Over the last 14 years, James Whitner has become one of the sneaker industry’s most prolific business owners. With several high-end boutiques along the Eastern seaboard — including Social Status and A Ma Maniére — the 39-year-old has made a name for himself by opening well-curated stores in underserved markets and being a vocal advocate for diversity and equality in the footwear community.

Not everyone knows what it took for Whitner to become successful. While growing up in a turbulent part of Pittsburgh, he focused on playing football and graduated with a business degree. At age 25, after spending time in prison and recovering from a gunshot injury, he decided to get a fresh start in a new city: Charlotte, North Carolina.

He rebuilt his life there on a completely new foundation, sneakers, and in 2005, he opened his first sneaker store, Flava Factory. Since then, he’s opened stores in Pittsburgh, Greensboro, Houston, Raleigh, Tampa Bay and Washington, D.C. The A Ma Maniére store in D.C. even has luxury hotel suites — proof that Whitner is as interested in providing experiences as he is in selling product.

As a way of uniting his interests, from basketball and football to the future of retail, Whitner founded his own umbrella agency, The Whitaker Group. For the return of the NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte this year, he worked with Jordan Brand on an Air Jordan VI NRG inspired by MJ.

How would you describe what it means to Own the Game?

It’s impossible to really have ownership over anything except for your perspective.  It’s a process — always aiming to be the best version of who you are. Our process and our mentality is our perspective. If we don’t own our narrative 100% of the time, that means other people will. It’s always about being locked, sharp and focused on what’s important to us at all times — coming in ready to grind.

Owning the game is the ultimate trophy. MJ owned the game, but we only said that after it was all said and done. Obviously, being great is something we all want, but it’s about owning our perspective and being great at the things that are naturally ours.

The Air Jordan VI NRG represents MJ’s journey to becoming the king of the court, using OG Black and Concord colors.

What is your mindset going into any new project, including the Air Jordan VI NRG?

It depends on what the project is. It’s always about doing the right thing and taking the consumer to a new place. This AJVI project wasn’t purely about me. The synergy our team has with the Jordan Brand team is bigger than any of us. It was a moment in time that’ll go down in history as one of those special moments when everything just clicked.

How did the Air Jordan VI NRG come to life through materials and understanding MJ’s journey?

We wanted to have an OG color palette, something that was authentic to the brand. We asked ourselves what would make this shoe distinctly different to shine a light on Charlotte, NBA All-Star returning to the city and MJ’s team. We put pony and snakeskin on the shoe to have a new way of talking about MJ’s journey through materials.

Do you think you have a responsibility to the consumer — to take them on another journey outside of daily drops and hype?

100%. You always gotta listen and inform. Sometimes, we’ve been put in a place where the kid trusts us. They allow us to inform them and take them to new places. However, we only have the ability to do that by listening.

What initially inspired you to open your store in Charlotte?

I just needed a clean palette for my personal life. I had never been to Charlotte; it was me trying something different. When I was in jail, I remember walking to the library and glancing at a newspaper that had an article about Charlotte. It said that it was the fastest growing place in the country for black people, and that there was tons of opportunity. Maybe a seed was planted then. I walked out of the library thinking, “I guess there are places out there where we can win.”

What do you think this NBA All-Star Game represents to the city?

 Charlotte is a city that’s been trying to break through, the little brother city to Atlanta — the capital for the South. Now, we’re getting an event that’s on a global stage. It’s not just us about as a city, but it’s about the team, MJ and everything that everybody has worked for and earned here. We want to get a chance to wave our flag.

You’ve been pretty vocal about equality and diversity inside and outside of the footwear industry. What can brands and consumers do to help level the playing field?

Just keep letting our voices be heard. When things happen, don’t go silent. You gotta communicate your feelings in positive ways and use your channels to help make positive change. We all have a voice. I choose to use my platforms to make sure that there’s as much of a level playing field as there can be for everyone.

The shoe’s pony hair references the black panther alongside reptilian prints that represent overcoming predatory snakes.

The Air Jordan VI NRG is available on February 14 at Social Status in Charlotte, North Carolina.

In addition to releasing Jordan Brand NBA All-Star product this week, Social Status in Charlotte will be hosting panels, a block party, WINGS events, customization workshops and game viewings. Check out the full schedule of events here.

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