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Personal Development
January 9, 2024

ASSIST

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Remarkable as it is, it turns out that Larry Miller’s foundational role in the creation of the iconic Air Jordan—a thriving, multibillion-dollar enterprise almost two decades after basketball legend Michael Jordan’s retirement—is only half the inspiring story.

For years, Miller has been admired in business circles for his part in turning the former Chicago Bulls star into what Licensing Global, the trade publication of the licensing industry, has called “The Business G.O.A.T.” (Greatest of All-Time) when it comes to branding.

But just recently has it emerged that in fashioning a coveted footwear and apparel line that ignored some of the conventional business rulebook, Miller was also embodying a personal transformation. One that offers hope to those who may fear that youthful wrong choices disqualify them from any prospects of a better life.

After a half-century of silence, Miller revealed in a book earlier this year that he’d served time in prison for killing someone at age 16, before going on to turn his life around and become one of the most celebrated innovative business executives of recent times.

While he can’t undo that terrible 1965 event—“something that I regret every single day of my life.,, every day”—he hopes that his example of redemption may help prevent others from becoming victims of gang life. In telling all, he wants those who have ended up on the wrong side of the law to know that they can start over… and others to understand that giving people a second chance is worthwhile.

Ending up behind bars in his teens didn’t seem to be in the cards. Miller grew up in Philadelphia as “a straight-A student, a teacher’s pet kind of kid.” But the “lure of the streets” began to tug, and he ended up joining a gang at 13. “Instead of trying to impress parents and teachers, it was more about impressing people in the street.”
That led to the fateful encounter with a young man who had no gang affiliation. “Myself and a few other guys were drunk drinking cheap wine. I had a gun and a friend of mine, one of my gang members, had been killed not too long before that,” Miller recalls. “We went out looking for someone… it was an uncalled-for situation. I shot him and he died.”

Released after four-and-a-half years, Miller soon found himself back inside for armed robbery. It seemed that his future trajectory was set. But, enrolling in an educational release program that allowed him to go to school, “I started to believe that I could really change my life.” It was a crossroads time: “And I think for a lot of folks in that situation, that’s really what it comes down to: Can you really change your perception of yourself and believe that you can really do something other than the things that you were doing?” Miller decided that, yes, he could, earning a degree from Temple University.

He laments that fresh-start program isn’t available anymore. “Every time you go back [to jail], it’s the same people, because we’re all caught up in this cycle where you go to jail, you don’t do anything to change your mentality, you get back out and you do the same thing and you end up back in jail again. Fortunately, I was able to break that and that program was what allowed me to do it.”

Driving business
Miller’s second act really started to take off when he went to work for Nike and was given the job of launching the Michael Jordan brand as a separate entity. Some folks doubted it could happen because the superstar player was close to hanging up his own shoes, so the height of his marketing appeal appeared to be over. Clearly not the case: from initial $150 million annual revenues, Air Jordan and its associated gear have grown to a $5 billion global empire. How?

“The thing that we really focused on was identifying and communicating and connecting with who we defined as our core consumer,” Miller explains. “Everything was targeted to that core consumer because our belief was, if we get our core consumer who was a kid—a Black, brown kid in the hood, who was the leader on his team, who was the style leader—other people would follow. And basically, that’s what happened.

“The connection that we’ve had to the street, the connection that we’ve had to the Black community, brown community, really has driven our business and that built the core that allowed us to grow it.”

One unlikely twist in the plan was a deliberate “strategy of scarcity… putting product out there, people knowing that if they don’t get it now it’s going to be gone.” To this day, sneaker fans will pay multiple times over the regular sales price for a limited edition. (The record purchase for a single pair is around $105,000).

It may not have seemed like it at first, but the approach has turned out to be a slam dunk. “The Jordan brand now has become a part of the culture,” Miller says. “Not just in the Black communities but pretty much everywhere.” The success hasn’t just been in footwear; other apparel accounts for around $1 billion in annual sales.

Miller may have led the way in that success, but he acknowledges that, just like Michael Jordan, he needed a great team around him. “I got accused by [then-Nike CEO] Phil Knight of cherry-picking the organization with that first Jordan team and, you know, I kinda did,” Miller admits. “I tried to get the best possible people. You never can do anything by yourself. Having a great team that believes in the vision is really what got us established.”

Miller learned more about the importance of teamwork in the five years he stepped away from Nike to serve as team president of the Portland Trail Blazers. He found the organization split in two, a sports side and a business side. “One of my first efforts was to try to create one team,” he says. “My thinking was if the basketball people understood more about the objectives from a business perspective, they’d be much more willing to get involved and do things and vice versa.”

Building relationships
Back at Nike and once again heading up the Jordan Brand since 2012, Miller is widely recognized to have one of the most enviable contacts lists in the business. He attributes that to his belief that “in business, in life period, relationships are extremely important.”

For the most part, people want to do business with people they like, he says. “If they can’t, I mean, they’ll do business with whoever to make money, but if they have a choice, they’re going to generally go with the person that they have a relationship with.”

That means connecting with people without having an agenda. He tells of talking business with a football player and offering some guidance, and having the guy ask at the end of the conversation what he could do for Miller in return. “I said, ‘You know, I’m good. I don’t need anything. I’m just sharing information with you.’ I think that’s how relationships get built. And that’s probably what’s led to me being able to have these connections with so many.”

One thing he has learned is that money alone isn’t enough. “Money is important, but for a lot of these guys the motivator is being successful. It’s winning, it’s the excellence. It’s improving their game,” he says. Take Jordan as an example: “It was more about the love of the game. It was more about excellence and trying to be the best he could possibly be. And I think most of the players feel that way about it.”

Keeping his past under wraps through all the years of successful high-profile VIP life (including going to the White House) was stressful. “There were many times I and MJ would be together, just kind of the two of us hanging out, and I would be like, ‘Man, I should tell him about my past,’ but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it because I had locked in so hard. Like, ‘This can’t come out, people can’t find out about it. It’ll ruin everything that I’ve built if this comes out.’”

Miller’s daughter, Laila Lacy, worked on him for years to open up publicly, sure that his story could be inspiring to others just as it had been to the family. When he finally agreed to and told Jordan and Knight his backstory for the first time, their support and encouragement inspired him to go public. “If either one of those guys would have been like, ‘Well, maybe you shouldn’t do this right now,’ I would have probably been reluctant to do it, but not only were they supportive, but they were encouraging.”

When he started work on the project with Lacy, the nightmares and migraines that had plagued him for years stopped. The response to Jump: My Secret Journey from the Streets to the Boardroom “has been incredible,” he says. “Everybody for the most part has been supportive and encouraging.”

Though Miller has been praised for his candor in sharing his life story, the book’s release hasn’t been without controversy. The family of his 18-year-old victim, who wasn’t named in Jump, was hurt when they first learned about the project.

“I take full responsibility for the fact that I should have done a much better job of reaching out to them before this all went public,” Miller says. “They’re incredible people, and they have forgiven me for what happened,” he goes on. “If nothing else comes out of this book, out of this story, the fact that they were willing to forgive me for what happened, that’s the best I could have asked for.”

Changing perceptions
Miller does hope for more from telling all, though. First, he has in mind “some 16-year-old Larry Miller out there that’s headed down the path that I went [who] might hear my story and realize that they don’t have to go that route, that they can go a different route and they can have a better life than what they believe they can now.”

It’s about changing people’s perceptions of themselves, recognizing that they can do something different. “We need to try to do as much as we can to change that perception, to let them know that there are opportunities out there… that there are people that are willing to support their efforts in terms of changing their life or improving their life.”

But it is also about “changing people’s perception of formerly incarcerated people,” he adds. Part of that involves providing more opportunities for those coming out of prison. He echoes the words of author and social commentator Dr. Boyce Watkins, who said that the goal should be that people come out of prison a better person than when they went in. “And in order for that to happen,” Miller continues, “we’ve got to provide tools and opportunities to help people improve who they are while they’re incarcerated and then provide that help once they get out as well.”

Miller speaks of someone he met the last time he was incarcerated, whom he would return to prison to visit whenever he was in the area. The guy was finally released not long ago, after 52 years of incarceration. “Fortunately for him, he’s got a great support system. He’s got family, he’s got people who are working with them and helping him to acclimate and adjust, but it’s not an easy thing to make that adjustment.”

Miller’s own success story may be high profile, but there are other examples, he says. “I’m not the only one. I know a lot of people who have gone through that process and gone through that situation but have been able to change their life. You just have to believe that you can.”

Miller wants those who may be where he was as a young man to know that “you can achieve, you can overcome. You don’t have to be defined by the things that you did in the past… I would say to someone who’s struggling coming out [of prison], ‘Don’t give up on yourself. Don’t allow yourself to end up back in that situation because, you know, if you put forth the work and you look for the opportunities, there are people that will help you… ’

“Every person deserves a second chance; every person deserves an opportunity to change their life if they really want to.”

From an interview with Louis Carr

This article was originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of WayMaker Journal.