Larry Miller could have been a statistic. Instead, Michael Jordan’s right-hand man is an inspiration and a prime case for prison reform.
Larry Miller, the executive who helped make a shoe into an empire, is the Malcom X of capitalism, but my daughter thinks he’s the president.
He could have been a victim of the systemic racism that packed Black people into certain Philadelphia neighborhoods, limited their employment opportunities and stood by, idly, as communities were overrun with heroin and crack cocaine.
He could have been a statistic, having been locked up as a teen and young adult.
Instead, Miller became one of the few Black executives in corporate America, the head of Jordan Brand, a Nike spinoff that grew under his leadership from a $150 million shoe company to a $4 billion behemoth.
None of this means anything to my kindergartner.
“Is the president here, yet?”
I interviewed Larry Miller, my kids in tow
My twins took another spanking over the weekend.
Their 12-and-younger youth basketball team has been losing games, and every Saturday has turned into a growth opportunity.
How do you handle disappointment? Will you start pouting and blame the refs? Or will you get in the gym or go to the park to work on your game?
Will you take the loss too seriously? Will you be mean to your sisters or surly to your mother? Or will you play video games and ride your bikes and leave candy wrappers in the living room – like normal, happy kids?
On the drive home from the latest such teachable moment, I got a tip that Larry Miller, chairman of the Jordan Brand Advisory Board, was going to be at Grassrootz Bookstore near downtown Phoenix and Eastlake Park in about an hour and a half. There would be media availability.
“Bet,” I thought. “I’ll be there, but I’m gonna have my team with me. It’s Saturday. They’re with me all day.”
“Hey, team,” I said. “You know the company that makes Jordans, the Jordan Brand?”
The twins knew. The kindergartner and her 3-year-old sister didn’t.
“Well, the president of Jordan Brand, a guy named Larry Miller, is gonna be at the bookstore, and you’re going to come with me while I interview him. Let’s start thinking about what questions we can ask him.”
There are only a handful of Black executives
Larry Miller is a Black executive.
To say he’s a “rare” Black executive would be as redundant as saying that Michael Jordan has a competitive spirt.
About 30% of companies on the S&P 500 index, according to NPR, lack even one Black board member. Black Fortune 500 CEOs can be counted on one hand.
Still, in Miller, Jordan has found an edge.
“Michael Jordan,” Miller said, “I don’t think people understand how smart he is as a businessperson. … He’s driven. He pushed us to be the best we could be and to create the best brand we could create, but he’s also human. A good person. Good heart. Family man. I feel extremely blessed to have been able to work with him and develop not only a working relationship, but a friendship, as well.”
Nothing about Miller today suggests that he spent much of the 1960s and ’70s in and out of juvenile hall and state prison. He ran with a gang, carried a gun and even killed a teenager, simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Miller kept all of this secret on his rise through the corporate ranks, and he’s only sharing it now in hopes that it will inspire people who find themselves in the same situation. He wants them to keep dreaming.
“That’s one of the reasons that I wrote this book,” Miller said on Feb. 5, “to show young people who look like me that they can accomplish things that they might not think that they can.”
He’s proof: There’s a lot of potential behind bars
It’s bigger than that.
Miller, in less than 20 years, helped create about $3.9 billion in revenue that didn’t previously exist for Nike and Jordan Brand.
That represents $3.9 billion worth of jobs and raises and all of the trickle-down effects that come from such economic growth.
He should be a governor or “the president,” as my 5-year-old would say.
Until then, executives and lawmakers in states such as Arizona, where Gov. Doug Ducey campaigned for re-election on a prison-reform pledge made to NFL players at the height of the Colin Kaepernick protests in 2018, should be inspired by Miller’s story, as well.
There’s a lot of potential rotting away behind bars.
Why not unlock it? Especially if we’re not going to do a better job of addressing systemic injustices that create urban crime in the first place?
“I’m on a mission to highlight the need to reinstate education-release programs,” Miller wrote in “Jump: My Secret Journey from the Streets to the Boardroom.”
“We must increase options and preparation for incarcerated people when they are behind bars so they can succeed on the outside. And along the way, we can start to rethink our treatment and perception of those who have been previously incarcerated.”
‘What’s it like to be the president?’
My boys forgot their questions, and the 3-year-old fell asleep.
One twin put on a button-up and navy-blue khaki shorts. The other put on a red Jumpman jersey.
We brainstormed on the drive downtown.
“What should we ask Mr. Miller, guys?”
How about, what kind of car does he drive? How does he pick athletes he wants to work with? What’s it like to hang out with Michael Jordan?
“What’s it like to be the president?” my daughter suggested.
The fastidious twin started to explain that Larry Miller wasn’t Joe Biden, but I stopped him and went back to my kindergartner.
“That’s a good question, sweetheart: ‘What’s it like to be the president in charge of a big company?’ ”
They met him, shook his hand and forgot everything they were going to say.
“C’mon, fellas,” I thought. “Get a quote so you can write about this in a letter to your grandpa.”
The girls were off looking at a picture book filled with butterflies.
Do you see what we see, beyond stereotypes?
The kids don’t need to know about how Miller overcame a criminal past, not yet.
How he read everything he could get his hands on and leaned on a growing Muslim faith. How he took advantage of education programs that allowed him to study at Temple University while he was serving his sentence.
They also don’t need to be concerned with prison reform or any of the other big-picture topics Miller’s story raises: the need for more robust programs for gifted youth in public schools; the need for PTSD support in Black ghettos; the importance of mentorship to entrepreneurs like Jason Storey, who’s trying to grow a fashion line, Unknown Union, from his Scottsdale home.
“We began a journey of creating clothing that represents cultures and communities and histories from people around the world who often don’t get credit for their contributions to humankind … I’m really super-honored to be partnered with a gentleman like Larry in that pursuit, working with the best,” Storey said.
While Storey and I spoke, my girls demanded attention. I ended up holding my 3-year-old in one hand and my tape recorder in the other.
It was a small inconvenience so that my kids could see Miller, Storey and Ali Nervis, the owner of Grassrootz Bookstore. All three are Black.
And my team will forever move forward with the knowledge that Black men can be fashion moguls, small-business owners or the leaders of billion-dollar businesses.
I wonder if anyone else sees what we see? The opportunities? Or just the stereotypes?
“It’s great to highlight the athletes and the entertainers,” Miller said. “But … there are a ton of other jobs out here.”