Eastside Golf On Their New AJ4 Collaboration
Co-founders Olajuwon Ajanaku and Earl A. Cooper talk about golf and their approach to collaborating with Jordan Brand.
Interview: Brandon “Jinx” Jenkins
Photography: Passerine and Kevin Allen
Olajuwon Ajanaku and Earl A. Cooper, the co-founders of lifestyle brand Eastside Golf, know they belong on any golf course. Even before they became high-level players, they’ve known that they deserve to be there just as much as anybody else, despite the fact that minorities, beginners and onlookers are often unfairly excluded. In response, Earl and Olajuwon are authentically engaging and uplifting those who feel left out, and in the process, they hope to change the way people think about and access golf for generations to come.
Founded on June 1, 2019, Eastside was initially just a sketch of Olajuwon on the links wearing his typical ‘fit of Jordans, jeans, a sweatshirt, a gold chain and a hat. That image became the logo on T-shirts, caps, sweatshirts, socks and more. It stopped people in their tracks from the moment Olajuwon first wore it on a T-shirt in downtown Detroit.
Both Olajuwon and Earl made their own way in golf. Olajuwon grew up in East Atlanta, and Earl grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, but both learned the game through local camps and youth programs. Their talents collided when they transferred to Morehouse College, became teammates and helped the school win multiple Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) titles and the 2010 PGA Minority Collegiate Golf Championship.
Olajuwon graduated with an accounting degree and went on to work in corporate finance, while Earl earned his place as one of the top golf pros and teachers in the country. Once Earl saw Olajuwon’s logo for Eastside Golf, the two once again joined forces. The next thing they knew, NBA stars were wearing their gear on the national stage, and every drop started to sell out.
Olajuwon and Earl are expanding Eastside Golf’s reach and acting on their mission to inspire. Together, they hope to bring more diversity to the clubhouse and create a greater sense of belonging for anyone who chooses to pick up a club.
For their first collaboration with Jordan Brand, Eastside Golf created a unique Air Jordan IV Retro with Eastside’s unmistakable logo on the tongue. Below, Olajuwon and Earl tell their story, explain their passion for golf and talk about the future.
How did you first get into golf, and when did you get your first full set of clubs?
Earl: I first got into the game through an inner-city youth program called the LPGA urban youth program, which is in Wilmington, Delaware. My father just signed me up, and they gave us one or two clubs. I probably got my first set by nine or 10 years old through the program, as well; they had some hand-me-downs. I enjoyed the short game, chipping a golf ball. I would say my favorite club then was a seven iron.
Olajuwon: A friend of the family introduced me to it. I grew up playing with his sons, and we all ended up getting golf scholarships. I went to Morehouse. There was also a camp I went to in downtown Atlanta. I grew up playing there, and I learned how to grip the club on the ninth hole, at the same practice facility we ended up using at Morehouse.
You aren’t from the same places, but you found the game separately. How did you two first link up?
Olajuwon: We met at Morehouse, when we both transferred in and joined the golf team.
Earl: There are so many similarities. We joke about it all the time, that we started playing golf at the same age. We both transferred to Morehouse. He was born June 1st, and I was born June 5th.
Olajuwon: We won a national championship in 2010. We knew how to win together, so we’ve just been cool and close ever since.
What was that like — bringing the first golf championship to Morehouse?
Olajuwon: It was great. First off, we’re now in the World Golf Hall of Fame down in St. Augustine, Florida. They actually put a national championship photo right there in the hall of fame. The school, the alum and all the professors definitely wrapped their arms around us.
It felt great to do it for an all-Black team at an all-Black school. It shows that we can compete at a high level, and that we just need those opportunities to be put out in the forefront. There’s great talent at Morehouse, not only for academics, but for sports as well.
Earl: It was great to reach the goal that you set before every season. Then, it creates a bond, a journey. Now, there are lifelong stories and friendships. Neither one of us pledged, but winning that national championship was like being a part of a fraternity.
Earl, you were the first African-American golf pro at several clubs, right? What has that experience been like for you?
Earl: Yeah, Detroit Golf Club and Wilmington Country Club in Delaware. Very early on, I had good mentors around me, and I accepted the challenge. I looked at it very early on as an opportunity to reset the standard. A lot of times, people might have never spent this much time around an African-American person, a Black man in this position. Whatever stereotypes they may have had, or whatever misconceived notions, there’s an opportunity to reset that. That’s how I looked at it. That was in Detroit, and it was great.
Wilmington Country Club was special because I grew up around that golf course. It was the nice private golf course where I grew up, and I was a caddy, so I remember dreaming of going in the clubhouse, right? It’s for my city and inspiring people, and they’re seeing it. I’m real big on who’s next, who’s behind me, kicking the door in and making sure that there are opportunities for those who come after me.
When you were thinking of Eastside Golf, what was your mission and what steps did you take to create it?
Olajuwon: Right after college, I turned pro in golf, and I did that for two years. But it got to the point where I just couldn’t afford it. I won a couple of mini tour events, so I do have professional wins, but to play professional golf, you need anywhere from $100,000-$150,000 per year in sponsorship money. That includes the cost of the tournament, travel, food for you and your caddy, travel for the caddy, entry fees, practice and the list goes on. I just couldn’t afford it, so I started my corporate career.
I was in commercial finance for about eight years. I got home one day, fully suited, and I was just like, “This ain’t it.” I had just become VP, and I wasn’t satisfied at all. This was a year before the pandemic, as well. I was just like, you know what, first things first; let me just make a logo that’s supposed to be me. I was going to put it on my polo and on my golf bag. I showed it to Earl, and Earl said, “You need to put that on a T-shirt.” So I ironed it on one. Then, I went to downtown Detroit, and I got stopped like 50 times by people wanting to know who I was, what the logo was and if I played golf.
At first, I was doing it all on my own: getting everything made, doing the marketing on Instagram, shipping out of my apartment and actually writing “thank you” letters. I wrote 1,500 thank you letters for the first 1,500 orders.
Eventually, things started selling out, and it happened five times from November 2019 to February 2020. In the beginning, I created the brand to sponsor myself. I was tired of going out and looking for sponsors. I was 21 years old asking for $100,000 right out of college. Not a lot of people wanted to trust me with that. It was tough. I turned 30, and I was just like, why not take the entrepreneur route and create a business that somebody can invest in? I can pave my own way, and I don’t have to ask anybody for money.
One of the visions behind the company is creating what we always wanted to have when we were kids. We knew that there was something missing, and we were ready for the opportunity.
What makes this the right time in the world for Eastside Golf?
Olajuwon: Over the years, it’s been tough, to be very honest. There are different ethnicities represented in the game of golf, but we’re not there as much as we could be. There are only 180 Black PGA members out of 28,000. That shows you what we’re up against. It’s time for change, and I feel like we have what it takes.
Earl: If you look at the statistics, golf was booming during 2020. It wasn’t the work of “the powers that be” within golf. It was a natural progression accelerated by the factors of the pandemic. The traditional way to grow the game of golf has been to buy more media, but you’re already advertising to the golfers, to the golf channel. I feel like that’s what makes Eastside Golf special. We’re far away from traditional golf marketing, and we know how to bring new people into the game. And our strategy’s been working. MJ and Jordan Brand got it right away, because it’s important for them, too.
What was that like? You create this brand, it begins to take off, and now you’re connected with both MJ and Jordan Brand on an authentic level.
Earl: Every interaction we’ve had has been pure. We’ve been fortunate to golf at The Grove XXIII a few times. One time, we were with Jordan Brand family member CC Sabathia and ran into MJ in the locker room. We didn’t realize he knew who we were like that.
Olajuwon: That time, I remember going back the next morning to practice before my flight. It was great chopping it up with him and a couple other guys, just talking about golf, Eastside and the vision. MJ really loves golf and sees the vision.
Earl: We have to give big thanks to CJ Paul, Chris Paul’s brother. He reached out to us very early and believed. He was like, “We want two of everything, and we’re going to pay for it. If you can get us more, we’ll get it to more people.” CJ ended up connecting us with Gentry Humphrey, the VP of Footwear at Jordan Brand. A lot of people believed early on and helped us get to this point of having an AJ4 collaboration.
What does it mean for you guys to collaborate on the Air Jordan IV specifically? Why did you make the sneaker the way you did?
Olajuwon: We had our own deck and shared it with Jordan Brand, who had their own deck. We compared about eleven different ideas total, and there was one that looked almost exactly the same between our two decks. That’s the one we’re coming out with. There are details like navy blue speckles instead of black, a gold accent piece for the shoe strings and an image from a canvas on the bottom of the shoe.
With all of my designs, I write an essay. The canvas reflects those details we envisioned, from the camera, to the kids with the Eastside Golf shirts on, to my father who I lost in December of last year. It’s going to mean something different to each person. Hopefully, it gives them courage to start their own thing and believe in their ideas.
Your mission statement says that you want the youth to utilize and apply the morals and values golf has to offer, in order to better themselves and change their lives. What are some of the morals and values that golf has to offer?
Olajuwon: Hard work is definitely one. I literally used to hit balls until my hands bled. Persistence, perseverance, honesty, integrity — all of those things. As soon as I realized that I’d worked hard enough to understand the game, that’s when I felt like I could honestly do anything.
Earl: There’s also planning and networking. If you spend four hours with someone out on the course, that teaches you how to have a conversation with another person. Golf definitely teaches you how to do that.
I was taught the game of golf as a kid. And things like golf’s fairness and integrity have stayed with me throughout my entire life. As a kid, it’s one thing to have instruction. But having an example in real-time hits differently. It sinks in, in a way that words do not.
Earl: I agree. Being a real-life, living example that kids can look up to and see distinguishes our brand. We really do play golf at a very high level. We’re real insiders that check all the boxes. We know what we’re doing. People might try to intimidate with all these rules, but then, you have somebody like myself, who is one of the best teachers in America. I’m telling you, “Trust me, these are all the rules you actually need.” You don’t have to do it the old way in order to enjoy the game, essentially.
Olajuwon: That’s the distinguishing factor. There are a lot of other brands out there trying to make golf cool, but they can’t play at a high level, and they don’t have the same golf experience.
What’s next for Eastside Golf? What are you looking forward to?
Olajuwon: We’ve been working with a well-known boutique and a sports team, but we don’t want to announce anything just yet. I just finished up our Spring 2022 collection, too.
Earl: For us to be one of those leaders in the space, I’m super excited. I really feel like we’re about to see this continued wave of golfers coming in. That’s really the next step. This is just the tip of the iceberg. This is some real organic stuff that just happened. Eastside is here. The Jordan Brand is here.
The Air Jordan IV x Eastside Golf is available starting August 7 on EastsideGolf.com.