Sacramento runner was going to put his rare original Nikes on eBay. Then ‘Nike heaven’ called

A Sacramento runner who recently realized his decades-old Nike shoes were worth thousands planned to auction them off on eBay in July. The month came and went, but the shoes were never put up for sale.

So what happened?

“Nike heaven” called.

In June, a Nike-themed hotel in Eugene, Ore., got wind of the upcoming opportunity to buy Dave Russell’s shoes, which he received at the 1972 Olympic Trials in Eugene. He was 25 at the time and vying for a spot as a marathoner on the national team.

Russell, now 72, didn’t qualify for the Olympics but left that meet with a piece of history.

The shoe, a racing flat with a rubber sole molded by a waffle iron, was one of the first Nike ever made, Russell said. It’s nicknamed the “moon shoe” for the unique tread it leaves behind and notable for the odd tool used to make it.

Only about a dozen pairs exist, and not all are accounted for, according to Russell. That’s what makes them so desirable.

“The moon shoe is the ultimate Nike,” said Jason Williams, the hotel’s general manager.

One set of the shoes — completely worn out and missing both laces — sold for $11,200 last year, according to Jordan Geller, an Oregon-based shoe collector. Russell’s pair was in much better condition and likely to sell for a significantly higher price.

The hotel, called The Graduate Eugene, didn’t want to go through the bidding process, Russell said. It wanted to purchase the shoes privately and have them on display in the lobby for its July grand opening.

The company, Graduate Hotels, manages 15 properties across the U.S., each with a theme based on its location, according to Williams. He said the Eugene site mimics the state’s “lush landscapes, Pacific Northwest heritage and University of Oregon’s famed track-and-field program.”

Nike, headquartered in Beaverton, Ore., has roots in Eugene, a.k.a. “Track Town USA.” The company was founded 1964 as Blue Ribbon Sports by University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman and his former student Phil Knight.

Russell was intrigued by the hotel and its employees’ resolve to own his shoes.

“The timing was right because the hotel was being built,” he added.

Within an hour of The Graduate expressing interest on June 22, a deal was made, according to Bruce Fisher, who helped broker the sale. Russell would not disclose how much his shoes went for, but confirmed it was more than $11,200.

“The sale did not go as planned,” said Geller, who also took part in the exchange. “But it ended up better than we ever could’ve hoped.”

He and Fisher set out to personally deliver the shoes to the hotel on June 25. They drove the two hours from Portland to Eugene in a DeLorean, the type of car used as a time machine in the 1985 movie “Back to the Future.”

“It was like we were going back to 1972,” Geller said.

They were greeted by hotel employees and ushered into the lobby, which doubles as a display for its 44-pair Nike shoe collection. It includes original designs, offbeat releases and rare limited-edition sneakers, according to Williams. The walls are plastered with vintage Nike posters, featuring previous campaigns and famous athletes.

Geller said he felt like he was bringing the final piece needed to complete the Nike shrine.

“It was like I was rolling into this place, hand delivering the holy grail,” he said.

The hotel employees felt the magic, too.

“It was incredibly exciting to welcome the shoes back to their ‘birthplace’ here in Track Town USA,” Williams said.

A few weeks later, the hotel flew Russell and his kids out to Eugene for the grand opening. His shoes had been placed in a museum-esque case with a plaque sharing his story.

The onetime Olympic hopeful was in awe. He posed with the shoes for pictures and signed copies of a previous Sacramento Bee article about his shoes.

“It was just a really great experience,” he said.

The day after the grand opening, Russell, Geller and Fisher went to brunch to celebrate. They ordered waffles.

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Meghan Bobrowsky, from Scripps College, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and school funding. She grew up in nearby Davis.