Q&A: Michael Jordan's brand finds rightful home in Chicago

Michael Jordan wanted to make sure the first Jordan Brand store was in Chicago. Omar Vega/Invision for Jordan Brand/AP Images

CHICAGO -- It's well known that Michael Jordan was just in town to deal with a court case involving his image and the misuse of it by a now-defunct local company. What flew under the radar was the fact that Jordan, principal owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, was also in Chicago to witness, walk through and give his official blessing to a project 10 years in the making.

Envision a Jordan-specific Niketown, a retail space that will sell all of the MJ gear but will also focus on his history with Chicago.

At 32 South State Street, later this year, the brand that claims Jordan's name, silhouette and sneakers -- one that holds almost as much significance as Jordan himself -- will (finally) open a space that will keep him directly connected to Chicago in a way not even the Bulls (or his steakhouse) have been able to do. It will be a bi-level flagship retail centerpiece for his $2.6 billion-per-year brand within Nike.

In an exclusive interview with ESPNChicago.com, Jordan and Jordan Brand president Larry Miller sat down to talk about the importance of venture, the brand's connection and commitment to Chicago and why (finally) now was the right time for this endeavor.

Scoop: You are back home to where the brand had its birth. How does it feel from your standpoint to come back to a space and know that this is where it all started?

Michael Jordan: I think the consumer really doesn't understand how this exactly is going to be used. The thing is, when they walk in, I think it gives the history of where we've been and where we're going. It's almost like a complete circle, you know? We'll showcase how everything evolved here within the city of Chicago once I was drafted to now, where this has gravitated outside of the city, it's outside of the state, it's outside of the United States, it's basically bloomed.

But everything is like that "home feel" here. I think because of how things have transpired over the last 30 years, it's important that the consumer now understands where this evolved, and how it's evolved and how big it's gotten. But, yet, no matter how big it gets, we don't forget where we came from, and this is exactly what this is going to say about the brand itself. It started in Chicago, it's from Chicago, it's important to Chicago, without a doubt.

Scoop: How important is it to you that both your legacy and the brand be built here in this space? Not just for the people of Chicago but for the culture?

Jordan: You know, when everybody sees "Michael Jordan" or sees the "Jumpman," [they associate it] with it originating in Chicago. And for us to try to promote this brand outside of Chicago, where genuinely everything originated from, would be a mistake. I've been on these guys [at Nike] for some time, [saying] "We need to do a Jordan Brand store, and we need to do it in Chicago" first.

We've tested it in New York and we've tested it in a lot of different parts of China, [but] this is going to be the true understanding of what we really want to do in terms of being a Jordan-only store.

Scoop: Larry, you know Chicago is kind of based and built around community, from a corporate and business standpoint. How does this help with the initiatives you already have in place as president of the company?

Miller: One of the things that we've looked to do is give back to the community. And that will be no different here. We're working on a plan [as we build the space] of how we can get more involved with the community in Chicago, because that is a very important aspect.

So it's not just about us coming in and doing buildings, it's about coming in and becoming a part of the community and really giving back to the community in a way that makes sense. MJ mentioned, I remember like 10 years ago we talked about [doing] a store in Chicago ... and finally to me it's a vision to see it actually come to fruition. And also we've learned a lot over the last couple of years with some of the stores that we've opened in other locations, [but] this is going to feel like the flagship store.

Jordan: We're in a better place [as a brand]. You know, we could have done it somewhere else, but it would not have been the same. This is perfect timing with where the brand is, with the outreach. ... This is the best time to do this. And I think it will resonate with the city of Chicago at a time that is ... [Scoop] ... Very necessary for various reasons ... [Jordan, nodding his head in agreement] Without a doubt.

Scoop: Let me ask you both something. How excited are you about what this space (32 South State) has the chance to stand for and represent?

Jordan: There are two ways you can look at it. We don't really know how big this can get. We know we have to lay the footwork and let the consumer, let the city, let the community dictate how we go about things. This is no different than the Jordan Brand itself. No one knew how big the Jordan Brand was going to get!

We have a vision in terms of how this can originate and how this can help the community. We don't know how big it's going to get yet, but when -- if -- that happens, we are going to strategize and make sure we're prepared for it, make sure we can take it elsewhere, make it continue to grow.

The premise of what our thinking is, let's get in the ground level, understand what's happening, understand what the consumer knows that I could've missed, and wherever it goes we follow. We're basically going to keep pushing, keep trying to feel it, keep trying to get that energy, keep listening to what that consumer says and let the growth happen.

Scoop: Outside of that, what do you want 32 South State to represent?

Miller: I think, again, it's going to represent us taking part in the community and us doing what we can to help the issues that are going on in Chicago. We're connected to a number of organizations. We're working on what exactly what our plan is going to be.

By the time the store opens, we'll have a plan and be able to say that this is exactly what we're planning to do in Chicago to try to address some of these issues. Because, like I said, we don't want to just come in and just do business. The brand originated here, this is where it started. So what place would make more sense for us to come in and open up a venue like this?

Jordan: We want the consumer -- and the city of Chicago and the community -- to understand the equity that is put into this. This is something that they created, earned and have been a part of for so many years. So as they see the growth, I want them to feel pride about it too. I want them to understand that, "Hey, we all want to have it, we're all the originals, we're Chicago, we get all of the different types of creativity that's [going to] happen in this building." It's going to be unparalleled to any other building because of me playing here in Chicago and me starting here in Chicago.

"I think because of how things have transpired over the last 30 years it's important that the consumer now understands where this evolved, and how it's evolved and how big it's gotten. But, yet, no matter how big it gets, we don't forget where we came from, and this is exactly what this is going to say about the brand itself. It started in Chicago, it's from Chicago, it's important to Chicago, without a doubt." Michael Jordan

Scoop: And you are cognizant of that?

Miller: We could have just found a store and opened a storefront and that been it. But we definitely didn't want to do that because we want to be able to give back and be a part of a community in a way most businesses aren't. This allowed us to engage consumers, engage people who are connected to the brand in a way that we haven't done before.

Scoop: But you don't get down like that. You have always had a cultural connection to the consumer, so that it's not just "We're going to do a store and that's it." It's always been different with you.

Jordan: This is still different. We know the consumer has been begging for this, but let us see why; let us show you why, let us understand. Let us show you exactly why this should be the birthplace of that type of attitude, that type of commitment from the brand, because everything originated here 30 years ago.

And I think the consumer understands that. I don't they are going to be dumbfounded, I don't think they are going to be surprised, I don't think they are going to be upset about it. They're going to feel it. I think we can get so much commitment from the community, take a sense of pride about what it means to them. Especially at this time. You know, that we haven't forgotten about them. We understand that the brand is so huge now that it's global but we [still] understand actually where it originated. Red, white and black. Chicago Bulls colors. All of those different things that allow these kids today... they know the history but they really don't know the history.

Scoop: I know you didn't think it would last this long, but did you ever think that this brand would be this culturally significant this long?

Jordan: No. [Pause] No. To me, that's the most beautiful thing. That's the highest respect for any person is that after they finish playing, generation after generation after generation understands that the commitment, effort, dedication to the craft of the game of basketball is something that you truly love. I think, [had] anybody had one iota or idea that this would be 30 years past, then you could recreate it. We haven't been able to recreate it. It's just virtually impossible. And the thing is, we haven't tried to recreate it. We basically just listened to consumers and kept moving and kept enriching that moment. And everybody behind us is trying to find a way to duplicate it, [and] it's something you can't. In all honesty, I couldn't tell you. If I could, I'd sell it to you. [Laughs]. [Scoop] It's organic. [Jordan] It's very authentic.