Larry Miller’s Secret Journey From Inmate to Nike Executive

The chairman of Jordan Brand shares how he emerged from his hidden past, seeking redemption for a murder he committed and kept quiet for decades.

Larry Miller Chairman of Jordan Brand

Jordan Brand chairman Larry Miller. Image via Getty

Larry Miller Chairman of Jordan Brand

If you looked at the titles that Larry Miller has had next to his name, you’d see a flourishing career. He started his professional life making $16,500 a year as an accountant at Campbell Soup Company and went on to become a leader at one of the world’s top sneaker brands. However, as people admired his success from the outside, Miller struggled with a secret heavy burden of guilt on the inside.

As the chairman of Jordan Brand and former president of the Portland Trailblazers, Miller climbed to the highest peaks of sneakers and sports, all while hiding that he murdered someone in 1965 when he was 16 years old. Sports Illustrated first reported the news this past fall in an interview with Miller. The executive kept that truth buried for over 50 years, although he served his time for the crime, earned a college degree, and ascended the corporate ladder at Nike and elsewhere.

“There was a point where I realized that street life wasn’t for me anymore and that I was on a path that could lead me to a totally different life,” Miller says about how he turned his life around after being incarcerated. 

He details his transgression, salvation, and the pressures of leading a double life in his book Jump: My Secret Journey From the Streets to the Boardroom, which he co-wrote with his daughter Laila.

“My daughter has a saying,” Larry Miller says as he ponders what he wants people to take away after reading his memoir. “‘The worst thing in your life shouldn’t determine how people view the rest of your life.’”

After opening up to his family, Miller also chose to reveal his hidden past to his closest colleagues, which included Nike co-founder Phil Knight and Michael Jordan in 2020. Both of whom were supportive of Miller making it open to the world through his book, which releases on Jan. 18. 

While he may feel the burden of guilt starting to lift now as he tells all, there are still remnants of the past that haunt him. When Miller first opened up about serving time for the murder this past fall, the family of the victim, Edward White, came forward about feeling blindsided by the confession. 

Although Miller does express his remorse in the book, he also admits his fault for not initially reaching out to the family before the news got out. He says talking to the victim’s family was always part of his plan before working on the book and has since been in touch.

“One of the things I’m really sorry about is that we weren’t able to connect with them before it went public,” he says. “That was definitely a mistake. I take blame for that. The reality is that I was nervous about doing that, so I didn’t push it as hard as I should have.”

Now, Miller is focused on helping change the lives of others going through the criminal justice system, as well as society’s views on those who’ve been incarcerated. He’s looking to connect with organizations like The Vera Institute, which focus on social justice reform. Miller’s personal story has also been used to give hope to current inmates.

Larry Miller Young

“There might be another 16-year-old Larry Miller out there that’s about to do something stupid or crazy,” he says. “Maybe this story could be something that sends them in a different direction.”

Here, Miller sheds some light on how he went from inmate to executive, as well as leadership lessons from Phil Knight and Michael Jordan. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity

So this is a secret you’ve kept for over 50 years. Why was right now the best time to share it?
It’s interesting because people that know me have had no idea about any of this. In most cases, people were shocked because they know who I am today, but they didn’t know who I was back then. Having the ability and the opportunity to share and change the perception people have about formerly incarcerated people was one of the motivating factors for doing this.

Given the reactions that you’ve been seeing so far, is there part of you that wishes you did it earlier?
I think about that and sometimes I do, but I think the timing is exactly right now. I was ready to do this and my daughter was working with me, ready to do this. But actually, the timing with everything that’s going on in the world right now, maybe this story can help motivate some people and have a positive impact.

Larry Miller Daughter

What were Phil Knight and Michael Jordan’s reactions when you told them?
Early on when I was working on doing this, two of the first people I mentioned it to were MJ and Phil Knight. I think if any one of them had expressed some reluctance to me or told me I shouldn’t do it, I would’ve been a lot more hesitant. But they were both encouraging and supportive. They told me it was a story that the world needed to hear and that I needed to tell it. That really just confirmed to me that I was doing the right thing.

I knew that there would be some negative responses, but I was just overwhelmed by the amount of support and encouragement I received from people that I know and even from people that didn’t know me that were telling me it was an incredible story.

There’s a woman that works with us here at Nike and her son works for a program called Inside Out and they go into prisons and teach reading and writing. He used my story as the subject of some of his sessions. He sent me a number of letters from inmates that talked about the impact the story had on them and the way it affected some things they plan to do with their lives now. It was all overwhelming for me. 

It seems like the higher you rose in your career, the higher the pressure became of people possibly finding out your secret. What was the highest moment of stress for you?
There were a lot of moments of anxiety, but going to the Trailblazers really highlighted it for me because I knew I was going to be in the spotlight in that role, much more than in the Jordan job. At Jordan, I could float under the radar a little bit, but I knew in the Trailblazer job that there was going to be a lot more publicity, a lot more media, and that was really nerve-racking for me. 

Larry Miller, then the Portland Trail Blazers' president, at the NBA Draft Lottery in 2008

As I mention in the book, nightmares were frequent and much more frequent around that time. I’ve had to go to the emergency room because of migraine headaches and there was nothing physically wrong with me after they did all the tests. It was just the stress and pressure of maintaining this secret.

Some of the parts in this book read cinematically, like when you talk about sticking people up, but doing it in a way that no one got hurt. Have any of those tactics from your old life been valuable to your professional life?
My mindset during that time was this is what we do and this is how we operate. It was just part of being in that street life and that lifestyle. If you’re in that world, you have to be in it all the way: no half-steppin. That’s just the way I approach everything. 

There was a point that I realized I was no longer about that world. I couldn’t dabble in and out of it because that’s a dangerous situation to be in. If you’re not all the way in, then you’re putting yourself in danger.

Coming to Islam is something you’re very open about in guiding you on a different path. What are some of the fundamentals of your faith that helped you get things together?
When I decided to join the Nation of Islam, it was more about the plight of Black people in this country. What the message was from the Nation of Islam was do for self, treat each other with respect, all those things that we didn’t normally do as a people, that’s what the Nation of Islam was about and that’s what attracted me to it. It was about uplifting Black people and helping Black people in this country. 

As the Nation evolved and I evolved, the true tenets of Islam came into play. I believe that I’ve been blessed beyond my wildest dreams and that God has looked out for me and allowed me the ability to do what I’ve done.

That’s also one of the reasons I’ve decided to do this book, is because I believe I’ve been so blessed and if I didn’t share what I’ve been able to do, then I wouldn’t be showing my gratitude for how blessed I’ve been or be able to hopefully help some other people.

You shared this secret once in your professional life while interviewing in the final rounds for your first job out of college. What was it like knowing you were the best person for the job, but have that opportunity taken away from you for trying to be honest about your past?
It was a shock and it was a challenge because sharing it kept me from getting what I was hoping to get. So after that, I decided not to share it anymore. If it came up, I wasn’t going to lie. I never lied. I just didn’t tell all of the truth. It’s been an interesting journey for me after that.

Larry Miller at the Air Jordan 17 launch event

Even after you were successful and in the heights of your career, you were still visiting friends you made on the inside. Why did you think it was worth the risk of getting found out?
The interesting thing is that there were people I was there with over 40-plus years ago that are still there. One of my friends just passed away recently and he was there for almost 50 years. I know this for a fact through others, that my story has been an inspiration to them. 

That’s why I’ve always tried to stay connected because that’s kind of like the foundation for me. The last time I got incarcerated was really what put me on the path to changing my life. I never want to lose sight of that. I never want to lose sight of the fact that that’s my foundation.  

One of the best days of my life was when my friend got out after 52 years. I was right there when he got out and I was right there to make sure that I was there for him. I just want to make sure I maintain that connection and let those brothers know that I haven’t forgotten about them. 

They used my story to tell some of the younger inmates there, “This was a guy that was here with us and look what he’s doing now. You can do the same things when you get out.”

For someone who picks up the book and learns your story, what’s one thing you want them to take away from reading it?
I’m hoping that it’ll change the perception of formerly incarcerated people. There are roadblocks based on the fact if someone has been incarcerated. There are certain perceptions and certain ways that people look at them and I’m hoping that this book can show that people can change. If I can do it, that means that other people can do it. People can change and improve their lives and become contributors to society. To me, that’s a big goal of this book.

For incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, it’s something that will give them some encouragement that they can change. There is redemption and you can move on from negative things in your life.

I want to switch gears and talk about the Jordan Brand since you were there right at the very beginning of it. What are some similarities between you, MJ, and Phil Knight’s leadership style?
Both of those guys are people I have utmost respect for. People don’t realize how good of a businessman MJ is. He understands this business better than some of the people that work at Nike and work for Jordan Brand. He gets it. He also has a clear vision for what he wants the brand to represent. MJ’s always leading from the perspective of pushing us to be great.

Phil is one of the most interesting people I’ve met. He is a guy that believes in giving people the opportunity to try different things. When we started the Jordan Brand, there were a lot of people who didn’t believe we were doing something that made sense. The formula was make a cool shoe, do some marketing around it with Bugs Bunny or Spike Lee or someone, and then MJ plays 82 games and into the Playoffs in the shoe. That was the formula. MJ not playing any longer was taking a big piece of that formula out. There were a lot of people, internally and externally, who didn’t think it was going to work. But Phil was one of the people who did. I knew anytime I ran into issues or a problem, I could talk to Phil and he would make whatever changes needed to be made so we could move forward.

Larry Miller with Michael Jordan in 2005

From the beginning, Phil’s always been a big supporter of the Jordan Brand and what we were trying to do. The way that I looked at it was, if I’ve got Phil Knight and Michael Jordan behind me, I really don’t care what anybody else has to say. 

How are you guys different?   
I don’t know about different, but my style has always been to get the right people, put them in the right roles, give them the guidance or direction they need, and get out the way and let them do their job. I’ve never been a micromanager and I know that those guys aren’t either.

One of the lines that was interesting in the book was when you said, “fashion is the F word at Nike.” Can you give some more context about what that means?
When I first came to Nike my first job was vice president and general manager of apparel in the U.S. At the time, the sentiment was that we’re a sports brand and we only focus on sports and we’re not about fashion. The reality is that we’re kind of about fashion. 

I think we’ve accepted that and acknowledged that now. We’re grounded in sport. We’re grounded in performance, but there’s also an element of our business that’s related and connected to fashion. Back then you didn’t say the word “fashion.” It was considered the F word, but we’ve gotten way past that at this point. Both Nike and Jordan are brands that impact and are impacted by fashion.

With Jordan, especially, the product is highly sought after, and you talk about how violence over the shoes breaks your heart and it’s pushing the company to implement things like moving the release dates and increasing pairs. What are some other things the company can do to stop sneaker violence from happening?
We’ve worked with our retailers and our own retail to set up processes that can help reduce the chances that violence is going to happen. 

We can’t control what people are going to do to get a pair of shoes or what people will do to get anything they want. But, what we are doing is trying to make a system that decreases the chances of violence happening. Digital launches have helped with that in terms of reducing crowds and violence, although I still like to see people lined up for a shoe–with no violence, of course. 

We’ve done some things, like I remember in Toronto during All-Star it was cold and people were lined up. We had some of our [retail employees] out providing coffee and interacting with folks just to keep the crowds from getting worked up and disgruntled.

 We’re constantly looking for ways to improve the launch strategy. How can we improve what happens at retail when we launch a product? That’s a constant for us and something we’re always going to continue to do because as much as we want to sell product, the last thing we want is to see violence associated with our product.