Two chance encounters at the same West Philadelphia street corner show the remarkable arc of Larry Miller’s life. The first, as a drunk and angry 16-year-old, ended with him murdering another teen. The second, 56 years later as a lauded business executive, brand visionary and friend of Michael Jordan, gave him a new chance to seek redemption.
The intervening decades were clouded by Miller keeping his criminal past secret as he rose far up the corporate ladder, mostly notably leading the Jordan Brand at Nike, as well as heading up the Portland Trail Blazers NBA franchise.
He says he suffered debilitating migraines and nightmares until he decided to open up about his whole life, not just that part lived in the public eye.
“I had nightmares on a regular basis about going back to jail,” he tells CNN. “I had incredible migraine headaches and I’m certain that that was all from just trying to hold all this in and being concerned that it might come out. There was always this tension and this fear that somehow this is going to come out and it’s going to ruin everything I’ve built up to this point.”
The tension lifted when he wrote a book on his remarkable life story, and he hopes that his talking about his redemption will offer a fresh way to look at formerly incarcerated people.
That’s why he’s at the corner of 53rd and Locust, where he committed the worst act of his life — taking the life of another. By telling his story to media and in the new book “Jump: My Secret Journey from the Streets to the Boardroom” maybe he can reach a kid today to stop him doing something he will regret, or show an incarcerated person there is life after prison, he says.
Miller doesn’t remember all that much about the first encounter — cheap wine didn’t have him thinking clearly and time has dulled memories, he acknowledges. But he knows he’d been lured by the streets, been involved with gang life for several years and was mad that one of his crew had recently been killed. He and some others went into the rival gang’s turf on the night of September 30, 1965, when they saw another teen, a complete stranger. Miller walked up to him. Accused him of being in the rival gang. He shot him in the chest and walked away.
Miller and his friends were caught by police a short distance away, before they could do any more damage.
But if Miller doesn’t remember all that much, his story has become well known in West Philly and the presence of CNN cameras one cold January morning attracts some hollers and hoots from passersby and a wave from an old friend.
Then one man stops and calls out of his car. “Is this about Larry Miller and my uncle?” he asked the CNN crew. “I’m Edward White’s nephew.”
Edward David White was Miller’s victim. He was 18, father of an 8-month-old and there was another baby on the way. He was going home from work, his family said, and had no gang ties.
Tyrone Kegler never met his great uncle — he’d been born long after the murder. He still lived in the neighborhood but was surprised to find himself suddenly about to meet the man who had caused his family so much pain, so much turmoil, for so long.
“Whoa I’m shaking,” he tells CNN as he gets out of the car. “This story has just opened up a whole can of worms for us, we weren’t expecting this,” he says, his voice fading to a whisper.
Miller wasn’t expecting it either. But he takes the second chance. He greets Kegler with a handshake and talks for a few minutes. They part with a hug.
It’s one of many second chances Miller has had and made work after mistakes in his life.
He says he has thought about killing White every day of his life since it happened. It was not lost on Miller that White was a Black teenager, just like him. But Miller failed to name him in the book. He also failed to reach out to the dead man’s family before he went public with his secret.
He says he thought he was protecting their privacy, but now owns his mistake. Miller acknowledges that he should have been in touch earlier. And he wants to keep making amends.
“We are definitely in the process of trying to connect with them and make sure that they feel some healing out of this as well,” he says. “You know, to me, if we can come up with a way to memorialize Mr. White, so that he isn’t someone that’s just forgotten, then this would be a positive.”
Miller has met White’s relatives twice, according to Ronald Marrero, an attorney representing the White family who hosted the meetings at his office. Marrero said Miller apologized for not reaching out prior to publishing the book. Barbara Mack, White’s sister, said she forgave him, explaining, “I must forgive in order to be forgiven,” the attorney said.
Miller co-wrote his book with his daughter Laila Lacy, who gave him a second chance after he hurt her. When Lacy was in college, her mother died. Miller did not show up for the funeral to be by his daughter’s side.
“I can’t justify it,” he says of his absence. “I can only say that the reason I didn’t go is because I just I couldn’t deal with it. I couldn’t deal with the fact of what was happening. I was just trying not to not to deal with it at all.”
“He told me he just couldn’t face it,” Lacy says. “Once he said it, I understood that it was just too painful for him to come to grips with the fact that she was gone.”
Miller says he believes Lacy now has some understanding of why he let her down, even as she needed him there. She not only stands by him now, she says she is proud of the man he has become.
And much of the theme of the book is the second chances he was given — and made the most of — after going to prison for the murder of White.
His redemption was far from immediate. While prosecuted as an adult, he served only 4½ years before his release. He says he found a new purpose with the Nation of Islam. But he was sent back to prison when he tried to get money for the organization through armed robbery, extortion and selling drugs, even though all of that is against Islamic teachings.
He got breaks then, too — he calls them “blessings.” He was penalized with just nine months’ incarceration for violating his parole for White’s murder. And his sentences for the robberies were ordered to run at the same time rather than one after another, so he served a total of another 4½ years for those.
He was also able to resume his education, first inside the prison using Pell grants available to inmates and then on a day-release program to attend college.
“That’s what really made me start to believe that I could actually change my life,” he tells CNN.
“I was going to learn my way out of the lifestyle that I was living in the things that I was doing and that I was going to give education and opportunity to change my life.”
Miller was smart, driven and had a goal of working for one of the top accounting firms. He was a handshake away from that, an offer ready in the inside pocket of a hiring manager for a major firm, when he says he shared the story of his murder conviction.
The offer never made it to Miller’s hand because of what he revealed about his criminal past he says. So Miller decided his past should fade away, too. He wouldn’t lie, but he wouldn’t be fully open either.
It worked. He says the Campbell Soup Company application simply asked if he had been convicted of a crime in the last five years, so he could truthfully say no.
Many of his jobs after that didn’t involve application forms, they were agreed with a handshake.
But there were moments of abject fear over his secret, followed by temporary relief, he says, like when he underwent a background check to accept a dinner invitation from the Clinton White House. Somehow he passed, and found himself sitting next to first lady Hillary Clinton discussing Chinese labor issues.
Miller’s night terrors about his past hit a high when he became president of the Portland Trail Blazers, then often called the Jail Blazers for the run-ins players were having with the law. But still, his criminal past stayed private, something that he acknowledges is unlikely to happen for anyone today in the age of Google and electronic records.
“I was concerned all the time that it could come out. And that’s what I’m certain was causing the headaches and the nightmares because once I started sharing with my daughter, and started talking to her about all of this, and kind of getting it out, the nightmares stopped, the migraines stopped. And I know that was just letting this out,” he says.
It turns out that he may not have needed to worry once he had reached those heights. While preparing to break his silence, he turned to those he knew from leading the Jordan brand at Nike — Nike co-founder Phil Knight, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Michael Jordan himself. To a man, he says, they supported him and his decision to speak now in the hope of stopping another teen heading into criminality, or encouraging someone in or who had left prison to turn their life around, and to encourage employers to look beyond a rap sheet.
Miller says he thought every day of the young man he killed but had to push it to the back of his mind, afraid it would paralyze him, and concentrate on himself and his belief in his own intelligence and ability to get by and get ahead.
“It would always pop up. But I was able to always put it in the back of my mind and try to do some positive things to help offset it,” he says.
Miller has said he would like to honor White in some way. He has had decades of success, but had never reached out to those he left devastated until now. White’s family have asked him to establish a scholarship for students at West Philadelphia High School, where White once went.
The White family said in a statement provided by their attorney, “The family hopes that Mr. Miller is truly remorseful. The family expects that Mr. Miller’s actions will further exemplify that remorse by following through with the scholarship in honor of Edward David White.”
Asked what the essence of his life’s memoir was, the first thing Miller says is “redemption.” A story that offers not only hope, but a pathway out of a cycle of violence.
As for making it up to the family of the man he gunned down, Miller has met with White’s family twice. And there was that chance meeting with White’s great nephew that ended in a hug. There’s still a lot to be done, but on that West Philadelphia corner on a day in January, his life had come full circle.