On Sports

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: L.E. BASKOW - Former team president Larry Miller has settled into a familar role at Nike, where he heads the popular Jordan Brand division.For the longest time, it’s been life in the fast lane for Larry Miller, and there are no signs of winding down, even at age 62.

The former president of the Trail Blazers is now nine months into a new/old job in the same capacity with Jordan Brand, a division of Nike, Inc., named after you know who.

Miller and the basketball icon were together earlier this month at Brooklyn’s Barclay Center for the 12th annual Jordan Brand Classic, a game featuring and celebrating many of the nation’s premier high school players.

“It’s a great event for us,” says Miller, who presided over Jordan Brand from 1999-2006 before his six-year stint running the Blazers. “Michael and I got to spend some time together, which is always good. We communicate regularly, whether via text or on the phone. I’ve seen him quite a few times since I’ve been back.”

Miller and Jordan became fast friends during Miller’s first tour of duty with Jordan Brand.

“The entire time I was gone from (Nike) and working for the Blazers, we stayed in constant touch,” Miller says. “We’d meet up at the NBA Board of Governors meetings. We’d go out to dinner and hang out afterward. We continued to maintain a friendship through the years.”

The friendship didn’t have an impact on Miller’s decision to resign his post with the Blazers last July, “but the fact I would be coming back to work with Michael didn’t hurt,” Miller says.

Miller says Jordan takes an active hand in the Jordan Brand Classic, which began 12 years ago in Washington, D.C., moved to New York’s Madison Square Garden, then was held in Charlotte for a few years until landing in Brooklyn this year. The NBA limits his access to the participants, though, due to Jordan’s ownership of the Charlotte Bobcats and the potential for improprieties.

“There are some restraints now on how he can interact with the players, versus when we first started and he wasn’t an owner,” Miller says. “We’ve had to make some adjustments there.”

Jordan Brand, a premium line of footwear, apparel and accessories inspired by the sport’s greatest legend, made its debut in 1997. Miller, a Philadelphia native who came to Portland to serve as president for Jantzen, Inc., in 1992, was then working as Nike’s general manager of U.S. apparel. He moved over to Jordan Brand two years later and helped it become one of the company’s most successful properties.

Fast forward to 2012, when Miller made the decision to return after his run with the Blazers.

“I just felt like it was time to move on and do something different,” he says.”I feel like I made a contribution to the Trail Blazers. Hopefully, other folks feel the same way. But I felt like when the opportunity came along to come back to Nike, it was the right time to do that.”

Miller settled into his old seat in the Michael Jordan Building, greeted by a mixture of old friends and new faces.

“It’s been really good being back,” he says. “The reception has been great. It felt like coming home.”

Nike’s income rose 55 percent in its most recent quarter despite weak sales in China, but Miller says the latter is not true of the Jordan Brand.

“The Jordan business is on fire right now,” he says. “We’re growing significantly this year. The great thing is, every part of the business is growing right now. We’re growing on a global basis — in China and Europe, as well domestically.”

Jordan Brand is in the process of releasing a series of new items this spring, including shirts, shorts, socks, hoodies and a line of Air Jordan shoes.

“The hottest stuff is the retro footwear,” Miller says.

Some of the new releases don’t appear retro though. There is an “XX8” series that looks less like a sports shoe and more like a boot a guard might wear at Buckingham Palace.

What the kids want, though, Nike provides. And in the case of Jordan Brand, there are specific needs to be addressed.

“When we first started Jordan Brand as a separate division, the goal was to evolve from it being a logo under Nike Basketball to actually being a brand,” Miller says. “We’ve accomplished that over the last 10 years or so. There are a lot of customers who see themselves as Jordan consumers. They see a separation between Nike and Jordan. They want all the latest (Jordan) gear.”

That’s surprising since Jordan, 50, retired as a player a decade ago. Nike and, specifically, Miller have helped keep his name relevant with innovative products that still appeal to the younger set.

Miller’s role with Jordan Brand seems much more clearly defined that it was with the Blazers, where he was involved in player personnel matters as well as running the business side of the operation. There is a division of authority in the club’s executive branch now, with general manager Neil Olshey heading the basketball side and president Chris McGowan supervising the business end — the way it ought to be.

There is an interesting twist to the Blazers choosing McGowan over charismatic COO Sarah Mensah, who worked closely with Miller. In April, Mensah began her new position as senior director of strategic planning for the Jordan Brand — working under Miller.

“I’m thrilled we were able to get her,” Miller says.

Give Miller credit for helping the Blazers through recovery from the “Jail Blazer” era and into a period where they enjoyed 195 straight sellouts (or at least close to it on some nights). I got the impression too much of his time was spent fighting fires in the front office and dealing with owner Paul Allen and his righthand man, Bert Kolde. Miller survived, and the Blazers have, too.

“I still feel connected to the team,” says Miller, who attended four or five games the past season. “I root for the guys. I want to see them do well. But I feel like I’m back in my element now.”

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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