Larry Miller is one of the most well-respected and successful Black businessmen in modern history. He helped found and transformed the Jordan brand from a $200 million basketball shoe company to a $4 billion athletic footwear and apparel firm. In 2007, the Temple University grad went on to become president of the Portland Trailblazers . After 5 years with the team, he returned to Jordan, where he continued his mission to shift culture. He has served on numerous boards of directors and is a highly passionate advocate for education and mentorship.
Last year, in a much-talked about Sports Illustrated interview, Miller divulged that as a teenager growing up in West Philly, he was involved in the murder and later convicted for a string of armed robberies. After serving time in prison, he was able to turn his life around and since then has committed himself to excellence.
After losing a significant job opportunity because of his openness of his former troubled life, he had vowed to never reveal the severity of his past decisions. Six decades and a successful career as a respected businessman and sports executive later, Miller made the brave decision to come clean about his entire life's story. He hopes that by sharing his complicated journey in his memoir Jump: From the Streets to the Boardroom he will inspire others to great change and lead them on to a successful path.
EBONY caught up with Miller for an eye-opening conversation about his will to live a life of distinction and service to others, no matter what the odds may say.
EBONY: After your story broke through in Sports Illustrated, many questioned why you would reveal your troubled past, a secret that you kept to yourself for so long. How has your life changed since revealing this secret ?
Larry Miller: It's been both challenging and rewarding. In fact, for so long, my goal was to keep this secret hidden and not to have it come out. Now that the world knows my story, it has been a little challenging to deal with. However, the other side is that it's been rewarding in a sense. Releasing this story lifted a burden off of me. For the most part, people that I know have been extremely positive and encouraging. It's also been encouraging to hear people say "Hey, you did the right thing by telling this story."
What was it like writing this very personal memoir with your eldest daughter Laila Lacy and being so vulnerable and open with her about your life experiences?
Going years back, probably 12-13 years ago, she started working on me like, "Dad, you need to tell this story. People would want to hear it. I think it would be beneficial." I kept putting her off because I held it in all these years and didn't want to share with anybody. Eventually, she convinced me that it was a story that could help and motivate others. Looking at it from that perspective and knowing that I've been so blessed in my life, I feel like I wouldn't have been showing my gratitude if I didn't share.
The essence of of your book is about the opportunity to achieve greatness and being believed in when you could not see that greatness in yourself. Can you talk about the moment when your greatness dawned on you?
I don't think the business part has sunk in as much. I know I've been a part of a pretty incredible business story. It's been pretty amazing to look at what's happened with the Jordan brand and know where it's come from. I'm just glad that I could be a part of that. As far as the book and this whole project, I believe this will be a large part of my legacy. With this book, we are trying to influence the creation of opportunities for people in situations like me. Hopefully, they will be able to change their life, move forward and have some redemption in their life. That's been the goal from the beginning. I think what I've been able to accomplish with the business is excellent; however, I'm more concerned with and excited about that part of my legacy—helping and inspiring folks.
After your experience with incarceration, how have you internalized social justice concepts such as restorative justice or prison reform and abolition movements?
One of my best friends is from when I was incarcerated. We've stayed in touch the whole 40 years that I've been out of jail. Whenever I touched down on the East Coast or in Philly, I would go see him and spend time with his mother before she passed away. He finally got out after 52 years and he's doing phenomenal. It's been great but I feel like people deserve another chance. I think many people who have been incarcerated, myself included, have done some things that we're sorry for, that we regret and wish we hadn't done. I think over time when individuals have an opportunity to show remorse, we also see that they're not the same person that they were when they initially committed those crimes.
I think people deserve, at the very least, the possibility of a second chance. I also think that there are a lot of things that need to be fixed and addressed with the criminal justice system. The program that allowed me to get a college degree and change my life doesn't exist anymore in Pennsylvania. So if I was there today, I wouldn't have the opportunity to achieve what I have. Fortunately, there are some states where it does still exist, but it's not nationwide. One of my goals is to continue to push for the implementation of programs like that in states that don't have them. Additionally, we'd like to enhancing these same programs in the places where they do exist. We've connected with an organization called the Vera Institute for Justice, which focuses on not only helping incarcerated people, but those who were previously incarcerated to re-situate them in society once they're out. We plan to try to help and contribute to what they're doing with the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Center as well. There's a real opportunity to connect with some 16-year-old Larry Miller's and be able to help change their life.
Let's take a moment to shift to reflecting on your successful career with Nike and later with Jordan. For me, growing up in the Birthplace of Basketball (Springfield,MA), it was considered a coming of age moment for young Black and Brown kids to buy our first pair of Jordans on our own. What do you attribute the success and phenomena of the Jordan brand to? Did you expect this when you first started out with Nike?
You know, it's interesting because I didn't. We first started out creating Jordan as a separate brand because, for years, it was a part of Nike; then we decided to move on and create a brand. The crazy part about it all is we decided to do that just as Michael Jordan was about to retire from the [Chicago] Bulls. So, there were a lot of negative thoughts around that project as people were thinking, "Hey, you know, it's not going to work, right?" The formula was that we make this cool shoe, we do some cool advertising with Bugs Bunny or Spike Lee, and then MJ, wears the shoe for 82 games and into the playoffs. A lot of people thought that alone was just a good run and it would be over. However, a group of us at Nike felt like there was an opportunity beyond MJ's playing days to really create a brand.
I was tasked with putting a team and strategies together on how we would do just that. I just thought we all thought we had a great opportunity with this buy I don't know that's how we envisioned what's happened with the brand today. I could sit here and say, "oh yeah, this is exactly how it played out." In reality, I figured we could create something that would resonate with consumers. But this has totally gone beyond what I ever thought it could be.
With all that you've experienced leading up to your career in the sports industry, did you ever imagine that you’d be working as a sports executive?
It's funny because I did not imagine this at all. My career started out when I got out of jail. I first started out getting my undergraduate degree in accounting and my MBA is finance and marketing. After graduating, my first job was working for Campbell's Soup, so I didn't see a basketball career as a part of that journey. Later on, I got recruited to work for a company called Janssen. After that, I connected with Nike. I've always been into sports and been a sports enthusiast as a longtime fan of the Philadelphia Phillies, the 76ers and the Eagles. Once I got to Portland, I started working with Nike on a project that we were working on which is how I ended up working there later. An opportunity at Nike led to the Portland Trailblazers which was an exciting opportunity for me.
When offered the opportunity to work at the Trailblazers, I remembered that I had a picture of Jackie Robinson on his first game going into the Dodgers locker room. That image immediately popped into my head. This was an opportunity for me to open a door for people who look like me with no idea if it would ever get opened again. For a Black man to be the president of the Portland Trailblazers— I didn't have a choice. I had to take this job. So that's how I ended up there. I learned a lot and connected with some truly unique people. That's how I drifted in the world of basketball.
As a successful Black man navigating white spaces, how have you drawn strength from your Blackness and taken pride in your background?
I never purposefully tried to keep my background quiet and hide from it. I also never allowed myself not to be Black. I never tried to be anybody that I wasn't. I never tried to acclimate to white corporate culture. I learned that if I was seeking longevity in this field, it was essential not to lose sight of who I am in the process very early. I feel that's a crucial piece for for a lot of Black folks to learn while navigating corporate America. However, it is easy to get pulled in and try to acclimate into a specific mold.
I remember a particular time when I got involved with the Urban League of Philadelphia's Leadership Institute. It was a nine-month program where they bring people from different companies, community organizations and political organizations together. When participants graduate from the program, they usually invite alumni back for that ceremony. I went back for one of the graduation ceremonies and my former boss at the time was a white female. She attended the event along with me because she sponsored somebody in the program. As there are mostly Black folks in the space, she said "It felt strange being the only one of a few white people in an environment of all Black people." She continued, "But then I realized this is how you must feel every day." I gave her credit for recognizing that. I then said, "You know what? You're right. This is something that me and the few Black folks that are in corporate America have to deal with every day." Because I'm Black and not trying to be anything other than that, I think folks respect that more than they would if you're trying to act like you're not. They respect you being who you are.
In the very beginning of Jump, you mention feeling a random tap on your shoulder and thinking it was your past life catching up to you and saying, "you're not supposed to be here." Often, as Black people, we feel that same sense of imposter syndrome while navigating spaces that aren't built for us. How have you stepped into claiming your worthiness and how do you hope people are able to fight against that small voice of self-doubt?
I’ve definitely heard that voice. One of the things that I decided early on once I got into the corporate world was trying to learn as much as I can about how it operates to understand how the game works. I eventually started to realize that I'm just as smart as anybody else in the room and in some cases may be a little smarter. I also I also felt like I had a bit of an advantage because I knew a whole different world that I could tap into for strength.
I also realized at some point that if I'm going to stay in this game at some point, I was not going to allow anyone to have an excuse to not see my greatness. I went back to school to get my Master's degree so that no one could say to me that someone else has the credentials that I don't to prevent me from getting a job. No one could say that they were not giving me a shot because I didn't have an MBA. They might have something else to say, but it won't be that, right?
Why should I accept less in life? Because I've been in jail? No. I still put in the same amount of work as others so why should I be comfortable taking less if they give less? If I can't get more, I'll have to decide if I'm going to take that. I've never gone into an opportunity with the expectation of taking less than I feel I deserve.