Jordan Chairman Larry Miller On Nike Collaboration With Kanye West : The Limits with Jay Williams Larry Miller has been a top executive in sports and athletic wear for decades. As the Chairman of Nike's Jordan Brand, he's in charge of a multibillion-dollar global apparel juggernaut. But as a teenager growing up in West Philadelphia, he made a violent mistake that haunted him for decades: he murdered an 18-year-old man, Edward David White.

Later in life, as he ascended the corporate ladder, Miller kept his past a secret, afraid that it would jeopardize his career.

In this episode of The Limits, Miller tells Jay Williams why he couldn't keep his secret any longer, and how he took Michael Jordan's ideas and turned them into one of the most successful athlete-driven brands in the world. Plus — what he says about the possibility of Nike collaborating with Kanye West.

Larry Miller's new book is called Jump: My Secret Journey from the Streets to the Boardroom.

For sponsor-free episodes, weekly bonus content, and more, subscribe to The Limits Plus at plus.npr.org/thelimits.

Follow Jay on Instagram and Twitter. Email us at thelimits@npr.org.

Nike's Larry Miller, His Story of Redemption and Building The Jordan Brand

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JAY WILLIAMS, HOST:

Welcome to THE LIMITS. I'm Jay Williams. Picture this for one minute. It's September 30, 1965, in West Philadelphia. Larry Miller is a teenager - 16 to be exact - and he's about to make a mistake he'll live with for the rest of his life.

LARRY MILLER: I was 16 years old. I was drunk on cheap wine. I was angry because one of my gang members had been killed. And, you know, myself and a couple other people decided that we were going to go out and look for revenge. Mr. White just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. He did nothing. It was totally unwarranted and senseless, and I regret it every day.

WILLIAMS: Larry Miller was 16 years old when he shot and killed Edward White. He was locked up for 14 years. And for a lot of people, that's the end of the story. But for Larry, it was just the beginning. Larry studied hard in prison. And when he was released, he got his accounting degree. He climbed the corporate ladder at places like Campbell's Soup and Kraft Foods, till he was eventually hired as the first Black vice president at Nike. Now he's the chairman of the Jordan Brand. Imagine that.

You see, Michael Jordan might be the face of the company, but Larry is the guy responsible for getting all those shoes in your closet. This guy turned a Jumpman logo into billions of dollars. But to do all that, he had to hide something. He had to hide his past. After 56 years, he's finally starting to talk about it right now. Here's my conversation with Jordan Brand Chairman Larry Miller.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: Your story is such a walk of redemption, and forgiveness is also a theme. And that is something that we're all in constant search for to a degree. But I'm curious, Larry, have you forgiven yourself?

MILLER: You know, I think I've had to forgive myself over the years, or at least try to, because otherwise I wouldn't have been able to move forward. I feel - and I hope that, you know, God has forgiven me. And now that the family has forgiven me, I feel, you know, that that was the most I could have asked for there.

WILLIAMS: Larry, I've known of you for a very long time. We have a lot of people that we know in common. I've read your book. I've paid attention to the arc of your career. How the hell have you lived with this for 40-plus years?

MILLER: It hasn't been easy, Jay, especially keeping it in, especially not opening up and talking about it or sharing any of it. You know, that's - that made it, I think, even worse for me. But at the same time, you know, I had to - I believe that I had to move forward and try to, you know, continue to change my life and accomplish some positive things in life. So even though it was there and kind of hanging over me all the time, I still felt like, you know, I've got to move forward, I've got to try to make this life and redeem myself the way I feel like I should have. And so it was a tough thing to carry around for all those years. And again, especially with the fear of being found out.

WILLIAMS: So there was a pivotal moment when you were applying for a job with Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm, that you decided from then on to keep your past a secret. Can you give us a little bit more detail about that moment and what happened?

MILLER: Back then - my undergraduate degree is in accounting. And back then, there was the Big Eight accounting firms. And if you didn't get hired by one of the Big Eight firms, then you weren't successful. So - and Arthur Andersen was actually the one that I was drawn to. Went through their whole process, went - spent a day there interviewing with a number of people. And all day, in the back of my mind, I'm thinking, you know, should I share my story with these folks? And, you know, I kept waiting, waiting. Finally, I got to the end of the day, and there was, like, the main hiring manager. And I went in his office and sat down, and I'm thinking to myself - it's like, OK, I'm going to share with him.

So I kind of get into my story, and I'm telling him. And I could see his face changing as I'm talking to him. And I was like, OK, this is not going well. This is not going how I had hoped it would. But I get through my story, and he said, wow, you know, that's amazing, and I'm sure you're going to do great. And he reached in his pocket and he pulled out an envelope. And he said, hey, I had an offer here all ready to give you, but I can't give it to you now. He was like, I can't take that chance. I can't take that chance that something happens in the future.

WILLIAMS: Wow.

MILLER: And I was like, OK, I understand. But at that point, I decided that I wasn't going to share this anymore. If it came out or if somebody asked, I would open up. But I wasn't going to volunteer the information anymore, and I didn't. And from that point - like, my first job out of college was Campbell Soup Company. And the application said, have you been convicted of a crime in the last five years? And the answer was, no, because it had been longer than five years. So I was able to answer that no. And going forward, I never lied about anything. I just didn't open up about it.

WILLIAMS: Larry, do you think keeping your secret was important to your success?

MILLER: I think - I do. I think, you know, had I shared this early on, I don't think that I would have gotten some of the opportunities that I did. But that being said, to me, you know, that's one of the reasons, again, that I decided to do this is that, you know, maybe this story can change people's perception of formerly incarcerated people and maybe inspire some willingness to give people a chance that have - you know, have a criminal record. And what I would say to, you know, a 16-year-old Larry Miller out there that's maybe thinking about or about to do something stupid or crazy is that, you know, hopefully this story will help them to - maybe cause them to stop and think for a minute, and stop and think that they might be about to do something that they're going to regret for the rest of their life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: Look; the one thing I hope you appreciate about my podcast is that we don't sugarcoat anything. The reality is Larry Miller murdered someone. And he has remorse for that. But the one thing I've learned in my life is that two things can be true at the same time. You see, Larry Miller, the executive, he went on to build a brand that is worth $4 billion and is also a symbol of Black culture - or at least that's how Kanye West puts it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CANNON'S CLASS")

KANYE WEST: You can't...

NICK CANNON: (Laughter) You can't stop...

WEST: Jordans need to be a part of reparations.

CANNON: (Laughter).

WEST: You can't tell a Black man not to wear Jordans (laughter).

CANNON: Not wear Jordans? That's hilarious. That's part - that's in our DNA.

WILLIAMS: After famously rejecting a deal with Nike years ago, Ye is once again knocking on Larry's door, looking to collaborate. After the break, Larry talks about what it would take for Nike to partner with Kanye West once again. This is THE LIMITS from NPR. I'm Jay Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: Well, I mean, we keep evolving if we're lucky enough to be here. And I really commend you, Larry, on how you've taken the steps to continue to push yourself past your limits, one that you've dealt with for a very long time. And I want to transition that thought process to the brand, Jordan. And I'm curious about this one because it's probably the most culturally relevant brand there is today in all of sports and just in business period. And I was paying attention about, you know, a couple of weeks ago, where Kanye posted a picture of the brand Jordan logo. And I obviously know that he is with Adidas, them coming out with Yeezys and things of that sort. But is there any thought to collaborating once again with a guy like Kanye - because I even saw Marcus Jordan, Michael Jordan's son, talk about, hey, let's get Kanye and pops, as he referred to in his IG story, back in the room, back in the lab, figuring it out. Is there any thought to that?

MILLER: I would never say never. I think what Kanye's done with Adidas is commendable. I think he's an incredibly creative and talented person. I wish he had stayed with Nike. That would have been great. I can't say that that's not - that will not happen. I can't - I don't know that it will. But I can't say that it won't happen that we would, at some point, be able to do something with Kanye. I can't say that's absolutely not going to happen.

WILLIAMS: What do you think it takes to partner with somebody like Kanye to build a successful product line?

MILLER: You know, I think there are a couple of things. I think, one, you know, you have to be willing and open to taking his input. But then you also have to be able to, from the other side, manage the expectations and the limits that are there, because, you know, someone like Kanye may have this incredible idea that's fantastic. Taking that idea and making it a reality is something that could be, you know, much more of a challenge. So I think it's really figuring out how to marry that creativity with the reality of what can and can't be done.

WILLIAMS: Larry, can you tell me how you do that? Because I've been around him before where he's just popped off some random ideas. And I remember looking at my friend Scooter Braun thinking, oh, my God, that was genius. And I want to go activate it right away. But then I hear three or four or five other genius ideas in another span of 15 minutes right after that. And I'm like, how do I even begin to prioritize where to start from? How do you do that?

MILLER: Well, that is a challenge. And again, I haven't worked directly with Kanye on product at that level, so I can't speak on, you know, how he operates and how that works. But to me, someone that has the creativity that he has, like I said, there's got to be a balancing side to that to say, OK, yeah, that's great, but when we look at these ideas, here's the what - here are the ones that we can actually make work. Here are the ones that we can actually bring to reality. So I think there's a - like I said, there's a balance between that creativity and the reality of what can and can't be done.

WILLIAMS: If anyone knows what can and what can't be done, it's Larry Miller. After the break, he explains how he took another icon, Michael Jordan, and turned his idea into a billion dollars. This is THE LIMITS from NPR. I'm Jay Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: The trajectory of your life has been pretty incredible. You know, reading about you attending a dinner with the Clintons during Bill's presidency, hearing your relationship with David Stern, hearing that you have Kanye West on speed dial and then ultimately - look, there's this connection for us, too, Larry. You know, I took Michael Jordan's locker. I growing up wanting to be like Michael - right? - even though I was 6'1", 6'2", I couldn't be 6'6" with a 43-inch vertical, but you were very, very visible with the greatest athlete to ever live, potentially. Take me into that. Take me into the first time you met Mike. Take me into how you became the president of brand Jordan.

MILLER: I started at Nike as the head of apparel in North America, which was about a billion-dollar business at the time. And at the time, MJ was about to retire from the Bulls for the last time so that you could get his locker. But he was about to retire from the Bulls. And we...

WILLIAMS: Trust me, Larry, I wish he didn't retire. I would probably still been playing.

MILLER: (Laughter) But we're talking about, OK, you know, so what happens now that MJ is retiring and spent a lot of time with MJ on, you know, developing those strategies on how we were going to, you know, kind of take this and actually create a brand. And fortunately, we were able to do that. But he's been and continues to be extremely involved in the business. And, you know, I always tell people he's kind of like our secret sauce because he adds a perspective that nobody else in the world can add. I mean, it's Michael Jordan, and he - the way he looks at it is that the brand represents him. So he pushes us just like he, you know, pushed his teams with playing basketball. He pushes us and continues to push us to be as best - the best we can possibly be. And, you know, our goal was to create the Michael Jordan of brands. And, you know, we did pretty good. We've been pretty successful. But he's been extremely, extremely involved in it. And I'm just glad that I was able to be a part of it.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. I think you've done more than OK, Larry. Can you take me back, though, to those initial meetings that you had with Michael? Like, what were some of the initial objectives that you guys had to attack as a brand was being built?

MILLER: Well, you know, there were - there are a number of things. First of all, you know, we had to develop what our - you know, what strategy are we going to approach with this? And one of the things that we focused on was what we referred to as scarcity. So, you know, it's like, we want to put a certain amount of pairs of shoes in the market. And once they're gone, they're gone. And so once consumers realized that once these shoes are gone, that increased the value. That made people want them. And that was our goal, was to build this brand that was coveted. There's certain products of Jordan - you can't just go in the store and buy them. If they're gone, you can't get them anymore. And that was part of the strategy that we worked - and I think that also - that strategy helped us to build brand heat around the rest of our products. So if we have a hot product that we know is going to be gone and everybody knows is going to be gone, that brand enthusiasm and excitement then spread to the rest of our products. So it's like, hey, if I can't have this one, I'll get this.

And we talked a lot about how we wanted this brand to show up in the marketplace, what type of advertising and who our core consumer was. I mean, there - we spent a ton of time early on just defining what the business was going to be and how we were going to build it. And like I said, one of the keys for us was really focusing in on our core consumer and making sure that everything we did was targeted to that core consumer.

WILLIAMS: Who was the core consumer, Lar (ph)?

MILLER: For us, the core consumer was a inner city kid who is a basketballer, who's the - a leader on the court, who is a style kid off the court. Because we felt like if we could get that kid, that kid kind of sets trends and other people are looking at what that kid does, and they want to follow that. So our goal was to connect to that kid who is, like, the leader. And that was who we targeted from the very beginning. Our thought was, we get him and he'll - you know, we'll get everybody else because they're looking at him.

WILLIAMS: I listened to Kanye - he was on a Nick Cannon podcast - and he said that Jordans need to be a part of reparations. You can't tell a Black man not to wear Jordans.

MILLER: Not to wear Jordans. (Laughter) I didn't hear him say that.

WILLIAMS: Not to wear Jordans. But that comes because of that growing up. Did you guys expect that type of attention and recognition within the Black community from Jordans?

MILLER: Yeah. Because a lot of what we did was targeted at the Black community, the brown community. So we targeted that kid who - because again, for us, I think that kid kind of helps to set style and fashion trends from the inner city. And so we specifically targeted that kid. And, you know, Kanye - I was glad that Kanye made that comment, for sure. But I think, you know, there is a connection in the Black community with the Jordan brand. And I think a lot of it - the majority of it is based on Michael Jordan. I mean, he - Michael Jordan, at the time, was, you know, the coolest guy out there. All the guys wanted to be him, and all the girls wanted to be with him. So, you know, it's like, why wouldn't we want to have that person as our muse for our brand?

WILLIAMS: As a Black executive for one of the most iconic Black athletes that this world has ever seen, how important was it for you to get it right, Larry? Like, how important was it for you to build that iconic brand, to inspire millions of young minorities that they can achieve the ultimate goal if they think about how they position themselves in the marketplace?

MILLER: It was extremely important to me because- and I always have had the perspective that there are people that look like me watching me. And if they see me able to do something, then, you know, that would maybe inspire them to feel like they could do it, as well. And so I've always taken that perspective. When I started at Nike, I was the first Black vice president in the history of the company. And...

WILLIAMS: Wow.

MILLER: ...I didn't know that until I got there. But that added a little bit of pressure for me because I'm thinking now, you know what? I've got to succeed here because I'm opening a door for some other folks. And that's the way I've always approached it. It's like, if I'm in a position where I can move into a role that's a visible role, that can, you know, show folks that someone that looks like me can do this. That's something that I've always thought about and always focused on.

WILLIAMS: Larry, when I first found out that you and I were going to be doing this sit-down, I had a question that popped into my head the moment I found out because I thought about the word pressure. And, you know, Coach K. would always talk to me about, Jay, don't look at it as pressure. Look at it as opportunity. And I said, OK, I understand that. But the opportunity that was in front of you with the greatest athlete to ever live, the greatest basketball player in Michael Jordan, and then also another guy in Phil Knight, who created the Nike brand - talk me through how you dealt with that pressure in your relationships with both of them, including Phil Knight.

MILLER: My approach to working with folks like Phil Knight and Michael Jordan and Paul Allen has been - if I just go along with what you say, then I'm not doing my job. My job is to tell you what I think is right. Now, if you decide we're going to do something else, then that's what we'll do because, you know, you're the boss. But I feel like my responsibility is to say, hey, I don't think we should do that, or this is what I think we should do. That's helped to develop the relationships with folks like that, where they know I'm going to tell them what I think is right, and I think they appreciate that.

But those people - I mean, the people you mentioned - Phil Knight, Michael Jordan - they're folks that I think are not just great people, great businesspeople, but they're great people as well. I mean, you know, they're folks who've been, for me, supportive, encouraging and people I feel like I could turn to with issues or questions that I have. When things are kind of shaky, I could - I felt like I could always go to Phil Knight and say, hey, Phil, this is what's happening, and here's what I need in terms of help, or here's what I think we should do. And the same with MJ. You know, the same with - whether it's Paul Allen or David Stern or Adam Silver. You know, I've always had the kind of relationships with those folks where, you know, I'm going to share with them what I think is right, and I think there's appreciation for that.

WILLIAMS: Do you still live your life with any regret?

MILLER: You know, I still - I do. I still, you know, every day I regret, you know, taking the life of a young Black man. I - you know, I wish I could go back to that moment and walk away or let him walk away. And so I do think about that and regret that. But I also figured out how to not let that debilitate me or stop me from trying to move forward and trying to put myself in a position where I can help even more people. So yeah, I do have regrets, but I look at them as learnings as well. You know, I heard B.J. Armstrong say something one time about MJ. He said, Michael Jordan never lost the game; he either one, or he learned. And to me, that's - you know, if there's something negative or something that doesn't go right or something that - you know, a mistake that you made, then to me, if you learned from that, then you didn't lose.

WILLIAMS: Well, I'll tell you one thing I've learned from this conversation - I am appreciative and I am thankful and I'm sure a lot of people are thankful about how courageous you are to, first off, talk openly about this because you didn't have to do this, Larry. You didn't have to come out and tell the truth about what happened and speak people through the process. And I think throughout that process, it's inspiring to hear that, you know, you are not going to be defined by mistakes that you make in your life. So I thank you for the type of example that you've been able to set and how you're leading with the next step of your life. I really do. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.

MILLER: Well, I appreciate that, Jay. And thank you for having me on and giving me an opportunity to share this story. I truly appreciate it.

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WILLIAMS: Larry Miller's new book is called "Jump: My Secret Journey From The Streets To The Boardroom." He wrote that book with his daughter. But first, he had to tell her about that deep, dark secret that happened when he was a teenager. On Thursday, exclusively for The Limits + subscribers, I asked Larry about what it was like to tell his daughter about his biggest mistake. Hit the link in the description of this episode to subscribe now. A big thank-you to Larry Miller and his whole team.

THE LIMITS is produced by Karen Kinney, Leena Sanzgiri, Barton Girdwood, Brent Baughman, Rachel Neel, Yolanda Sangweni. Our executive producer is Anya Grundmann. Special thanks to Charla Riggi. Music by Ramtin Arablouei. We're back next week. Thank you to everybody. Let's keep it moving and stay positive. I'm Jay Williams.

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