quarter-century.

“I get this call from Phil, and he was looking for guidance in a particular area,” is how this story starts as told by Agassi, the tennis legend and Las Vegas native. “I said, ‘On one condition, Phil. That I can come up to Portland, over lunch, look you in the eye, man to man, and say thank you for the life you have given me, and I am sorry for the way it ended.’ ”

Knight, who not only wears Nike but also owns the company, responded, “That would mean a lot to me.”

So eight years after leaving Nike for Adidas, thus breaking one of professional sports’ most fertile and lucrative professional partnerships, Agassi traveled to Oregon to meet with Knight. This was back in November, when Agassi was still signed with Adidas, and there was scant hint that he might consider returning to Knight and Nike, a company that signed Agassi to an endorsement contract in 1988, near the start of his pro career and long before he’d won a single Grand Slam title.

“We talked it out. We shared many tears together, talking to each other across a desk,” recalls Agassi, talking by phone Friday afternoon shortly before he was to be inducted into the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame. “It was a real, authentic moment.”

The holidays and New Year’s Eve passed, and Agassi again heard from Knight. This time, the chat was not just to heal old wounds.

“He asked me, ‘How much interest would you have in coming back?’ ” Agassi says. “And I go, ‘You mean, like coming home? It would mean everything to me.’ That’s how it happened.”

It wasn’t so simple as to say “yes.” Agassi needed to clear the matter with Adidas. He had served as a spokesman for that company for many years. That partnership hits home, in fact, as Stefanie Graf has endorsed Adidas since she was a teenager.

“I was very transparent with Adidas as to where my heart is and what I want my life to look like,” Agassi says. “They were more than classy through the whole thing and completely understood, quite frankly, which speaks well of them. My wife has been with them her whole career.”

Agassi says he told Knight: “Phil, let’s just do one thing different this time. Let’s just me and you handle this. And we had absolutely one go-around. We are both ecstatic about the possibilities.”

Agassi and Nike announced the new endorsement deal May 13. Agassi is to front a new physical-fitness campaign dubbed Design to Move, for which Nike has sought input from more than 70 organizations focusing on health and physical fitness and education.

Agassi is forever talking of the need for “synergy” in his life and career since his playing days ended. Emphasizing fitness falls in line with at least one other project, as Agassi and his longtime trainer, Gil Reyes, are marketing a version of the old fitness machine the two conceived and built during Agassi’s playing career.

This an impressive piece of equipment called the COD (Change of Direction) Machine, and watching a person operate that machine is akin to watching two people ballroom dance. Except one of them is not a person.

Agassi is eager to fold the Nike program into his general message of fitness and, of course, education.

“When it comes to my world, I love the synergy, of one plus one equals 10, you know,” says Agassi, who adds that staying on message in terms of how he wants his image conveyed is “more important now than ever.”

“The stakes only get higher and higher. I only have more to lose, in my mind, as it comes down to choosing anybody and knowing what my priorities are,” he says. “Every brand has their concerns, and protecting that is an important concern, sometimes on a weekly basis in my case.”

Agassi, who won a career Grand Slam, continues to show that he’s an onerous spokesman even after he’s finished competing.

“With Phil, it was such a reconciliation personally, and that led to a real internal buy-in on the whole company’s part to have someone return after leaving, and to sign something as extensive as they’ve done with me after their playing career,” Agassi says. “Both cases were unprecedented for them, but it is just like returning to a family. A lot of the people I remember from before are still there.”

Agassi still draws from the indefatigable work ethic instilled (with a notorious insistence outlined in the book “Open”) by his father, Mike. The elder Agassi worked on the casino floor at the original MGM Grand and Bally’s for 17 years. He was hired by resort mogul Kirk Kerkorian, whose $18 million endowment in 2011 turned the Andre Agassi College Preparatory School into a fully funded operation.

“How I look at my life now has a lot to do with the culture of those who have spent their whole lives here,” says Agassi, who often seems to be summoning the passion of Larry Ruvo when he talks of Las Vegas. “This city was built in the middle of the desert, and that comes from a certain spirit, that comes from a certain dependability on one and other, and that comes from working shoulder to shoulder and a certain can-do society. If you dream of something, of course we can do it. There’s more magic here than in any other city, and I think there’s really a greater thread that runs through us all.”

There is not much more to say of Andre Agassi in this new venture other than if he’s selling it, I’m buying it.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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