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October 3, 2013

Nike Executive Shares Life Lessons with ODU Student-Athletes, Sport Management Majors

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By Brendan O’Hallarn

In a speech to Old Dominion student-athletes and sport management students Sept. 26, marketing impresario Howard White talked very little about his professional career.

But the life lessons imparted by White, the visionary Nike executive behind the Jordan brand (named for Michael Jordan), captivated the audience in the Big Blue Room of the Ted Constant Convocation Center.

"This is your movie," White told the students. "You are the star and you are the director of your movie. You're also the producer of your movie. How will you make it great?"

White, who is from Hampton, was invited to ODU by his friend Jeff McLeod, an adjunct lecturer in ODU's sport management department. White was a highly recruited high school basketball star whose career was cut short by two knee injuries. After a short stint as an assistant coach at the University of Maryland, where he had played college basketball, White joined Nike as a field representative for the company's NBA athletes and East Coast partners.

He said in the 1970s, Nike wasn't the giant that it has become today. But White said he was fortunate to be linked up with a young Michael Jordan, and his growth in the company matched Jordan's evolution into the best player in the world.

The Jordan brand wasn't created until late in the player's career. White said he had to convince Nike co-founder and chairman Phil Knight that it was worth the investment to market a player at the very end of his career.

To convince Knight, White mentioned seeing a beautiful Mercedes outside the Nike compound, and told him: "Did you know that Mr. Mercedes has been dead for a long time?" The marketing initiative went ahead. "What I was able to do was change his perspective on how he saw things."

In his hourlong address to students, White spoke extensively about seeing things from a different perspective, something he said is key to successful marketing. But White also asked the students to look at themselves, and what they're willing to sacrifice, to achieve their goals.

"If in your life you can create habit, discipline and structure, you can do anything," White said. "Decide what you're willing to sacrifice or give up to make it happen." For a high school-aged White, it was shooting baskets long after dark because he didn't want future rival players in California to have three extra hours of light. White confessed it didn't occur to him that the time zone difference also meant that he had three extra hours of light in the morning, so he simply put in the extra work at night. "Sometimes it helps to not be the smartest person in the room," he said.

White related a story from his recruitment as a star high school player, where an unscrupulous booster offered him cash and a car to come play basketball at his school, going so far as to roll out blueprints of a new gym, and say it would be known as the "Howard White Floor."

He turned the recruiter down. "Howard White wasn't for sale. Then, or now."

During his meteoric rise at Nike, White ended up under investigation by the FBI for allegedly passing company secrets to rivals. After he was cleared of all wrongdoing, White said Nike's Phil Knight offered him a giant severance package, and said he wouldn't blame him at all for leaving the company.

White stayed. "You asked me to come here and help build something. We haven't finished yet," he told him.

White returned in 2012 to his high school alma mater, Kecoughtan High School, and in a ceremony, the basketball court was renamed the Howard White Floor. Integrity has its rewards.