Detroit — When John White decided to write the book “The Black Athlete,” a fictional portrayal drawn from his experiences growing up in inner-city Detroit, he certainly didn’t quite anticipate what was to follow.
White, the head boys basketball coach at Detroit Renaissance, now finds himself in the apparel industry — and, as such, diving head-first into the new world of name, image and likeness (NIL) in college athletics.
White recently signed four college athletes to promote his brand, including women’s basketball players Rickea Jackson (Mississippi State), Leilani McIntosh (Cal) and Taylor Bigby (Oregon), and football player Chris Collins (North Carolina). Jackson, a Detroit Edison alum, was the 2019 winner of Miss Basketball, and the first to sign with The Black Athlete. Collins’ mother, LaTanya, is the interim head women’s basketball coach at Detroit Mercy.
Financial terms haven’t been disclosed, but The Black Athlete promoters do get a percentage of any apparel sold that is tied to their promo code. Three are on one-year contracts, one is on a two-year deal.
“Somebody saw the shirt, and it just spread like wildfire,” said White, 42, in his fourth season at Renaissance.
The Black Athlete website (theblackathlete.com) features a long line of products, with T-shirts the best-sellers (at least 10,000 and counting), along with leggings, shorts, tank tops and other items.
All the items feature the company’s logo, a pyramid that includes six rings — two black, one red (blood, sweat and tears), two green (greener pastures) and one yellow (the sun, at the top).
The book came out in April 2020 (five-star rating on Amazon), and White decided to throw the main image, a boy with a basketball, on a T-shirt. And it grew from there, really picking up steam when WNBA players, including many from the Atlanta Dream, and Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy were spotted wearing the shirts in last year’s respective bubbles. Handy wore a Kobe Bryant tribute shirt. The company’s message resonated, particularly in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the protests that took place all over the country, from city streets to basketball courts. The Black Athlete Instagram, stuck for quite some time on some 200 followers, quickly spiked to more than 4,000, and it steamrolled from there.
“I took those three words and made it a brand,” White said.
The brand, White said, stands for strength, perseverance and pride.
White said he expects to sign more college athletes — his first four who actively promote the brand on social media — in the coming weeks and months, including a potential big name in women’s basketball, as the NIL landscape continues to evolve.
White’s focus is on Black athletes with standout character, who project as future professional athletes. Jackson could be a top pick in the WNBA Draft; Collins could be a high pick in the NFL Draft.
White is also the founder of the J.D. White P.L.A.Y. Foundation, which provides mentorship to young people, as well as a licensed minister, in addition to his job at Renaissance. He has 14 siblings, graduated from the now-closed Bishop Borgess High School in Redford, and attended college at Eastern Kentucky.
White, who’s long studied the career arc of Nike’s Phil Knight, has got a lot going on, to be sure.
But he’s found it’s all worth it, especially The Black Athlete brand, which he expects to continue growing. His company already is going global, outfitting an academy in Nigeria with apparel, and White said he’s been approached by interested investors.
“Dad was always telling me, ‘You can wear a lot of different hats; just don’t lose your head,'” White said.
“I’m just trying to balance it all out, man.”
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