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Jordan Brand’s Wings Scholars on the life-changing moment they received their full non-athletic scholarships

Based on grades, a video and a potential for greatness, the program is committed to changing lives


On an early June day, as the academic calendar drew to a close and graduation neared, Cyrus Harden decided to leave school a little early. His plan: Change clothes and walk over to one of his part-time jobs to put in some extra hours. College was on the horizon for Harden, so he could certainly use some extra money.

Yet as he headed to his shift at C-Town Supermarket in Brooklyn, New York, Harden received calls from three employees at Red Hook Initiative (RHI), a nonprofit geared toward empowering local youths. Harden had been involved with the organization since sixth grade and worked his other job there. The random calls seemed like an emergency and made him panic: What’s going on? Am I in trouble? Did I lose my job? … I can’t get fired.

But the voices on the other end of his line spoke of a summer opportunity. Harden was asked to come in immediately and bring a parent to sign off.

I’m 18 … I can sign for myself, he thought to himself in the moment, This isn’t adding up. Still, Harden obliged, making his way down to RHI with his mother, who was recovering from a recent ACL surgery. They entered a crowded room, where he became the center of attention of countless people. Someone handed Harden a package and encouraged him to tear away the cardboard in front of everyone, like a kid on Christmas.

“All I saw was that blue box with the gold lettering,” Harden remembers. One word was inscribed on the lid of what appeared to be an Air Jordan shoebox: “WINGS.” But there were no sneakers inside — instead, a certificate with the signatures of Michael Jordan and Jordan Brand vice president Howard White. The piece of paper read:

“Congratulations! You have been selected as a Jordan Wings Scholar.

“Your hard work has earned you the prestigious honor of joining the 2018 cohort of Jordan Wings Scholars. You personify higher standard of greatness and are a prime example of Wings core values, greatness, determination, authenticity and freedom.

“Welcome to the Jordan Family.”

As part of the 2018 class of Wings Scholars, Harden became one of 26 students from across the nation to receive this box — and a full ride to attend his college of choice. “Instantly, the emotions came,” he said. “I was so excited, tears were coming down my face. It was so overwhelming. But it felt good to know that my hard work had paid off — that I wasn’t working for nothing. It had me thinking about life. … It was just the greatest moment ever.”

Since 2015, the Jordan Brand has collaborated with 23 countrywide community partners in five cities (Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Portland, Oregon) to provide more than 225 students, and counting, with complete academic scholarships through the Wings program. “With a little bit of help,” White said, “anyone can fly.” In years past, the program allowed its community partners to nominate and select the recipients of the scholarships. But for the first time in 2018, the Jordan Brand established its own selection committee.

“In my video for Michael Jordan, I said thank you at least like 70 times. I just didn’t know what to say. It didn’t feel real.”

To apply, students responded to two essay questions and submitted their transcripts, SAT scores and a personal video ahead of the Jan. 31 deadline. Meanwhile, employees from Nike and Jordan volunteered and applied to be a part of the diverse 14-person committee, all of whom underwent an extensive two days of training conducted by the United Negro College Fund before the reading period began on April 19. Deliberation — there were 96 applications — lasted a month.

Jordan’s influence was certainly felt throughout the selection process, which was heavily based upon his idea that greatness is not always tangible. Translation: The Wings scholarship is not just for 4.0 students. It’s geared toward helping those who need, and deserve, to be helped. “Education,” Jordan told The Undefeated in April, “is the most valuable tool we can provide young people today to help them achieve greatness.”

This also marked the first year that students were presented with certificates. After the students received their scholarships, The Undefeated spoke to five of the latest Wings Scholars about the moment that changed their lives.

How did you learn about the Wings scholarship?

Brian Althimer (from Chicago; involved with community partner Little Black Pearl; attending the City College of Chicago): I found out about the Wings scholarship last school year. … There was a sheet hung up around my school saying what the scholarship was about and how to apply. … I talked to my vice principal, who got a couple of students to apply through the UNCF [United Negro College Fund] website.

Alejandra Peguero (from Los Angeles; involved with community partner InnerCity Struggle; attending UCLA): My academic adviser updates us about scholarship opportunities and nominates students. I didn’t know about the Wings opportunity until a few months ago — a little before she was able to nominate people for it … I had applied to scholarships in the past, so I was familiar with the process.

Cyrus Harden (from Brooklyn, New York; involved with community partner Red Hook Initiative; attending the State University of New York, Albany): Being a senior in high school, it became about the whole process of applying to college. … The first thing that’s going through my mind is: How am I going to afford it? How are my parents going to afford it? The process was very lengthy, but only because there was so many responsibilities that I had to worry about, such as applications, FAFSA and all these other things I need to apply. But when I actually reviewed the Wings scholarship, to me, it was more of like a journal because I actually got to speak about how I felt. It wasn’t really generic like the other prompts that are in college applications. I was able to speak my story and express how I feel.

Peguero: Applying had its ups and downs. … I had some materials from my past college applications and scholarships that I already had written, like essays. That wasn’t too complicated, but I don’t have internet at home or a working laptop, so finding the time and place to do it were the biggest hurdles in finishing. But [InnerCity Struggle] does have offices that I go to often where they allow me to use a laptop and give me a ride home. I didn’t really know how much the Wings scholarship could offer. But I knew that it could help me achieve my goal to go to college and pursue a degree, so I applied with the same strength and motivation I would’ve dedicated to getting an education.

“This means everything to me. I was granted with an opportunity, and I can’t even jump from the free throw line.”

What was your reaction to receiving the box that included your acceptance certificate?

Dyamond Baker (from Portland, Oregon; involved with community partner Portfolio Project; attending Xavier University of Louisiana): [The coordinator of the Portfolio Project] texted my mom and was like, ‘Will you be at home Thursday around 6 or 7? … I need you to be there, and make sure Dyamond is there.’ My mom calls me and was like, ‘Come straight home after school.’ … So I’m sitting there waiting … like, if she tells me I didn’t get the Wings scholarship, I wouldn’t be that mad. The worst they could say is no … that was kind of my mindset. She texted my mom again and was like, ‘Make sure you’re not wearing any Adidas apparel.’ So I thought, Maybe I did get it! She gets here and behind her is like three or four people. They have this cardboard box. They put the box on my table … as I’m opening it, I didn’t even get to take off the tape on the first box, and my mom is like, ‘YOU GOT THE SCHOLARSHIP!’ I finally open it, and the first thing I see is the gold letters that say ‘Wings’ … I was just in shock.

Javondre Cole (from Portland, Oregon; involved with community partner Self Enhancement Inc.; attending Winston-Salem State University): My entire process went over my head. … I walked into my school gym. Everyone is chanting, and I was chanting with them. But I was lost. I didn’t know why everybody was screaming. It didn’t hit me until my aunt, who was in the gym, she gave me a hug and said, ‘I’m so proud of you!’ The moment she said that, I had to pinch myself a couple times to know that this was reality … I’m walking down this aisle. On both sides are kids from the entire school, clapping, cheering, high-fiving. … I’m greeted by my program coordinator. He said the time has come and I was granted the Jordan Brand Wings scholarship. At that moment, I just fell to my knees. I couldn’t help it. It was a sigh of relief. For the longest, I had been praying on it … so when he said that, it was a burden lifted off my back.

Harden: When I was presented the Wings scholarship from my academic adviser at Red Hook Initiative, that just opened up a door for me, like, maybe this college thing is actually going to happen … I can pursue a dream and make it reality.

“It was crazy getting a full ride without sports — that’s what you think about when it comes to full scholarships.”

Peguero: I was at the end-of-the-year celebration for my nonprofit, which commemorates the seniors and sends them off to their next journey to college. … I knew they would announce the winners of the scholarship … but I didn’t want to get my entire hopes up. They called me up onstage, and I was like, ‘What is going on?’ I saw two cardboard boxes onstage. It was for me and someone else in the program. … We finally opened them and read, ‘You have been selected as a Jordan Wings Scholar.’My academic adviser then announced to everyone in the room that we had been awarded a full ride to the university we were going to. … It was one of those moments where it was like, ‘This is seriously happening right now.’ My dream had always been to go to college, and I was already going to go, but when you know that money isn’t going to be the greatest barrier, it’s crazy. … My mom and my grandma were confused because they don’t speak English. It wasn’t until afterward, when one of my mentors explained what just happened, and they didn’t know what to say. The moment was special … something I’ll never forget.

Cole: I promised myself that I wasn’t going to cry, until one of my childhood friends said, ‘Man, I’m proud of you. This was supposed to happen.’ At that point, I lost it. I was boohooing. My mom wasn’t there, but I called her on the FaceTime as soon as I got the news, like, ‘Mama! Mama! It happened! It happened!’ She was like, ‘What is it!’ She didn’t have her glasses on … she couldn’t see what was really going on. I’m like, ‘Look what it says!’ … She read ‘Wings’ and started crying, and I started crying more.

Althimer: I’m going to be honest … I was so excited. I wanted to cry, but at the same time I held everything back. … My mom, she was crying for me. She believed in me and knew I could make it. But I just didn’t think it would actually happen. … It was so many things going through my mind. I could go to any college … and if I wanted to transfer from one college to another, the scholarship would come with me.

Cole: We were asked a few questions for a video that would be presented to Michael Jordan. I was asked, ‘Is there anything you want to say?’ I feel like I was just living in the moment and my adrenaline was rushing so high, so I told him that he was the GOAT [greatest of all time] but I was the baby GOAT.

Baker: In my video for Michael Jordan, I said thank you at least like 70 times. I just didn’t know what to say. It didn’t feel real.

Peguero: I applied to 12 scholarships, and Wings is the only one I got.

Did you think the box contained a pair of Air Jordans?

Harden: When they first presented the box to me, my mom instantly blurted out, ‘I hope that’s not another pair of sneakers! He cannot fit another pair of sneakers in his closet!’ I tried to really open that box, but there was nothing under there. I said, ‘Calm down, there’s no sneakers in here.’

Peguero: InnerCity Struggle partnered with Wings and in the past had given all the seniors shoes — but I wasn’t able to make it to that event. So I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s those shoes I didn’t get.’ … It wasn’t that at all.

Althimer: I thought there was some sneakers in it too … I thought they were underneath the scholarship. … But even if there were shoes in the box, I can’t come compare it to a scholarship, because that’s rare. That’s something that you don’t get every day.

Harden: Once I saw that signature, I was like, ‘Listen, this is Jordan’s right here. … This is unbelievable.’ Who would’ve thought I would have something with his signature?

Baker: After people left my house, I just looked at the box. I was staring at it for a good five minutes. Like, ‘Wow, Michael Jordan picked me. He saw something in my application.’ I just felt blessed to receive a scholarship.

Cole: I don’t know what I’ll do with the box. Now, it’s in my room. … Every once in a while I go look at it, touch it, kiss it, maybe wipe the fingerprints off. Just glorify it. Live in the moment, pretty much. I never go a day without looking at it. I can’t. Just because I feel like it represents everything that I worked hard for. … I’ve taken it outside the house a couple times, but I think I’m done. If I take it out again, it’ll be to put it in a safe somewhere.

One word was inscribed on the lid of what appeared to be an Air Jordan shoebox: “WINGS.” But there were no sneakers inside.

What does it mean to you to be a Wings scholar — and how can the program help you pursue your dreams?

Baker: It was crazy getting a full ride without sports — that’s what you think about when it comes to full scholarships. Getting it because of Michael Jordan, that was huge … and still unbelievable. It shows that somebody recognized my hard work. … It shows the best is yet to come, and anything is possible. It was really a blessing.

Cole: Wings gives me an opportunity to be authentic. Having the choice to do whatever you want with the scholarship is great. It was actually my motivation throughout my entire high school career to be known for something more than athletics. So with the career I want to pursue, something within sports management, it’s good for me to have this opportunity. I can be surrounded by sports but not physically involved. It’s something so significant. … This is just motivation to keep working hard.

Peguero: It’s a reminder that someone believes in me. I’ve found people that support me … my ambitions … my goals … and my interests. … To be chosen, it’s crazy because I tried to convey myself the best I could in the scholarship application. So it’s kind of reassurance that what you’re doing is more than enough — and you’re recognized for it. What it means now is I won’t be as constrained as I might have been. If I wouldn’t have gotten chosen, I would’ve continued fighting and finding a way to make it through college and get as many opportunities as possible. But I know that there are so many opportunities open to me now, and that I will have support — not just financially, but through this network of Wings — so that I can continue doing what interests me, like social policy and health care sensibility. I can continue to pursue that in college and money won’t be a barrier for me, as it’s always been.

Harden: This means everything to me. I was granted with an opportunity, and I can’t even jump from the free throw line. For someone that great to offer someone like me the opportunity of a lifetime is just a blessing. It’s not even for athletics, which is what I find is so much more important … because there’s many things you can be in life and be successful at it. For me and my family, it’s really opened up so many doors, relieved so much stress. The next step — that’s what it means to me. Now, it’s just motivation to continue to do what I want to do. To make it there. All I have to do is stay on task and I can get wherever I wanna be. That’s how I feel with this scholarship. And for my parents, it means everything to them because they’ve done everything they possibly can. At the end of the day, finances are not really the biggest thing in this household. But Jordan and the Wings scholarship made that very much so possible.

Aaron Dodson is a sports and culture writer at Andscape. He primarily writes on sneakers/apparel and hosts the platform’s Sneaker Box video series. During Michael Jordan’s two seasons playing for the Washington Wizards in the early 2000s, the “Flint” Air Jordan 9s sparked his passion for kicks.