Ex-Terp carves out niche at Nike Howard White: Once a key player on some of Maryland's great teams of the early 1970s, he now is a key cog at the athletic apparel giant, advising the likes of Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley.


BEAVERTON, Ore. -- Howard White, the former University of Maryland basketball guard who is Nike's most influential adviser to its athletic superstars, was in Hawaii when he saw a man with a chisel and a hammer standing beside a beautiful figure carved from a tree.

"I said, 'Did you create that?' " White recalls. "And he said, 'No. I just released it from the tree.' In his mind, it was there all the time."

In White's mind, he is like the man with the chisel. But instead of chiseling wood, he helps people -- from famous athletes to disadvantaged children -- visualize their dreams and go after them.

He also helps keep the superstars signed by Nike feeling like people, not merchandise.

Beyond that, White's job is not easy to explain.

His 10-year-old daughter, Mandy, puts it simply: "He talks to famous people on the phone a lot."

His wife, Donna, says: "He makes sure things get done. He makes people feel comfortable."

And Dallas Cowboys defensive back Deion Sanders says White "is the glue that keeps the players with Nike."

White, 48, is recognized as the godfather of the mentoring programs used by big sports apparel companies to help superstar athletes adjust to newfound wealth and business demands.

He virtually invented Nike's Athletic Relations Department, which he still oversees. White also started the company's program, Believe to Achieve, a seminar to encourage youths to better themselves. And, in August, he was named vice president of Jordan Brand, a Nike business unit run by NBA superstar Michael Jordan.

White is a close personal adviser to Jordan and other elite athletes.

"I've been with Howard the entire 15 years I've been with Nike," says the Houston Rockets' Charles Barkley. "I think Nike is strictly business, while Howard is a friend. He's like a big brother. In big business, most of the people don't care. They just want you to wear their shoes and sell their products. Howard is a welcome variable from that."

White's rapport with others has helped him become one of the most successful of former athletes in the world of business.

Of course, White didn't do badly as an athlete, either. He was the point guard on some of Maryland's greatest teams. Len Elmore, Jim O'Brien, Billy Hahn, Tom McMillen, Jap Trimble and Tom Roy were among his teammates.

Wearing his No. 13 jersey -- with his signature "H" instead of his name on the back -- White helped lead the Terps to the 1972 National Invitation Tournament title. The next year, they made it to the NCAA final eight.

White, O'Brien, Hahn and Trimble talk occasionally, and White plans to be in Atlanta on Dec. 11, when a party is planned for his former coach and mentor, Lefty Driesell, head coach at Georgia State, who last week achieved his 700th career victory.

"If he hadn't had two knee surgeries, he would have had a great [pro] playing career," Driesell says.

Building a bridge

There was no such thing as corporate mentoring of athletes before White came to Nike, where he created his own niche.

"I just carved it out," he says.

But the foundation was laid years before, in 1974, when he was an assistant coach at Maryland and Driesell sent him to Petersburg, Va., to woo Moses Malone.

The recruiting of Malone, a 6-foot-11 teen-age prodigy, was a national story. Nearly every major university basketball program wanted him. Maryland eventually signed him, but also lost him before he set foot on campus, when Malone turned pro instead.

"Howard would go down there for three weeks at a time," says Driesell. "Howard became like one of Moses' family.

"Howard did a great job recruiting. He has always been very personable."

Driesell called White's position "the perfect job" for him. "It's like coaching, it's in athletics and he loves speaking to all those Nike camps, all those groups of kids," Driesell said. "He's great at that."

When Malone became one of the first athletes to sign an endorsement contract with Nike in the late 1970s, White was working as Nike's East Coast sales representative. The company saw him as a natural fit to advise Malone on everything from shoe design to community relations.

At first, co-workers wondered why White was always with Malone and the other athletes, but the company began seeing direct results. Shoe sales flourished, players' complaints dropped and their loyalty grew.

For doing this unusual job, with players feeling free to call him around the clock, White is well-compensated. He may earn up to $500,000 this year, but he was reluctant to have that figure mentioned in this story. By comparison, Jordan makes $35 million. Yet White is afraid youngsters won't relate to his own income.

"When I was a kid, someone told me my uncle made $100 a week," White says. "I thought then that if I could ever make $100 a week, that would be all I'd need.

"I speak to a lot of young people," White says. "I want them to see attainable goals. I want them to look at me and think, 'If that bowlegged, funny-looking guy can make it, I know I can make it. I know there has to be a place for me.' "

Showing the way

In acting as a liaison between Nike and its athletes, White familiarizes them with the advertising, footwear, apparel, design and community relations departments. He also acts as a sounding board, and, he hopes, provides sound business advice.

"It's like helping folks through a maze," he says. "Like being your own personal Yoda [of 'Star Wars']."

White is explaining all this while sitting in his large, L-shaped office in the middle of Nike's college-like campus. A glass wall behind him gives view to an expanse of trees and a crystal-blue lake. Floor lamps cast a warm yellow glow around a sitting area of black leather furniture and red Oriental rugs. A conference table for six, bookcases, TV and VCR provide the amenities. The room, White explains, is a tribute to the athletes with whom he works.

"This is kind of their home," White says, waving a hand around the retreat. "They can come here, relax, take it easy."

One who has relaxed here often, Jordan, told USA Today that he seldom makes a decision "without at least talking to Howard." And it was White who advised Jordan to have input in the design of his shoes.

The way White does his job is also different from the way other companies do it. At Reebok, for instance, Henry "Que" Gaskins watches over NBA star Allen Iverson. Although Gaskins has said he tries to teach the young player responsibility, his role appears to be like that of a social secretary, even shopper or driver.

White brushes aside those kinds of services. "We aren't talking about hand-holders. We're talking about strategies, business planning."

The Jordan bounce

It was in 1984, when Nike snared Jordan, that White came into his own.

"When Michael signed with Nike, he was very young," says Jordan's agent, David Falk, recalling Jordan at 21. "Howard became like an older brother, as he facilitated Michael's relations with Nike."

Falk says White's role at Nike differs from that of an agent, who acts as legal, business and personal adviser and negotiates with numerous companies.

"It's impossible for Howard to be an active advocate for Michael," Falk says. "You either work for the player or the company but Howard is an important member of the team."

White agrees with much of what Falk says, pointing out, "Someone like David Falk may sign his players to many different deals -- Gatorade, a book deal, cologne deal, Wheaties. The Nike part is another world. The athletes need someone right here who has their interest at heart and knows how they best fit in."

Yet Lynn Merritt, who works under White's direction as a mentor with Ken Griffey and Scottie Pippen, says White and others in the Athletic Relations Department give advice on everything from "a game situation to how to love your wife."

And, in truth, one of White's greatest skills has been to make the athletes feel as if he is their friend first.

"With H, it's more than just shoes," says the Cowboys' Sanders. "He makes you feel like a person, not just a prostitute for a company. H is the glue that keeps the players at Nike. It's his knowledge, his integrity and his care."

It's a similar story from Barkley: "Howard can be a pain sometimes because he always stays on the straight and narrow. Me, I veer off a lot.

"He'll call me up and tell me, 'You know you shouldn't do that,' " Barkley says. "And if Nike was doing something wrong to one of us, Howard wouldn't do the wrong thing. He's honest and he's loyal."

"I'm not in the business of trying to mess up anyone's life or direct them down the wrong road," White says. "If you do something self-serving, eventually your athletes are going to see it, and then they don't have their trust or faith in you."

In 1988, White persuaded Jordan to stay with Nike and create his own division and label there. Under the Nike umbrella, Jordan's company is now worth about $350 million.

Nike, which had fiscal 1998 revenues of $9.6 billion, has been hurt by falling stock prices and weak sales after reports of products manufactured in sweatshops abroad.

Nike responded by establishing a code of conduct, trying to root out underage workers, tightening safety standards and raising wages. The company, which employs more than 22,000, also has cut nearly 2,300 jobs since last February.

Larry Miller, president of Jordan Brand and White's boss, says that through all of Nike's problems, Jordan Brand has been unaffected. "We've actually continued to grow," he says. "We're doing well in retail sales."

As vice president, White has the task of building the sports marketing side of Jordan Brand and bringing athletes into the fold. The pro basketball players under contract include Vancouver Grizzlies rookie Mike Bibby. White, working on expanding the brand to other sports, is negotiating with the Seattle Mariners' Alex Rodriguez and the San Francisco 49ers' Jerry Rice.

Being under contract with Jordan Brand means players wear shoes and athletic clothing with the company's "Jumpman" logo. It does not mean wearing the Air Jordan shoes worn by Jordan.

Weathering a storm

White's close relationship with Jordan resulted in trouble for White in 1993-94, when someone at Nike, apparently jealous of that access, suggested he was participating in industrial espionage.

Nike had him investigated by the FBI.

"I was supposed to be a secret agent -- a spy -- for Adidas," White says.

At the time, his wife says, he was Mr. Cool.

"I don't understand it," says Donna White. "But I've seen it so many times. He has an inner strength and faith and when he needs to, he goes somewhere within himself. It's almost like someone going to the attic to get something.

"During that FBI investigation, he never got really upset or angry," she says. "All he did was talk with people, venting that way. And when it was over, he forgave people."

White, in fact, smiles at the memory. "It gave me wings," he says.

That's because he had a chance to demonstrate what is inside him. He tells all who seek his advice to stay the course.

"Without problems, how can you know how strong you are?" he asks.

Afterward, Nike chief executive officer Phil Knight told him: " 'If you don't want to be here anymore, you'll get the biggest settlement in the history of mankind,' " White recalls. "I told him, 'You asked me to come do a job here, and the job's not done.'

"Nike pays thousands of dollars for me to fly around the country to talk to kids and give them hope," he says. "If you could just sit and chart a job, how you want to approach it, who do you want to touch? This is that job.

"It's like that man in Hawaii, whittling wood."

Pub Date: 11/26/98

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