Jordan Brand is giving kids full rides to college — no basketball experience needed
’To see young people learn they can go to college and don’t have to worry about money, it’s hard to put into words’
Rozzie Cribbs never thought he’d make it to the promised land. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, the idea of being a full-time student on the campus of a four-year university was a seemingly unattainable goal. He hadn’t seen many kids like him ever reach it — and not for a lack of trying. For some, life circumstances simply dictated the mindset. “I wasn’t really thinking about college,” said Cribbs.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016, the year Cribbs graduated, 69.7 percent of high school students (ages 16-24) went on to junior and four-year colleges. But within the African-American community, that number shrinks to 58.2 percent. “My family wasn’t real big on it,” said Cribbs, 20. “They felt like you’re just putting money to debt, with a low probability of getting work.”
In high school, Cribbs dreamed of working in graphic design, and he says he owes some of his artistic creativity to his older brother, who for a while pursued a career in animation. “It didn’t turn out the way he wanted it to, and he kind of gave up on it,” Cribbs said. “So from that point on, I just said OK, I’m only gonna treat it like a hobby.”
But in 2014 during his junior year, his high school, Little Black Pearl Art & Design Academy, welcomed Larry Miller, president of the multibillion-dollar Jordan Brand, as a keynote speaker. The academy is a charter school in service to students labeled “at risk.” Miller had considered rescheduling his visit, which fell on a day in which the surrounding community was mourning the loss of one of the school’s students — to gun violence.
But Monica Haslip, Little Black Pearl’s executive director, persuaded him to stay and inspire her pupils with his story. Haslip and Miller eventually teamed up under the umbrella of Jordan’s revamped community outreach initiative, “Wings.” Soon there was the creation of the Jordan Design Studio at the brand’s flagship store on South State Street, where Cribbs and his peers spent Saturdays learning the X’s and O’s of design, marketing and merchandising. Cribbs showed off his skills as a gifted freehand artist with a design that was schemed into a T-shirt and placed on sale at the store. In just two days, it sold out.
“That shirt [was] something from the heart,” he said. A photo of the tee, which features a young Boondocks-Afroed hooper looking down onto the city of Chicago, is his profile picture on Facebook. “I did it because I wanted to try something new. I didn’t think I was going to get a scholarship from it.”
Yes, Cribbs made it to college, and he did it with help from the Jordan Brand. After Cribbs was admitted into the Jordan Brand Wings Scholars Program, he was awarded $10,000, which he figured would be enough money for only two semesters at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, and then, in a reverse move, he’d transfer to a community college. But while sitting in a freshly moved-into dorm room, on just his second day at SIU, the phone rang.
“‘You got a full ride,’ ” Cribbs, now a sophomore studying communication design, recalled Haslip telling him. “I was like, ‘Wait, what?! A full ride?’ I used to consider myself a realist, thinking college ain’t gonna happen. But this scholarship taught me to think, just put the work in and try. It’s changed me as a person.” Cribbs and two other young people in this story are but three of the more than 200 students since 2015 who’ve received full scholarships to attend college through Wings.
“If you got wings, you can fly,” Miller said. “And our goal is to give everybody wings.” Michael Jordan wouldn’t have it any other way.
“People see Michael as the greatest, the GOAT, with six championships,” Jordan Brand vice president Howard White said by phone from his Beaverton, Oregon, office. “But they don’t think about the person who, when he was already a millionaire, went back to school to get his degree.”
In 1984, the Chicago Bulls selected Jordan with the third overall pick in the NBA draft after his decision to forgo his senior year at the University of North Carolina. But two years later — after a broken bone in his left foot suffered on Oct. 29, 1985, forced him to miss 64 games — Jordan returned to Chapel Hill, where he completed his major in geography and graduated.
“Most of you admire what Michael does in basketball, but those are not my proudest moments,” his mother, Deloris Jordan, once told the Chicago Tribune. “As parents, we tried to explain to Michael what was important from day one — and that was education.”
In 1988, Michael and Deloris co-founded the Michael Jordan Foundation (now dissolved, although the family founded the James R. Jordan Foundation in 2000, in honor of Michael Jordan’s late father), through which he formed the Michael Jordan Education Club as a way to motivate sixth-graders from economically disadvantaged communities to reach goals in academics, attendance and community service. “Michael is as dogmatic about kids getting educated as he is about winning,” said White, one of his closest confidants.
Also in ’89, Nike released a poster featuring a photograph of a young, stone-faced Jordan with his arms outstretched — a powerful depiction of his nearly 7-foot wingspan. The word “Wings” drapes over the picture, and its anchor is a quote from poet William Blake: No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.
Jordan’s first nonprofit organization and that iconic poster provided inspiration for the Jordan Brand’s educational impact program, which was rebranded in 2010 under the name of Wings. Previously it had been called the Jordan Fundamentals Program, and from 1999 to 2009 it gave more than $10 million in financial aid to schools in underserved communities. “My mother and my teachers inspired the creation of the Wings program by placing a high value on education and passing that on to me,” Michael Jordan told The Undefeated via email. “Education is the most valuable tool we can provide young people today to help them achieve greatness.”
Ground zero for Wings was Philadelphia, where the brand collaborated with a local retail partner to launch an incentive-based program known as A’s for J’s. It operated the way it sounds: If students showed up for class and worked hard toward earning good grades, they were awarded pairs of Air Jordans.
“When I first went to high school, I didn’t expect to go to college,” said Philly native Kiara Garcia, now 21, who attended the Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. “[But] when I got into my junior year and entered college readiness programs for SAT prep, along with having A’s for J’s come in, it was a push. Like, ‘Oh, my God, this could actually happen.’ ”
As successful as A’s for J’s became, the brand had more to give than sneakers. In 2015, Wings established its Scholars Program to financially assist students in college. Garcia quit both of her after-school jobs to focus on getting the scholarship. Meanwhile, Ophelia Murray, who’d also participated in the A’s for J’s program at the suggestion of a counselor at Imhotep Institute Charter High School in Philly, had been admitted to Spelman College. Yet the acceptance letter came with zero financial aid, an immovable barrier for her mother, the leader of a single-parent household after the death of Murray’s father. While searching for a more affordable option for college, she found Wings.
“The process of applying for the scholarship … I don’t know if I was really confident in myself,” said Murray, 21. “I really didn’t think I could get this. Actually getting it … was nerve-wracking and amazing to me. I felt really relieved, and really grateful, because somebody actually believed in the work I put in.”
Garcia and Murray became two of the first three recipients of the Jordan Wings scholarship, receiving full rides to attend their school of choice. Garcia is a junior international studies major, with minors in Spanish, government and social justice, at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. She’s studied abroad and taken on leadership roles as a resident assistant and volunteer mentor. Murray is a junior at the historically black Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her college experience has included traveling to China, joining Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and taking part in Duke’s pre-law program last summer.
In the past few years, Wings has sent hundreds of students to approximately 65 different colleges and universities around the country. The program has also gone global, expanding to China and extending scholarships even to high schools. In the United States, Wings joined forces with 23 community partners in five different cities: Portland, Oregon; Philadelphia; Los Angeles; New York; and Chicago, where the program has continued to support Little Black Pearl. Jordan is also working with middle school students on the South Side through a nonprofit called Triple Threat Mentoring.
“In a lot of cases, my students don’t believe they can go to college, and it’s largely because they don’t have the resources,” said Haslip. Little Black Pearl has produced 14 Wings Scholars to date. “To see young people all of a sudden learn that they can go to college for four years, and they don’t have to worry about money — it’s hard to put into words. You know that these kids now have a real opportunity now to live the lives that they choose.”
Inside of a small cafe in Chile, while studying abroad last year, Garcia received a message that made her break out into a different language. This summer, for the first time, the Jordan Brand is bringing on Wings interns to work at Nike’s global headquarters in Oregon, and Garcia was selected as part of the first class.
“I remember saying, ‘What! … an internship?’ You can imagine, I’m speaking English and everybody was looking at me all weird. In that moment, it was a lot of emotion. I’m thinking about what this could mean for me professionally, exploring more of my international interests, knowing that Nike has a big influence in the world.”
Murray got a similar notification, offering her the opportunity to join Garcia with an internship. She’s always joked with people that she’d envisioned herself becoming a corporate lawyer for Nike. Cribbs, who is a year younger than both of his fellow scholars, won’t intern until the summer of 2019, but he’s already made it out to Nike’s Pacific Northwest campus to see where he could be designing apparel and sneakers one day.
“ ‘Wow, my dream has really come true,’ ” Murray said she thought upon getting the call. “It was … surreal for me. Being able to be a Jordan Wings Scholar has proven that there are no limits. That really, anything is possible.”
A committee of 16 volunteer Jordan Brand employees is now a week into reviewing this year’s pool of scholarship applications. In mid-May, they’ll convene and complete their decisions. By the first week of June, 30 more students will receive calls, and full rides to go to college, as the latest crop of Wings Scholars.
“Throughout the years, Wings has positively affected so many young people’s lives,” said Michael Jordan, “and nothing gives me greater pride than seeing those kids learn and succeed.”