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.

November 26, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

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.' "

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