Lee England Jr. wasn't the headliner at the performance that changed his life forever. The violinist wasn't even the official opening act. But in England Jr.'s five minutes on stage at the event before the main event, he caught the attention of Michael Jordan and, like the Drake album, nothing was the same.
England was playing at the Fabulous 23 Dinner during the 2010 NBA All-Star Weekend in Dallas—a kind of birthday celebration for His Airness, who was born on February 17. It was the party on a weekend with no shortage of high wattage soirees. Robin Thicke was slated to perform, but during the cocktail party beforehand, England took the stage alongside R&B singer K'Jon, with whom England had been touring. The music was intended to be more like background noise as guests mingled. But K'Jon gave England a few minutes to perform solo, during which he played everything from centuries-old classical pieces to Jay Z and Biggie. "At the end of it, everybody in the room was fixated on me," England says.
That included Jordan himself, who was seated at a table with Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and Ahmad Rashad. England had grown up in the northern Chicago suburb of Waukegan, so Jordan loomed especially large. As a kid, England had one of those "see how you measure up" posters of MJ and would play "Bulls vs. Blazers" constantly on the Sega Genesis. He was so overwhelmed by the star power in the room in Dallas that he had to close his eyes to maintain his composure while he was playing. When England came off stage after bringing the house down, Jordan was right there to greet him. "I was so intimidated. I was ready to just dip off," England remembers with a laugh. "MJ was like, 'I'm going to take care of you.' I don't even know what that means."
He soon found out. When England came off tour he received, in successive days, a box of clothes, a box of shoes, and finally, a contract. "The contract was like just sign this and we're going to hook you up," he says. Once England became one of the first non-athletes signed to the Jordan Brand, all kinds of opportunities started arising. There were gigs at Charlotte Bobcats games and WWE matches, and charity events for Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony. He even played at Michael Jordan's holiday party.
"Whatever [Jordan] saw in me in that five minutes was enough for him to give me his stamp. And with that stamp, there are doors that have opened that I didn't even know [existed]," says England.
He began playing violin when he was six years old, after seeing a demonstration at his school. When he first got an instrument of his own, it didn't sound anything like the performer at school and England was ready to quit. His father told him he could give up the instrument, but he just had to practice 15 minutes a day. "I was literally practicing so I could quit," England says.
What he didn't realize was that he'd been outsmarted by his dad, who knew that if his son started practicing, he'd start improving, and then he'd be hooked. Soon enough, that 15 minutes turned into 30, and by the time England got to Southern Illinois University, he and his instrument were inseparable.
Playing a classical instrument didn't limit England's musical tastes. After seeing the violinist Miri Ben-Ari incorporate hip-hop influences, he felt more confident in his own emerging style. Once that style won him a college talent show and England saw that he could monetize his talent, it was a wrap.
England was more than a violinist. As a kid, someone at church asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. "My answer was I want to be a basketball player but if that doesn't work, I'll fall back on violin, and I'll make the violin cool."
All through England's hoops career, he never had a pair of Air Jordans because he couldn't afford them. He got Team Jordans to play in during middle school, but that was it. "I was so salty about it that I was like you know what, I'm never buying Jordans. … Then I started getting Jordans for free," England says with a chuckle.
He has always been partial to Air Jordan 1s, wearing them onstage (often with a tuxedo), and off. Even though he had signed with Jordan Brand, England was never really a sneakerhead until he traded his former manager a pair of Air Jordan 5s for a pair of 1s. Only later did England realize that the 5s he had parted ways with were the valuable and limited "Shanghai" edition, and that the 1s he'd received in exchange were not nearly up to par. Resolving never to get hustled like that, England began following sneaker blogs.
Today, England is more cognizant of the kicks he rocks. When we met, he stepped out in a pair of the "Chameleon" 1s from last year's All-Star Game. He also has white and black pairs of all the OVO Jordans. But the true sign of his insider access is that he has visited "the room" in the Jordan offices in Beaverton. England had a meeting with Jordan Brand's Reggie Saunders and told him, "Reg, my guys keep clowning me. Every time I show them shoes they're like, 'Oh, we can get those.' He was like, 'For real?' and took me back into this room. There's a room with all exclusive stuff as it comes in and then there's a room that's the future. All the J's that are up there are conceptual. All these colorways that you would've never imagined. Shoes that might never come out."
Even though he doesn't play sports professionally, his teammates at the Jordan Brand respect what he brings to the table. "I know Lee very well and he’s a great part of the brand," says Chris Paul of the Houston Rockets. "He’s unique in that he’s one of the only people that can do what he does."
If England is ever given the chance to design his own Jordan, England knows exactly what he would do. The silhouette would be a 1, of course, with "Soul" stitched on the left heel and "Violinist" on the right. The defining detail would be on the outsole, which would feature the outline of his instrument, so every time that someone wearing them took a step, it would leave the imprint of a violin on the ground.
Leaving something behind is important for England. From the color of his skin to the sneakers on his feet, there are not many accomplished violinists that look like him. That is something England wants to change. He runs a nonprofit that provides fine arts education in school districts and communities that don't have access to it. Because of his background, he is able to connect with kids on a level that others can't and help them realize that anything is possible.
England himself is living proof that dreams do come true. And he gives a lot of credit for that to Jordan. It's even reflected on the quote on the back of England's business card.
"When I decided to walk the path that was meant for me, Michael Jordan gave me shoes that made me fly."