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How Howard White Spread His Wings with Jordan Brand

Last Updated: July 10, 2023
Boardroom spoke to Howard White, Michael Jordan and Phil Knight’s longtime running mate, to hear his journey from sneakers to scholarships.

Howard White doesn’t have to close his eyes or even open YouTube.

“I still see MJ flying through the air,” he tells Boardroom. “Watching that was just like my imagination running away with me.”

White, commonly called H and once Michael Jordan‘s personal manager, is recalling the original campaign for the Air Jordan 2.

Launched in the 1986-87 season, the TV spot sees Michael ascending in an oversized white t-shirt and baggy black shorts, rocking the ball like a baby while elevating as though on a step ladder and dunking the basketball.

Both the advertisement and Air Jordan 2 were aspirational, positioning the third-season shooting guard as larger than life and a brand in himself.

The aptly titled “Imagination” campaign proved prophetic for both Jordan and White the same.

Years later, H would sell Nike founder Phil Knight on the idea of building MJ’s own empire — Jordan Brand. For 25 years, H has served as Vice President for Jordan Brand, growing the business into almost $6 billion in annual revenue today.

You could say he’s a dreamer, and you’d be right. H’s aspirational aura has made dreams come true for Jordan and Knight. In 2023, his footwear fantasies came to life through his own Air Jordan 2 colorway.

The thematic Air Jordan 2 “Wings” — inspired by H and branded accordingly — is in part a celebration of White’s ascent but more so a catalyst for philanthropy.

via Jordan

Each sale of the shoe supports Jordan Brand’s Wings for the Future initiative, which helps send countless kids to college every year.

“Young people are getting an education paid for by these shoes and internships,” White says. “Anything is possible. And if all it takes is a little belief and a little pixie dust? You can about do anything.”

White, true to form, has done just about everything when it comes to realizing dreams on the hardwood, in the boardroom, and back in the classroom.

Sitting down with the Nike veteran of over 45 years and the real-life inspiration behind Chris Tucker’s character in AIR, Boardroom got the full-circle story on H’s rise at Air Jordan and how he’s always been in the business of believing.

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From Small Town to Big Screen

Howard White’s story is one Hollywood couldn’t write.

It started in Virginia in ninth grade when a coach planted hoop dreams in his mind and teachers gave him the confidence to succeed everywhere.

White recalls the first teacher who believed in him.

“My ninth-grade English teacher said, ‘You’re a great writer. I take your papers home and I read them to my mother every night.'”

To this day, White stays in touch with her. To this day, he’s not sure if the belief she instilled in him was based on fact or fiction.

“Was she lying?” White wonders. “I wrote a book. I’m a great writer because Nancy says I was.”

Turning compliments to courage, White became revered for his ability to harness honest relationships and own a room with his presence. This proved true in his adolescence as he quickly climbed the ranks of the classroom and the hardwood.

By the end of his freshman year of high school, White was voted the most popular boy in school. By his senior season of basketball, he was the top-ranked guard in the country.

Recruited by the great Lefty Driesel at Maryland, White moved to College Park to live his dream. Though nagging knee injuries lowered his ceiling, White was good enough to be drafted into the NBA.

Better yet, he was smart enough to learn from his surroundings.

Howard White (photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

As a Terrapin, White won games and gained knowledge from Driesel. Like the point guard he recruited, Lefty had seen the ball bounce flat only to rise higher than ever imagined.

Driesel himself flirted with the pros before turning to leadership and becoming a master at marketing his school. Branding his star point guard, he allowed White to wear “H” on the back of his game uniform as an homage to “Big O” Oscar Robertson.

Regardless of major or NBA aspirations, White was getting a masterclass on motivation and marketing. Around the country, peers and pros were well aware of what H had to offer — even if it wasn’t on the court.

“My senior year we were playing Georgetown,” White recalls. “I saw Dr. J. He said, ‘Howard, you graduating?’ I said, ‘I’ll be good Doctor, I’ve just gotta pick up a few more classes.'”

Unimpressed by the answer, basketball’s best talent leaned in on H.

“He said, ‘They forget pretty quickly, you need to go ahead and do that.’ That summer I got the degree.”

How the West Was Won

Most star athletes in the ’70s wouldn’t leave love in the DMV for office life in Beaverton.

But Howard White was already experienced at exceeding expectations where he wasn’t expected to be at all.

Having already taken a chance at high school and gaining connections through his hoop career, White worked his way from recruiting Moses Malone at Maryland to taking care of the 6’10 center at Nike.

Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

It’s an odd turn of events that meant leaping from Lefty to talking talent with Phil Knight. Though his hoops pedigree impressed both bosses, it was his ability to build relationships that meant more.

It made White the go-to guy for Knight and Nike when it came to taking on new talent.

In 1984, that talent was Michael Jordan.

While everyone who watched AIR knows the work it took Nike to land MJ, few know the roadblocks H rode out with Mike along the way. Take for instance the lead-up to the 1986 NBA Playoffs.

“M had gotten hurt,” White recalls. “Common wisdom probably would have said, ‘You know what? It ain’t like the Bulls are going anywhere. Might as well just sit out and get ready for next year.’ But that’s not what he wanted to do.”

Having a chance to play Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics and re-injure his then-fragile foot, Mike asked H for perspective on whether to trust his gut or the experts.

“He looked at me and said, ‘You don’t believe in me either?’ And I said, ‘No, I believe in you. If that’s what you really want to do you should go for it,” White says.

Playing with next-to-no chance of postseason success and a hardly healed injury, Jordan exploded for 63 points in a performance for the ages. White didn’t tell Jordan how to attack the Boston defense. He also didn’t protect his employer’s most valuable asset.

Rather, he gave Jordan an honest answer.

For the next seven seasons, MJ went wild with White by his side.

Mike was larger than life thanks to his tireless work ethic and marketing from Nike. Then in 1993, he left the game behind with no one knowing if he’d ever return.

In the midst of Mike’s baseball sabbatical, an imaginative H sold Knight on a vision even the founder couldn’t see: Jordan Brand.

“It wasn’t just me,” White defers. “Tinker [Hatfield] was on board, we brought Larry Miller on, and I knew perspective. There are so many things that are ridiculous to do, but there was a small band of people that believed.”

Belief in selling the inspirational story of Jordan years after Mike hung up his own Air Jordans. It’s a testament to White being able to see what can’t be seen.

Knight School

At 72 years old and the longest-tenured African American executive at Nike, Howard White does not need to work.

He’s amassed massive success, helped start a subsidiary worth more than most moguls can dream of, and even been told by his boss that his career had no ceiling.

“Philip Knight said, ‘You can get all the way to this seat if that’s what you want.'”

Rather than continue to climb the corporate ladder, H is pulling others up with him.

Kevin Clark/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Over the course of his 45-year career, White has remained intent on putting the same belief into kids worldwide that his family, teachers, coaches, and colleagues instilled in him.

Inspiration and philanthropy have long been center stage since the start of Jordan Brand.

“Early on when we started Jordan Brand, we did a program called Fundamentals,” White recalls. “Teachers could apply for scholarships for materials or field trips.”

From grade school to high school, Jordan Brand assisted academic efforts in its early days — a time when the company was still trying to find its footing. Eventually, a meeting of the minds manifested something even bigger where scholastic endeavors were concerned.

Larry Miller and myself were sitting around talking about what could be next,” he says. “‘How about if we could give a kid a scholarship and send them to school? Man, how rewarding would that be?'”

Over time, that idea became a reality.

Now known as Jordan Brand Wings, the philanthropic branch born from H’s imagination and MJ’s global reach has handed out over 2,800 scholarships with programming appearing in North America, Paris, Manila, and China.

In the time between Fundamentals and Wings, White gained an intimate understanding of what a young person needs to succeed when taking their dreams to the next level.

“What we found out is that there are plenty of smart kids,” White says. “But there aren’t many kids who know what it’s like when they go off to school. They don’t know what it’s like to have that discipline and structure.”

Rather than sign scholarship checks and call it a day, White went to work finding ways to ensure kids didn’t just go to college but stayed there.

“We found out we had to further help these people prepare for what they want,” White says.

In a sense, needing structure to reach the next level in academics is no different than the guidance needed for the brand’s central figure. Just as Michael Jordan benefited from the schooling of Dean Smith and Phil Knight, White consulted experts in education to ensure success.

Howard White (Alexander Tamargo/WireImage)

“We worked with organizations that would prepare those young people for what they would have to experience,” White says. “That is the beauty of this whole thing. It’s just people coming up with ideas and putting enough heads together.”

Though many might credit themselves for an abundance of blessings, H is quick to cite those that believed in him.

“My entire life, people for whatever reason have believed in me,” White says. “People have given me courage. I have felt a profound responsibility to those people.”

To this day, that responsibility plays out as attending 80th birthday parties for former professors or taking part in a book club with the English teacher who told him he could write. More importantly, it comes to life by paying that same sense of belief back.

That’s why White’s mission moving forward is less about business and basketball and more about inspiring all origins of dreamers.

Imagine That

If someone would’ve told a teenage Howard White that he’d someday be depicted in a high-budget Hollywood film, he may have believed them. After all, he believed the coach who told him he could be as good as Oscar Robertson and the teacher who told him she read his essays to her own mother.

Perhaps that’s why Tucker’s portrayal of White has become the catalyst for kids wanting to be the next Howard White.

This year, White relayed to students over Zoom the importance of dreaming. While White has been known for his ability to command a classroom since his high school days, his ability to inspire a young girl in the audience meant so much that her parents wrote the teacher who booked White.

“I have to thank you because my daughter came home and all she did was talk about Howard White,” the parent wrote. “She must’ve went on about him for 30-plus minutes! What was amazing about it was that we had not seen her that excited in over a year. She has extreme anxiety issues and is depressed all time.”

White was moved. Once again, he moved the credit away from him and to the focal point of inspiration.

“Now, I’m not saying that I did anything special,” White says. “I’m saying that maybe all of our children need to believe in something again. Something that’s real, something that can inspire them to be far better than where they are.”

For years, the figure to believe in for business and basketball has been H’s partner in passion, Michael Jordan.

In 2023, that same sense of ambition aimed at kids belongs to entrepreneurs and philanthropists. Jordan and White are both.

While neither spends their time these days in a gym, both use the lessons from the game as a way to grow the next generation of athletes and executives.

“For me, the entire ride has been basketball as a platform,” White says. “MJ happened to be in the center of that platform, but I always felt it’s been more than basketball. People need the intangibles in life. They need to be able to dream, to hope, to really do those things that make dreams come true like sacrifice and belief.”

Howard White (via Jordan)

In 2023, H has become closer to the center of that public platform thanks to AIR and his own Air Jordan retail release that ties together his own story and his mission with Wings.

Coincidentally, the model of muse — the Air Jordan 2 — harkens back to that famous ‘Imagination’ commercial that H can still see with his eyes closed.

It’s a clip that hits close to home when considering the ethos of the $6 billion brand built in part by him and the kid who couldn’t wait to take on the Celtics.

It’s a message of belief that means everything as H looks to fund the future through philanthropy in the form of scholarships, motivational speaking, and simply being H.

“People have told me that dreams come true,” White says. “The only thing you have to do is believe in them enough to give yourself to them. In my estimation, I owed that to kids that I might not never see or never know.”

While Wings approaches 3,000 scholarships worldwide, White continues to imagine just how wide it can reach.

Just as coaches and teachers unlocked his own self-belief, H looks to do the same through the same storytelling that made Michael Jordan an inspiration.

“That captured how I saw the world,” White says. “It’s possible. Anything is.”

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About The Author
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook is a Staff Writer covering culture, sports, and fashion for Boardroom. Prior to signing on, Ian spent a decade at Nice Kicks as a writer and editor. Over the course of his career, he's been published by the likes of Complex, Jordan Brand, GOAT, Cali BBQ Media, SoleSavy, and 19Nine. Ian spends all his free time hooping and he's heard on multiple occasions that Drake and Nas have read his work, so that's pretty tight.