From Nike To The Sparks, Natalie White Is Bringing Her Basketball Journey Full Circle

Bryna Jean-Marie

atalie White was one of those early bloomers who discovered her purpose in high school. Her vision to be in sports management became clearer after college, when Nike offered her a position where she could grow and fine-tune her skills. This decision ultimately led her to the L.A. Sparks. As senior vice president, she now leads a team that helps dozens of youths realize their dreams. And through her personal nonprofit, she is preparing to cultivate the next generation of young leaders in her hometown in Georgia.

White started making major deals when she was a teenager. She fell in love with basketball in the fifth grade and saw a clear shot at how the sport could begin to shape her world. She asked her parents to pour into her basketball training and in exchange made them a guarantee that she’d excel. “When I was in eighth grade, I said ‘I need for you guys to encourage and to provide the money that I need to go to basketball camp, and I promise you will not have to pay for college,’” says the Florida A&M and MEAC conference Hall of Famer, whose high school and college jerseys were retired. “And my mom and dad didn't have to come out of their pockets for a dime, not for my bachelor's or my master's.”

She laced up her brand-new pair of Nikes, also part of the deal, and blazed through camps all over North Carolina, Alabama and Florida. “I wanted to learn and enhance my skills when I was small.” The five-foot powerhouse packed the grit necessary to parlay her sneaker love into a power move. After she landed at FAMU, White secured an internship in graduate school with the footwear conglomerate and that's when the light bulb went off about all the career opportunities within sports, she says.

“From sales to marketing to grassroots to events,” she says. “And, I knew, being able to inspire youth coupled with my passion for basketball is where I wanted to be.”

Long-term, White wanted to start her own nonprofit, and working at Nike would lead her straight to that goal—it prepared her for everything. “I learned how to manage and become an effective leader by going out and really educating and training corporate leaders, organizations, and businesses on Nike products,” she says, referring to being an “Ekin,” someone who is the eyes and ears of the brand. “It's one of those positions that was supposed to be entry level, but it was by far my favorite, because it was the most impactful for me,” she adds, recalling when she sat with Nike co-founder Phil Knight and other “Ekins” to learn about his career journey. “I ended up being Ekin of the Year. That's one of my prized possessions, because I know the value of it.”

Giving that same exposure to what’s happening in the Sparks’ back office is what White focused on from the start at the organization. Many college students and youth may not be aware of the variety of jobs in sports, and the L.A. Junior Sparks program makes it a point to bring these opportunities to the forefront. “Everybody sees the glitz and glamor of sports,” she says. “They don’t see the behind-the-scenes and the day-to-day when you’re rolling up your sleeves. When they come to a game, they just see the finished product and the activity on the court. They don't know that partnerships, creative, game operations, PR and media relations that contribute to the endgame.”

As senior vice president of business operations, White was overseeing ticket sales, marketing, community relations, and youth sports. For the 2021 season she served as the interim president and COO. Now, she is more focused on the youth basketball strategy; how to maximize revenue opportunities in the community through sales and marketing; how to impact the community; and how to expand and develop sustainable basketball programming within Southern California and beyond.

The LAJS reached a global audience when the pandemic propelled the organization into virtual basketball clinics. Coaches set up stations, and groups of young athletes were able to watch them remotely bounce from station to station while they completed drills in their own backyards. “We went out and purchased about six 60-inch flatscreen TVs, set them up in the gyms, and were able to instruct the youth on Zoom,” says White. “All they needed was a ball and a driveway. We sent instructions on how to set up your camera, cones for parameters and boundaries, T-shirts, and other equipment, so that we still felt like a team. They had fun.”

White’s journey through basketball and youth advocacy has brought her back full circle to her hometown of Fort Valley, Ga. In 2016 she began a lifelong dream of establishing her own foundation, Natalie White Basketball, LLC, because she has always wanted to come back to her hometown to conduct basketball clinics and educational seminars for the youth in her community. Her nonprofit A10tion Foundation, established in 2017, has allowed her to begin that new chapter, while coupling her professional career and personal life. Her 10 guiding principles: attitude, confidence, discipline, fun, education, teamwork, hard work, perseverance, respect and leadership. All are the foundation of her life’s work.

Incorporating her roots, and contributing to the development of young athletes, has been a huge aspiration for White, who wore No. 10 at FAMU. White and her board, which has a fundraising campaign to complete the work on a new space, are renovating the locker rooms at their new site and finishing up the technology lab. They also have three basketball courts and a facility that’s equipped for volleyball, racquetball and other indoor sports. “Basketball, we got covered,” says White, adding that they are going to bring in experts to instruct participants in areas that include wrestling, cheerleading and a dance academy. Everything will be unveiled at the grand opening later this year.

“I'm very blessed to have acquired the middle school gym that I played in,” says White, who plans to reach a 50-mile radius that touches 400,000 youths in and around Fort Valley. “It is now the foundation’s center. I can build more summer and after-school programming focused on career and educational advancement, financial literacy, STEM, sports and mentorships. These kids will see people with names that they're familiar with. We're going to tell our stories and journeys of how we started out exactly where they are. We ventured out, but we've come back. ”