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How the Tatum-Luka NBA Finals Matchup Elevates Jordan Brand’s Greatness

Boardroom sits down with Howard White, the longtime Vice President of Jordan Brand, to talk about the signature matchup and how it impacts both the players and the brand.

There’s an old Jordan Brand campaign tagline from the early 2000s that still rings true today: “Only greatness equals greatness.”

It’s a message that longtime Vice President Howard White knows all too well. He often references the notion of “greatness” serving as the foundation of the Nike Inc. subsidiary since its beginning in 1997.

That greatness was cemented by Michael Jordan’s six championships at the highest level. For the first time, Jordan Brand will have two signature athletes facing off in an NBA Finals — the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum and Mavericks’ Luka Dončić will chase greatness as they lace up their namesake sneakers on Thursday night for Game 1 in Boston.

Each headlining player is battling for their first NBA championship. The winner will become the 13th Jordan Brand athlete to win a title since the brand launched. 

Jordan Brand
(Tim Heitman / Getty Images)

Although their paths to the game’s grandest stage have seemingly followed uniquely different journeys from their respective St. Louis and Slovenian upbringings, their run with Jordan Brand has followed a linked timeline.

The duo each signed with the brand in 2019 — Tatum in June and Luka in December — and they’ve each continually ascended ever since as two of the league’s greatest players and as global faces of the Jordan Brand. 

White initially served as Michael Jordan’s original Nike sports marketing rep since the company signed Jordan in 1984. Now, as Jordan’s VP, White has overseen the subsidiary company’s athlete signings for the last 25 years. When Tatum and Dončić came on board, they were each already established in the league after beginning their young NBA careers under the Nike side of the company.

“It’s like everything else. You see something, but you don’t fully see it until it starts unraveling itself,” said White. “We were always saying, ‘We need to do more with Jayson. We need to do more with Luka.’”

Jordan Brand
(Photo courtesy of Jordan Brand)

In a matter of months, the two were officially introduced as Jordan Brand athletes, with grand expectations ahead. MJ personally welcomed Tatum to the company during a brand event in Paris that summer. He stamped Luka as a future face of his namesake brand in late 2019, just after his Rookie of the Year season. 

“Luka is a phenomenal player, and at such a young age,” Jordan said at the time. “He’s demonstrating skill it takes many guys years to develop. It will be incredible to watch him continue to advance in the league.”

Luka said Jordan was “a hero of mine growing up” in Slovenia. “Defining the next generation of the Jordan Brand,” said Dončić, “is an honor.”

“It’s crazy,” Tatum also said at the time. “Five years ago, I couldn’t imagine being in the position I’m in now.”

Fast-forward another five years, and Tatum and Dončić are now competing in the NBA Finals against each other while each wearing their own Jordan signature shoe.

With the Tatum and Luka signature shoes hitting the Finals hardwood, “H,” as everyone calls him, and the Jordan Brand team feel as though the impact of the vision they set out to achieve when the brand was launched in 1997 continues to be realized. The foundation of that signature shoe formula is well-chronicled and was even featured in the film AIR a year ago, when Chris Tucker perfectly portrayed the nuances of White’s demeanor and charisma.

Jordan Brand

“That was insane,” White now laughs. “Just the notion of being portrayed in a movie by an actor, that’s like, ‘Really?’ This has been an insane year … and the brand is at the forefront of all of that.”

In the decades since Jordan Brand first launched, when White refers to any of the brand’s contractual endorsers and ambassadors, it’s never in a transactional sense. They make up “the Jordan family,” as he and everyone else have called the collective over the decades.

“I don’t even call Jayson — Jayson — now,” said White. “I always call him ‘Deuce’s Dad.’ Because whenever he’s winning something or we’re celebrating, little Deuce is right there.”

Since joining the Jordan Brand in 2019, Tatum and Dončić have gone from leading the annual Air Jordan series to taking their respective teams to the NBA Finals in their own Jordan signature shoes.

Boardroom spoke with Howard White at length this week to discuss the qualities that make each so impactful for the brand, how the platform of the NBA Finals can impact a player’s profile, and how both Tatum and Dončić can each add to the winning legacy of Jordan Brand’s championship moments. 


A biweekly email from industry authority Nick DePaula packed with exclusive sneaker news and access to the athletes, designers, and executives that move the business.

Nick DePaula: What elements and traits of Jayson and Luka made them each a fit to represent the Jordan Brand for the next generation? 

Howard White: I see the world a little bit differently than most people. When you talk about something based in excellence, you talk about something that is about greatness. 

For me, when we talk about Michael, people say, ‘He’s a champion. He’s won six rings.’ Yeah, but, he’s still a pretty humble guy, and you know how much he’s sacrificed and how much he’s meant to people — old and young — and how much hope he gave to people. 

That’s the definition of what greatness is. 

Are you able to use that to infuse hope into the world? To me, that’s what Michael did better than anybody. So, when we sign somebody, what we actually are entrusting in them is that they will have those ingredients that can bring hope. 

That they can make people believe that they can be an ordinary, everyday person, and they can overcome their obstacles, their fears, and all of the things that hold people back. It can be represented in [the athlete’s] path. That’s what I’m looking for. They exemplify that. 

Jordan Brand
Michael Jordan celebrates his first NBA championship in 1991.

NDP: Was there a moment early on that gave you that belief in either Jayson or Luka? 

HW: They can both play, man. Let’s put that right out in front! [laughs] And it’s so interesting because it’s two different versions of what that means. Greatness comes in different forms and different philosophies. For both of them, you’ve seen them do things where you say, “Ooh, that’s pretty Jordan-esque.

Jordan Brand
(Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAE via Getty Images)

They’ve come from behind, and when you’re down, you don’t take that and you keep fighting. When you lose, you go back and work harder, harder and harder, to correct those things.

Then, you hope that you can get people around you that can believe in those same things. Therein, can make a champion. 

NDP: How would you describe the honor of receiving your own Signature Shoe within the Jordan family? It’s, of course, a rare distinction that only 7 players have officially had since the brand was formed in 1997.

HW: Nick, it’s a rarity [to be signed to Jordan Brand], first of all. Then, to be able to crown that achievement with a shoe named after you, that’s just a special moment in time that not many ever get to realize.

To have these two young men to come along at the same time, and not just go to huge heights, but to get their own shoe, and to wear that in the NBA Finals, is a huge moment.

It reminds me of what Bill Russell said after MJ won his first Finals MVP. Mr. Russell was giving him the award. Bill said, “He’s one of the few that not only has a shoe, but he doesn’t just send those shoes to the court. He is solidly in them.”

I remember that so well. Now, when these guys come to play, it’s not just enough to have a shoe. They come to play every outing

Jordan Brand
Jayson’s “Tatum 2” and Dončić’s “Luka 3” are their latest signature models. (Jeff Haynes / NBAE via Getty Images)

NDP: What has the impact of Jayson and Luka been for the brand since they each launched their own signature shoes? 

HW: A ton. With all of the other sports that we encompass now, our foundation is still basketball. To see what they’ve done, that lifts the whole brand. We got people walking around [the office] saying, “We can’t lose either way!” [laughs] When you see that and the excitement that it brings just inside, then you have to imagine that outside, that’s the conversation that’s going on.

NDP: So, you’re saying you don’t have a Finals pick? 

HW: Nah! It’s like your children. [laughs] It’s very difficult to pick one child over the other. I know Pop Jordan used to say when we would go to a game and Michael was playing against Moses Malone, “We’re just rooting for the players! May the best team win.”

I think that’s kind of where we are too. Both of these young men have reached this platform, and you just hope that they both play well, and may the best team win. 

Jordan Brand
Luka and his father, Sasa, celebrate his Western Conference Finals MVP. (David Berding / Getty Images)

NDP: The fun part about this Finals is that it’s going to be the first championship for one of them, whoever does win. You were right there in 1991 and at each of Michael’s six championships. What does winning a NBA championship do for a player’s marketability and impact on a brand? 

HW: I think that the word that we all look for, and most people probably don’t even know what it is or how to define it, is confidence. Once you get the confidence that anything is possible, then you know the roadmap. Now, the road doesn’t get easier. It gets harder. 

This is a good foundation of confidence building for them, for the brand, for the excitement level and the involvement level. Therein is what makes a brand stand out. You can believe all you want, but if nobody else believes, then you’re still in a doozy of a place. This is that moment that gives people confidence in what they are doing. 

NDP: When you think about when the brand started in 1997, to now having a signature athlete in Luka that is from Europe and represents the global game, how much does that speak to the growth of the brand since the start? 

HW: It’s what you hope for when you’re building something. I would have to believe when Jeff Bezos had Amazon Books, he couldn’t fathom that that would turn into what it is today, out of that garage. As we were putting this together, we looked at: ‘What does it mean to go from an individual who, yes, sold a lot of shoes, to a brand that encompasses other athletes, other realities, and different personalities and backgrounds?’

That is the vision board: ‘What can we hope for when we sign these guys?’ In your wildest vision, we were hoping to get to a global reality. Here is this US-centric [business], and although basketball is global, in your wildest vision, it would be hard to put that together.

Jordan Brand
(Brian Babineau / NBAE via Getty Images)

NDP: When you think about the players that have won a championship as a Jordan Brand athlete, is there a certain player or moment that comes to mind for you?

HW: We’ve been so fortunate in having picked some of the right people. We’ve had Derek Jeter and we were fortunate enough to have him throughout all of those championships. We were in the arena for his last go around and his last game, and those were chilling, chilling moments. Then, you had Rip Hamilton playing with the Pistons and showing what he was capable of doing. Ray Allen winning in Boston, and then going over and being able to win it in Miami. 

All of those were such celebratory moments of greatness. I don’t think you can be any more fortunate to be able to have that type of DNA [from Michael], that these other great talents want to represent and replicate. 

With Michigan, I remember when [Jim] Harbaugh said, “Shoot, if we got a choice, the only two I’ve ever known are Ali and Jordan. We’re wearing Jordan.” That culminated to a championship. These are moments of excellence. 

I remember the very first time that Larry Miller and I went into the NFL office. We talked about putting the Jumpman on the field. They were adamant that that would never happen. The Vice President, she said something very important though. She said, ‘My son would love it, but that’s never going to happen.’ Now, we’ve seen that it happened. The Jumpman is also on the NBA jerseys now.

When you think about how far we’ve come, it’s mind blowing. There are so many great moments that I can reflect on. 

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Nick DePaula

Nick DePaula covers the footwear industry and endorsement deals surrounding the sporting landscape, with an emphasis on athlete and executive interviews. The Sacramento, California, native has been based in Portland, Oregon, for the last decade, a main hub of sneaker company headquarters. He’ll often argue that How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days is actually an underrated movie, largely because it’s the only time his Sacramento Kings have made the NBA Finals.

About The Author
Nick DePaula
Nick DePaula
Nick DePaula covers the footwear industry and endorsement deals surrounding the sporting landscape, with an emphasis on athlete and executive interviews. The Sacramento, California, native has been based in Portland, Oregon, for the last decade, a main hub of sneaker company headquarters. He’ll often argue that How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days is actually an underrated movie, largely because it’s the only time his Sacramento Kings have made the NBA Finals.