Jordan Brand vice president Howard “H” White, who is featured in the fifth episode of ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” was a point guard for Maryland from 1970-1973. He was on the freshman team in 1969-70. The 6-foot White averaged 15.6 points and 2.2 assists in 1970-71, but his production dipped his final two years as knee injuries took their toll. The Terps went 64-24 under head coach Lefty Driesell during White’s three seasons.
White was selected by the Washington Bullets in the supplemental draft in 1973 but never played in the league. He worked on Driesell’s coaching staff at Maryland and eventually joined Nike. White joined Glenn Clark Radio May 7 to discuss his time in College Park, Md., his journey with Nike and more.
The back of White’s jersey at Maryland read “H” instead of White. Why? The answer dates back to his days growing up in Hampton, Va., when White, at the time a novice basketball player, played pickup hoops at Kecoughtan High, his future school. White and his friends didn’t fare well in the game, but …
White: Afterward I stopped to get some water, and this man walked up and he introduced himself. He said, “Hi, son, my name is Jim Hathaway, I’m the coach here at Kecoughtan High.” “Hi, Howard White.” He said, “Have you ever heard of the Big O, Oscar Robertson?” And of course, that was like asking somebody had they heard of Michael Jordan or LeBron James. I said, “Yes, I have.” And he said, “If you listen to everything I tell you, you could be just like the Big O.”
And he was probably lying, but eventually I started playing basketball, became an All-American at that school. I became the senior class president and I went to the University of Maryland. I always remembered that conversation, and I told Coach, “I just want to wear the letter H on my uniform,” and he went with it.
White’s once-promising basketball career came to an end in no small part due to injuries. He averaged 1.9 points per game as a senior in 1972-73 as Len Elmore Tom McMillen, John Lucas and Jim O’Brien led the Terps to a 23-7 mark. Lucas was Maryland’s starting point guard, forcing White to the bench.
White: It was really interesting because my senior year of high school, I tore my left knee up pretty badly. Went to the University of Virginia, had surgery with Dr. Frank McCue, but that was way before they cut you open, took things out, threw them away. So I always had my knee bandaged up when I played. Unfortunately, I was usually doing things off of one leg, and by my senior year it was my right leg that went, and I had to get an operation on that.
My senior year was the year that John Lucas and [Maurice] Howard and that whole crew came in. So basketball wasn’t that much fun anymore. [Lucas] happened to step in and take that spot, but it just wasn’t fun. I got drafted by at that time the Washington Bullets in the supplemental draft, but it just wasn’t fun.
One day Coach called me to the office. He asked me if I had ever thought about coaching. Obviously no I hadn’t, and he said, “Write me a paper on coaching,” and I wrote a paper on coaching. I have no idea, but eventually he hired me as the assistant basketball coach and assistant director of intramurals. So the beauty of assistant director of intramurals was I got some business experience down there doing payrolls, hiring officials and all of that.
White was on Driesell’s staff when Maryland landed Moses Malone, who was set to play for the Terps in 1974-75 … but never suited up. Malone decided to go pro after he was drafted by the ABA’s Utah Stars in 1974. Malone, a Naismith Hall of Famer, played in the ABA from 1974-1976 and in the NBA from 1976-1995. The 6-foot-10 center averaged 20.3 points and 12.3 rebounds per game for his career, earning league MVP three times and NBA Finals MVP in 1982-83.
White: Big Mo averaged 36, 25 rebounds and 12 blocked shots a game [in high school]. He signed to come to Maryland. He got drafted by the Utah Stars in the ABA. I remember when Mo told me. He said, “You know how when I was growing up and playing on that outdoor basketball court, I wrote down and put in my Bible that I wanted to be the first player to go from high school to the pros. And now that I have this opportunity, I think that if I don’t take it something bad might happen because that was like a promise I made to God.” So Mo went to the pros.
White became a field representative with Nike in 1978 with the help of Lucas, the No. 1 overall pick of the 1976 NBA Draft.
White: … I stayed in coaching probably six or seven years – and when I got out, John Lucas, he would come to town. When John graduated and left Maryland, he was the first player picked in the NBA Draft. And John was the one that said, “You know what, there’s this great opportunity, this Nike. You’d love it. It would be fabulous.” I didn’t even know what a Nike was, but lo and behold I met the guy.
[Lucas’] sister, Cheryl, was actually going with a guy Kenny White … an East Coast basketball rep. They asked him to come out to Portland. He had called me. He had told me to send a resume. I did. He said, “Well, they’re going to go in a different direction. They aren’t going to do that anymore.” Several months later, he called and said, “When can you start?” And there it was. When I first got to Nike, guess who was there? Moses Malone. So I was reunited with Moses again. I started there in ’82, and then in ’84 another young man came out by the name of Michael Jordan.
White is featured in the fifth episode of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” as part of the series’ deep dive into the process that led to Jordan signing with Nike out of North Carolina. The top stars of the 1980s — like Larry Bird, Julius Erving and Magic Johnson — were with Converse, while Jordan initially wanted to sign with Adidas. (He wore Adidas shoes as a Tar Heel.) White, at this point an executive at Nike, was one of the people who pitched Jordan during his visit to Nike’s Beaverton, Ore., headquarters in 1984.
White: The planets aligned. Michael didn’t even want to come to visit Nike. His agent set it up, David Falk. He didn’t want to come. They had just finished the Olympics. His parents, his mom, they made him come out here. So here’s a kid that doesn’t even want to be there, and to see all those things take shape and form and change, that’s pretty special.
I was telling somebody, “I think sometimes we may have one plan, but the ultimate plan [is different].” For me, I wanted to be a pro basketball player, worked hard to thinking I was going to make that happen. But the direction that my life took I can’t argue with. It’s been a good life. MJ wanted to be with Adidas. He loved Adidas, and fate took it in another course, and I’m sure he can’t argue with the outcome of that now.
White was friends with former Maryland star Len Bias, who died of cocaine intoxication two days after becoming the No. 2 pick of the 1986 NBA Draft. Bias, the two-time ACC Player of the Year, averaged 23.2 points and 7.0 rebounds as a senior and was set to join a loaded Boston Celtics team. With his combination of size (6-foot-8), athleticism and shooting touch, Bias likely would have been a force at the next level. Could he have been better than Jordan?
White: Lenny was a tremendous talent. How that would have played out in the pros, that I couldn’t tell you. The one thing that we can never know — Michael wasn’t just a tremendous talent, he was a student of the game. He was that individual that listened. He was able to pick up on things and then put them into what he did because you think about it, he just didn’t do this on the offensive end of the court. He did it on the defensive end of the court. He did whatever it took, whether it was to make the right pass at the right time, to take the big shot.
Seeing Lenny in college was phenomenal. I don’t know what that other side [would be]. And what really happens if you look at Michael – again, all of the planets aligned. Everything came together. Do two of those stars collide up there and all of that come together? I don’t know, because you’re talking about the best of the best. You’re talking about the Magics of the world, the Larry Birds of the world. These are the best of the best of the best. And Michael just became, “Wow.”
For more from White, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of UMD Libraries