[caption id="attachment_215002" align="aligncenter" width="657"] Olajuwon Ajanaku, left, and Earl Cooper have taken their Eastside Golf brand from their living room to the wardrobes of all-star professional athletes. They recently launched the first collaboration with Air Jordan's golf line. | PHOTO COURTESY OF KEVIN ALLEN/ALLEN HOUSE PHOTOGRAPHY[/caption]
It’s been a whirlwind year for Earl Cooper.The once-youth golf prodigy from Wilmington turned collegiate champion has built a sought-after following as a golf pro teacher, but most of his time has been focused on his latest venture: the lifestyle apparel company Eastside Golf.Cooper has been serving in a president role to that of his partner Olajuwon Ajanaku’s CEO, with both being founders and financially invested in the business. What started as a way for Ajanaku to fund his own dreams of playing on the PGA Tour has detoured a bit into the world of fashion, celebrity and exclusive deals.“It's been a dream come true,” Cooper said recently while driving from his Wilmington home to New York for another appointment connected to the brand.That dream recently culminated with Eastside’s shoe collaboration with Air Jordan – and legendary founder Michael Jordan, himself.The early seeds
[caption id="attachment_215006" align="alignleft" width="307"] Earl Cooper was a youth golf prodigy who won a NCAA championship and has become a golf pro at Wilmington Country Club, among other courses, tutoring even the likes of President Joe Biden. | PHOTO COURTESY OF KEVIN ALLEN/ALLEN HOUSE PHOTOGRAPHY[/caption]
Both Cooper and Ajanaku started playing golf when they were about 6 years old, with Cooper in Wilmington and Ajanaku in Atlanta. Over their youths, they won a variety of tournaments and earned scholarships to Morehouse College, a historically Black college in Atlanta where they teamed up to win the PGA Minority Collegiate Golf Championship in 2010.After graduation, Ajanaku aimed to turn professional and faced possibly his biggest challenge yet: financing. Funding the proper training, equipment, travel, lodging and tournament fees could easily run to more than $100,000 a year.“I'm a 21-year-old Black man out of Morehouse, fresh out in the world and asking for $110,000 a year to play. Nobody was interested,” he recalled.
[caption id="attachment_215008" align="alignright" width="312"] Olajuwon Ajanaku, the creator of Eastside Golf, aims to earn his PGA Tour card as early as this year with the brand taking off. | PHOTO COURTESY OF KEVIN ALLEN/ALLEN HOUSE PHOTOGRAPHY[/caption]
Ajanaku raised about $20,000 from family and friends and strung together a variety of odd jobs to fund his dream for a while, and he even won a few mini tour events along the way. Eventually the costs caught up, however, and he left the courses to enter commercial finance.After nine years in the industry, Ajanaku was in line to become a vice president at a San Diego firm when he regretted giving up on his dream.“I just came home one day and said, ‘Is this it? Is this what my life was going to be?’” he said.Ajanaku decided to give his golf dream one more try and developed a logo to use in his pitches to better brand himself to potential investors. Seeking to represent himself as a proud, young Black man in golf, the result was the “Be You” logo that represents Eastside Golf today: a Black golfer in a hoodie, jeans and sneakers with a swinging gold Cuban link chain.The logo embodies Ajanaku’s feelings about being a young Black athlete in a sport that historically has not been very diverse. He wants underrepresented people to benefit from all that golf has given him without having to feel like they have to act differently on the course.“You don't have to be put in a box,” he said.Insta fameAjanaku knew he tapped into something special when he ironed the logo on a T-shirt and wore it in downtown Detroit one day.“I got stopped about 50 or 60 times that day,” he remembered. “I had people old and young, white and Black asking me about the logo, who I was and where they could get a shirt.”Talking with Cooper, his college friend encouraged him to see how far his dream could go.“I emptied the savings, the bitcoin, the 401(k), and maxed out the credit cards. I was all the way in,” Ajanaku said.Eastside launched its first collection of sweatshirts, polos and more in November 2019, and it proceeded to sell out six rounds of merchandising through February 2020. The company landed a growth investment from TPG Capital, a major hedge fund run by former Goldman Sachs President Jon Winkelried.Their story blew up around Aug. 26, 2020, though when something unexpected happened.With PGA Tour events postponed through much of early 2020, Cooper and Ajanaku turned to an outlet where they could still reach audiences: social media. They are especially active on Instagram, where they began communicating with pro athletes and celebrities about their brand and stories.On that August 2020 day, NBA All-Star and player union president Chris Paul attended a press conference wearing an Eastside sweatshirt and hat. Afterward, the traffic and sales on their website exploded.“That’s when the world started to see [Olajuwon’s] vision,” Cooper said. “From that moment on, we just haven't looked back. That's when we really stopped and hired lawyers, accountants, secured IP and started raising capital.”Other celebrities like NBA star Steph Curry, actor Anthony Anderson and retired MLB star CC Sabathia have all worn the brand in appearances and social media postings.“Instagram has been unbelievable to get our message out, and we've been blessed that a lot of people who have big followings have decided to share the information so it's expanded our reach,” Cooper said.The G.O.A.T.
[caption id="attachment_215003" align="alignleft" width="417"] Left to right, Olajuwon Ajanaku, CC Sabathia, Michael Jordan and Earl Cooper pose for a photo at Jordan's Florida golf course, the Grove XXIII, after signing the shoe deal. | PHOTO COURTESY OF EARL COOPER[/caption]
Those endorsements landed Eastside a contract with CAA Sports, a leading talent agency, and helped further negotiations on their first golf shoe. The partners talked with Nike, Adidas and Puma about deals, but connected with their dream brand, Air Jordan.Eventually they scored a meeting with Michael Jordan himself, pitching their brand and their life stories to the basketball legend for about 40 minutes via videoconference.“He told us, ‘You guys have two dope stories, and, at Jordan Brand, we tell the best stories,’” Ajanaku recalled, noting Jordan told his team to get a deal done.“To have somebody like that believe in the brand, it just speaks volumes,” Cooper said. “He doesn't need to do this collaboration, so for him to be so hands on with it is something that you just don't take for granted.”Later on, Ajanaku was practicing at Jordan’s Florida golf course, the Grove XXIII, when he ran into the legend again. He spent about an hour with Jordan, sharing cigars and tequila.“He definitely enjoys the game of golf and sees what we're trying to do and just honestly seems like he's really proud of what we're doing,” he recalled. “So, it just energizes us and lets me know that we're on the right path.”
[caption id="attachment_215004" align="alignright" width="464"] Olajuwon Ajanaku, left, and Earl Cooper of Eastside Golf celebrate their exclusive Air Jordan collaboration at a release party. PHOTO COURTESY OF KEVIN ALLEN/ALLEN HOUSE PHOTOGRAPHY[/caption]
Ajanaku largely designed the Air Jordan 4 golf shoe, the first collaboration Air Jordan had ever done on a golf shoe in its six years of design. An undisclosed number of pairs were sold via online raffle in early August – other such releases typically feature 10,000 or more pairs – and the interest was very high, Cooper said.What’s nextWith the successful Jordan collaboration in the bag, Eastside is planning to launch a new spring collection in 2022, get their products into more boutique shops and golf course pro shops, and add some staff as they scale up their operations.They’ve already signed a partnership with luxury carmaker BMW, cross promoting the brands on social media as the PGA Tour’s BMW Championship prepares to play in Wilmington next year.While Cooper and Ajanaku are growing their commercial brand now, they dream of leaving a more lasting impact on their communities. That includes forming a fund to help bankroll underrepresented golfers looking to play professionally or attend top golf schools, as well as working to set up a youth golf school.With Joe Biden winning the presidency and former Delaware high school basketball stars Elena Delle Donne and Donte DiVincenzo, and football star Wendell Smallwood, all winning professional championships in recent years, Cooper said Eastside’s success feels like it’s riding a local wave.“I just feel blessed to even be a part of that conversation. [Delaware] is definitely having a moment and it feels good,” he said. “Obviously, there are a lot of things that we may not be as proud about, but there are some great things going on here in Wilmington and Delaware, and we need to continue to celebrate them.”