Olajuwon Ajanaku and Earl Cooper first met as teammates on the golf team of Morehouse College, a university in Atlanta, Georgia. After they won a national championship together and graduated from college, golf remained a major part of their lives.
Earl went on to become a PGA professional – playing in the highest professional league of the sport – and was the first-ever African-American club pro at Detroit Golf Club, where he was ranked one of the best young golf teachers in the US by Golf Digest. Olajuwon tried to pursue a career as a professional golfer, but found it tough between trying to live and work as a recent graduate.
‘I had a few mini-tour wins, but it got to the point where I just couldn't afford it any more. I was 22 years old, golfing all the time, but also building decks and pitching brands, law offices, corporations and anyone else who would listen,’ says Olajuwon. ‘Asking them to sponsor me for $100,000 a year in order to fund my dream. That was my first whiff of sales.’ When he finally called it quits, he decided to put his accounting degree to work. Olajuwon got a role at a commercial finance firm where he moved up the ranks and was in line to become a VP. However, it wasn't long until he came to realize that corporate life wasn't for him. And it was golf that helped him come to that conclusion.
The logo that launched it all
‘I decided to make a logo that was meant to be me, that would go on my personal polo [shirt] and bag,’ Olajuwon says. The first iteration was a DIY, iron-on patch of a man swinging a golf club with a large gold chain around his neck, which he put on a plain T-shirt. He still keeps the T-shirt on his desk as a reminder of how it all started.
‘My first time wearing the shirt [and] walking around downtown Detroit for a few hours, I was stopped maybe 80 times. They all asked the same questions: “Who are you? What's that logo? Do you play golf? Where can I get it?” It made me think that I might have something,’ he says.
In 2019, with Earl's support, Olajuwon began making apparel and golf accessories with the brand's now iconic logo emblazoned across them. He decided to name the brand Eastside Golf after the east side of Atlanta where he grew up. ‘I emptied out the savings accounts, credit cards, cryptocurrencies – I spent it all to start Eastside Golf,’ he says. The brand took off and Olajuwon describes filling the first few thousand orders from his Detroit apartment. ‘One of the early things I heard was: “I feel like when I see your logo I can truly be myself.” The logo is a play on the fact that I'm swinging the club one way and my chain is going another way,’ says Olajuwon. ‘It means, come as you are; don't be intimidated; don't think this is some place that you don't belong, no matter what you look like. You are welcome.’
A new age for an old world
At that point, Olajuwon really wanted to see what the golf world at large would make of the brand and convinced Earl to go with him to the PGA Show, a golf trade show that Earl had visited many times. ‘I had to see what the golf world thought about it. I knew the regular world liked it but, for the golf world, you kind of have to know how to play for them to respect you,’ says Olajuwon.
Earl was slightly more hesitant. ‘Based on my experience, I didn't know how open the golf industry would be,’ he says. However, when they displayed their brand at the show, Earl describes people ‘going crazy over it’. A shop in Osaka, Japan, was the first buyer to take a chance on the brand's products – and sold out of its initial order within 24 hours.
The brand reached the radar of professional basketball player Chris Paul, which created the moment that changed the business forever, says Earl. It was the day that NBA players decided to boycott the playoffs in response to the shooting in the back of an unarmed black man called Jacob Blake by police in Wisconsin. ‘Chris Paul was wearing Eastside Golf from head to toe and, from that moment on, it just took off. We got introduced to the Jordan brand and we realized we had something special,’ says Earl. Since then, the brand has grown substantially and achieved more than seven figures in sales. Eastside Golf also works closely with the Advocates Pro Golf Association (APGA) Tour, whose goal is to bring greater diversity to the game of golf.
Both Olajuwon and Earl just want to help grow and diversify the game. The main reason they think Eastside Golf has been received so warmly is the fact that it's doing things in a way that hasn't been done before. ‘We want to be able to build people up that are similar to us, that may have run into some of the same roadblocks that we have. All that is to say we're focused on being really original, [on doing] things in a different way to truly make an impact,’ says Earl.
To that end and now able to sponsor himself, Olajuwon has even made a second run at a career as a professional golfer. ‘You always see players become owners, but you never really see owners become players. You're never too old to chase your dreams,’ he says.