With a COVID-19 resurgence in New York City, Jordan Brand chairman Larry Miller — who was in town visiting the Nike Inc. headquarters just prior to Christmas — opted to change last minute from an in-person meeting to a Zoom interview with FN.
The mild-mannered exec, clad in a black zippered sweater and thin-rimmed glasses, was ready to open up about his emotional journey during the past few months.
In September, he revealed to Sports Illustrated a part of his life no one personally or professionally knew about — one that included the 1965 shooting death of Edward White, a then 18-year-old man, in West Philadelphia. Miller was just 16 when he took White’s life.
Prior to the interview, Miller kept the shooting death a secret for more than 50 years, although he admitted that keeping it private plagued him for decades with migraines and nightmares.
After he shared his secret, Miller told FN that much of the pain he was shackled with has subsided.
“The migraines are gone, the nightmares have stopped,” Miller said. “And I feel almost freer now, to be able to express things that I held in for so many years and to share things that I would never have shared years ago with the world.”
The incident is further detailed in his upcoming book, titled “Jump: My Secret Journey from the Streets to the Boardroom,” which is scheduled to release on Jan. 18, 2022.
Before the Sports Illustrated story, Miller was known primarily as a titan of the sports world.
The exec — who presented the 2021 FNAA Collaboration of the Year award in November to James Whitner for the A Ma Maniére x Air Jordan 3 — has had a storied career that includes VP and GM of Nike Basketball and the president of the Portland Trail Blazers.
However, Miller is most known as the longtime president of the Nike-backed Jordan Brand, which he has led since the early days. Now as its chairman, the athletic behemoth brought in $4.7 billion for Nike Inc. for the company’s fiscal 2021, which ended May 31.
Reflecting on his journey, Miller said the debut of Jordan Brand in the late 1990s was the most rewarding professional experience — and perhaps the one with the greatest risk. More specifically, Miller — who was its president from 1999 to 2006, and then again from 2012 to 2018 — identified his defining career moment as the launch of the Air Jordan 15, which launched in 1999.
“When we first started Jordan Brand as a separate deal, there were a lot of people who didn’t think it was going to work,” Miller said. “The formula was Tinker [Hatfield] designs a cool shoe, we do some advertising with Spike [Lee] or Bugs Bunny or somebody cool at the time, and then MJ plays in 82 games and the playoffs. That was the model. Taking him playing out of the picture was taking a big chunk out of that model, and a lot of people believed it would not work.”
He continued, “The Air Jordan 15 was the first shoe that Michael did not play in. When that shoe launched, we had great sell thru initially and a great launch around it. That’s when I realized we were going to be able to keep this thing moving forward, and even though Michael wasn’t playing, we still had the opportunity to create a brand based on what he had done on and off the basketball court. That told me we’re onto something here and we can really build on this, we can create this brand out of this logo that Michael Jordan has been wearing on the basketball court, we can create a true brand out of that.”
With an enviable resume and a reputation for success, Miller could have pressed forward without revealing the shooting that took place more than 50 years ago. And before coming forward, Miller confided in several people who he had developed lifelong relationships with. Two in particular were the most encouraging: Jordan and Nike co-founder Phil Knight.
“The two people that I talked to earliest were MJ and Phil Knight,” Miller said. “Once I shared with them what I wanted to do and shared this story with them, they were extremely supportive and encouraging. I could hear both of them saying, ‘You need to tell this story.’ They both basically said that to me, like, ‘It can motivate and inspire some people.’ If either one of them would have said, ‘I don’t think you should do this,’ I might have been hesitant and reluctant to do it.”
The timing of his announcement was important for Miller, and fitting with the recent efforts of Jordan Brand.
In June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, Jordan Brand announced a $100 million, 10-year commitment to directly impact the fight against systemic racism. The three pillars of this commitment include social justice, economic justice and education and awareness.
One of the initial grant recipients was the Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People and Families Movement, which received a donation of $1 million in July 2020.
“Carrying this around for all that time, it beat me up inside — migraines and nightmares. But the timing of this is great based on where I am in my life, and what things are happening in the world with the criminal justice system and social justice. I think that this story can have some positive impact,” Miller explained.
Miller admitted the process of writing the book was daunting. Especially since “Jump: My Secret Journey from the Streets to the Boardroom” was co-written by Laila Lacy, the eldest daughter of Miller.
In his Sports Illustrated interview, Miller admitted that Lacy had encouraged him to reveal his secret for about 13 years, and about six years ago the two began working on the book together.
“It was challenging for both of us. There were points where she would say, ‘Dad, I need a minute, I need to digest this,'” Miller said. “It was challenging on both of our parts. Me, to open up and be willing to share some of these things, and her, hearing and accepting some of these things and being like, ‘Wow, I had no idea you did that.’ What made it work is that it was all from a place of love and concern.”
Miller said the decision to open up was about more than him and his own family.
“When I would talk to young people throughout my career, I was only able to tell them half the story, there was a big piece that I had to leave out,” Miller said.
With the revelation, however, Miller is aware he isn’t immune to criticism. He also knows not everyone will forgive him.
“If people want to make something negative out of this when my whole goal has been nothing but positive, I can’t stop them from doing that,” Miller said. “The only thing I can do is continue to focus on my goal and my reasons for doing this [book], and continue to share the story and why I’m doing it and what I hope comes out of it.”
He continued, “I think my career speaks for itself. I don’t know why the things I’ve done in the past would cause somebody to question what I’ve done with my career, but if that’s the case, there’s not a lot I can do about that.”
Miller also knows that the story is not his alone, and the family of White is entitled to express their thoughts about Miller, the killing and the book.
On Nov. 16, The New York Times published a story after speaking with the victim’s family. The family told the newspaper they saw the Sports Illustrated article online by chance, and that at the time they had not heard from Miller. The family also stated they were upset that White’s name or details of his life were not mentioned in the book.
Miller told FN he would like to express remorse and sorrow directly to the family, and confirmed that he has since reached out, but is keeping details of the conversation private out of respect.
“I was a 16-year-old drunk gangbanger, but that’s not an excuse for what I did. It was senseless, it was something that should never have happened and I am extremely sorry and remorseful for what I did,” Miller said. “Hopefully I will be able to work with them to memorialize Mr. White in a positive way.”
Also, Miller admitted he made a mistake in not connecting with White’s family in advance of the Sports Illustrated story release.
“We didn’t include his name in it because we didn’t want to upset the family, and when his name did come out, that was a kind of a surprise to us,” Miller said. “Because of me being nervous and anxious, I didn’t push as hard as I should have to make sure we connected before it became public. That was a mistake on my part. I take full weight for that, and I hope they understand and will accept my apology.”
Although his book’s release is still weeks away, Miller is looking even further down the road, and hoping its release will have a positive impact on those who are in similar situations.
Miller explained that it is “very easy” to find yourself locked up again after you’ve already been behind bars.
“For me, growing up in that world, there was no real fear of jail, especially after the first time,” Miller said. “I would go back to jail and it would be the same people there. As we got older, we grew up together. It becomes a part of your life, a part of your cycle, and it’s very difficult to break that cycle. And you come out with the same mentality, or maybe even a worse mentality, than what you went in with versus coming out with the focus on changing your life and becoming a contributor to society.”
Incarceration or repeated incarceration, Miller said, often forces inmates to believe a second chance isn’t possible.
“One of the most important things for incarcerated people, or formerly incarcerated people, is the idea of truly believing that you can change your life, the idea of you can do something different, you can change your direction in life,” Miller explained. “That’s something that is tough for a lot of folks who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated to believe and accept.”
That belief took years for Miller to realize.
“When I went to jail the last time, I was already like I’m not feeling [being repeatedly locked up]” Miller said. “There was an education release program, which was in effect in Pennsylvania at the time. You had to take a certain number of classes inside the jail, you had to do some things to qualify, and then you could move out into these trailers where you leave every day to go to school and come back in the evening. My motivation was like, ‘This is how I want to do my time at the time, I’d rather do this than be behind a wall.”
He continued, “Along the way, there was a point where I started to really believe that I could change my life.”
Because of that education relief program, Miller received a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Temple University in 1982, starting the program while in prison and finishing it when he was released.
With his higher educational experience, and what he has been able to accomplish professionally since, Miller wants to ensure that there is a similar path for others to follow.
“The program that I was involved in does not exist in Pennsylvania anymore. I were there today, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’ve done, I wouldn’t have been able to get that education and improve my life in the way that I did,” Miller said. “One of the things I want to focus on and that I hope this story can help is to look at programs that are existing and help ramp up those programs, and then look at places without the program that I was involved in — which in Pennsylvania doesn’t exist anymore — and try to bring back a program like that.”
He continued, “One of the goals of this is how can we make sure that we’re helping to move those kind of programs forward, or where they don’t exist, how do we help them get back into existence Education, whether it’s college or some type of trade or skill that can allow you to have a decent life and make a contribution when you get out, that’s what the focus should be on.”
Aside from the book, Miller has other plans to help change the perception of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, which includes upcoming work with Philadelphia-area nonprofits The Vera Institute Justice and Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Center School. Although details are sparse, agreements to work together are in place.
Although this book is now written, Miller, now 72, knows his story is far from over. Looking ahead, Miller has accepted the responsibility of helping change the perception of formerly incarcerated people, from criminals to potential contributors.
“I think this story can help show that people can change and that people can move in a different direction and become contributors,” Miller said. “There are folks who have made mistakes and done some wrong things in their life, but that doesn’t mean they can’t change and become contributors and become people that help people versus hurt people. Folks can look at my story and say, ‘Maybe I will take a chance on this person’ or ‘Maybe I will give this person an opportunity.’ Hopefully one of the outcomes of this story is that it shows people that you can give someone a second chance.”
He continued, “My hope is that the book is received for what it is, with the intention to help motivate and inspire people, to help change the perception of formerly incarcerated people and to help that 16-year-old Larry Miller that’s out there, that’s about to do something stupid or crazy. Maybe they somehow hear this story and realize that they might do something now that they’ll regret for the rest of their life.”