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Larry Miller Overcame it All to Build the Jordan Brand

A respected executive in the world of sportswear and hoops, Larry Miller has revealed dark points from his past in hopes of inspiring a brighter future for those often judged by their mistakes.

Search through Getty Images and you’ll find photos of Larry Miller on red carpets smiling with Spike Lee or casually talking business with the likes of Michael Jordan, Jadakiss, and Warren Sapp.

Dive deeper into the pages of Pennsylvania press or family scrapbooks and you’ll see snapshots of the same man posing in prison alone with much less delight in his eyes.

Over the past two decades, Larry Miller has made a name for himself in the world of business as an executive at Nike and beyond, having held the prestigious title of president at both Jordan Brand and the Portland Trail Blazers.

However, the first two decades of Larry Miller’s life saw all that prestige and promise almost go to waste as street life in Philadelphia pulled him away from the classroom and into prison.

At age 16, Miller made a grave mistake and took the life of an innocent man in his hometown, drunkenly pulling the trigger in retaliation to a friend being fatally stabbed in a gang fight.

The disastrous decision ended one life and forever altered the course of his own. Pleading guilty to murder when he was barely old enough to drive, Miller spent most of his teenage years and 20s incarcerated, turning to reading as a chance to turn the page on his own life.

Fortunately for Miller, the dedication to education while serving time served him well.

After graduating top of his class in prison, Miller made his way to Temple University and later La Salle for his MBA, climbing the corporate ladder so high that he lists the likes of Michael Jordan, Phil Knight, David Stern, and Adam Silver as mentors.

While success inspired him, his past haunted him.

Suffering from night terrors, migraines and fear of being outed for his criminal past, Miller kept the early chapters of his life a secret to his professional peers for the greater part of his career.

Finding inspiration from his daughter, Miller has recently opened up to his family, corporate comrades and the world at large about the time and crime he committed as a kid. In doing so, he hopes to inspire others to avoid the same disastrous decisions he made while challenging society as a whole to consider second chances for the incarcerated.

For the latest episode of “Boardroom Book Club,” we caught up with Larry Miller to talk about his new memoir, Jump: My Secret Journey From the Streets to the Boardroom, where he reveals both his corporate climb in athletics and his journey in jail.

Hear how Larry changed his own life from inside the pen and how he hopes to change the lives of others by picking up the pen.

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IAN STONEBROOK: Writing a book is a daunting task on several levels. What prompted you to do it and how long has it been in the works?

LARRY MILLER: My daughter and I started this process probably 13 years ago. Once she convinced me that I should tell this story, we got serious about getting it out and getting the message out that people can change their lives. They can redeem themselves and move on to be positive members of society.

IS: Why was your daughter Laila the perfect person to guide you on this journey?

LM: I kept that in so long. I’d been so protective of my past that she was the right person because I knew I felt comfortable opening up to her. I knew she’d still love me regardless and it was really helpful that it was her.

We were trying to accomplish the same thing with this. It was a long process but it was definitely great that it was her and I doing it together.

IS: How hard was it to dive into the deeper subject matter?

LM: It was really tough. A lot of things I had buried so far deep in my mind because I was living a whole different life.

It was a big part of causing so much angst for me. I was having incredible nightmares, migraine headaches and I think it was all because I was holding it. Also, there was a certain amount of nervousness and fear that it would come out and I was keeping it all inside.

IS: Putting your trials and tribulations to paper and talking them out had to be very therapeutic. How was that process in creation and how do you expect it to feel now that the book is out?

LM: Once I really started talking to my daughter and got it out, the nightmares stopped and the migraines stopped. I was able to get it out and not be worried and concerned about it being hidden anymore.

IS: It clearly helped you personally, but the motivation to move others was there as well.

LM: The whole goal was to create something that could motivate and inspire people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated to change their lives. Also, it could change the perception of how people view formerly incarcerated people.

Folks that know me are blown away because they could never imagine me having done the things that I’ve done. But that to me just shows that people change. They can become someone different or something different.

IS: A big theme in your story is redemption and second chances. In crazy times of cancel culture and public shaming, how important is it to never give up on someone?

LM: It’s incredibly important. I think we all make mistakes in life, some worse than others, but that’s a part of life. If you don’t make mistakes you’re not trying.

My mistakes were incredibly horrible, but I do think that people deserve the opportunity to have a second chance or a third chance even. Opportunities should be available for people who want to take advantage of them to change their life.

IS: The early segue from the streets to the boardroom came when you were locked up. How did that time provide both the platform and inspiration for your education?

LM: When I was in prison they had an educational release program. You had to take a certain number of college classes inside the jail and then you could qualify to move into these trailers outside of the wall.

That was how I wanted to do my time! Initially, the motivation was that it would get me out quicker. But once I got into the program I started to believe that I actually could change.

IS: How did diving into books help you make the most of your time behind bars?

LM: I remember reading Malcom X’s autobiography through the light shining in through the bars. Reading Malcolm’s book and reading about him doing the same thing that I was doing? It was pretty amazing to me.

I was into reading. That really helped me understand a lot of things that I wouldn’t. That was the perfect time to use it to learn. I was the valedictorian of the graduating class inside the pentearitary. At the end of the speech my comment was, ‘Let’s not serve time, let’s let time serve us.’ To me, that’s the way we should be approaching it, but there needs to be opportunities for people to do that.

IS: There’s a big push towards inclusivity in corporate culture but rarely does it account for those that have been incarcerated. How do you feel your story and your success can shift that narrative?

LM: People can change the perception of formerly incarnated people, but people need to change the perception of themselves. You have to believe that you can change before you can change and that’s a big problem for a lot of people in that situation currently because society is stacked up against them.

IS: Speak to your early days at Jordan Brand and the birth of the company.

LM: I was just thrilled to have the opportunity to take someone like Michael Jordan and build a brand off what he stood for on and off the court: hard work, dedication and excellence.

We were in the process of building a brand and there were a lot of people internally and externally that didn’t think we could do it. There was one retailer in particular who said, ‘You know what, this will never work. But I’m going to go with you guys because you’re Nike and I feel like I have to, but it’s not going to work.’

Two years later I see the same guy at the Magic Show in Las Vegas. He came up and said, ‘You know what? I owe you an apology. I didn’t believe in you guys and what you’ve done has been great. By the way, can I get some more Jordans?’

IS: At Jordan Brand, who were some of your early advocates?

LM: MJ was on board, Phil Knight was incredibly supportive and that allowed us to get through some of the issues to get to the point where the brand’s been able to accomplish what it has so far. People a lot of times don’t understand how great of a businessman MJ is.

IS: Over the course of your two tenures at Jordan Brand, what stands out as one of the biggest or most exciting moments?

LM: One thing that jumps out is the whole Michigan deal. That helped us move the needle when it came to football because up to that point we had football athletes that were signed but our logo couldn’t show up on the NFL field. When the Michigan deal happened, that opened up the idea of Jordan Brand on the football field.

Michigan was a perfect match for what they represent and what we brought to the table. The first weekend that we launched, MJ and all of us were out there. On that weekend, they sold more products at the bookstore than they had the whole year before.

IS: Through your career, you’ve seen the world and all corners of the country. Looking back, how did growing up in Philly in the ’60s mirror the experiences that modern youth are currently struggling with today?

LM: In a lot of ways, it’s even worse than what I was dealing with back then. There’s far more gun violence, there’s a lot less support, too.

The program that I took advantage of doesn’t exist any more. That’s another purpose and call out of this book: there are some states that do have good programs in place that hopefully we can enhance. But in places where they don’t exist? We can get people thinking about how we can put these in place so people can become contributors when they get out.

IS: In a world with endless media platforms and content, why is reading still so important today especially as it relates to your journey to becoming a success in business?

LM: There are so many forms of media today that are great, but I think reading is one of the most important and incredible ways that you can get information. I’m a Jeopardy fan and I’ll know answers because somewhere along the line I read it and it stuck with me. Reading opened up so many worlds to me, especially being incarcerated.

IS: Simply put, who is this book best intended for?

LM: I think there’s more than one audience. There’s a business audience from the stories in there about how we built Jordan Brand and my opportunities at other companies. Sneakerheads are definitely going to be interested in the Jordan part of it.

But I’m hoping that it can reach young people in our community that might be going down the same path that I was going down. I’m hoping that there’s a young Larry Miller that might be about to do something crazy and stupid and maybe this will make them stop and think that they might do something they’d regret for the rest of our life.

For me, it’s really focusing on incarcerated people, formerly incarcerated people and people who might be going down that wrong path.

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