Just minutes after his young Charlotte Bobcats lose another game, Michael Jordan walks down a hallway in his Time Warner Cable Arena and turns into the locker room to speak to his players and assess their mood.
Dressed in dark slacks with a dark pullover, MJ moves spryly yet gingerly, with that telltale trace of arthritis in his 48-year-old step. Despite the loss, his stride doesn’t suggest much in the way of defeat.
In fact, the public doesn’t realize it quite yet, and Jordan’s certainly not going to talk about it, but he’s making his way on the narrow path to success in this small NBA market in his hoops-crazy home state.
It’s safe to say that pro basketball has never before seen an owner like him. Jordan emphasized that earlier this spring when he laced up his sneakers to take on his own players.
“He comes into practice, the level of play and the competition picks up,” observes Bobcats center Kwame Brown, who has his own history with MJ. “He’s talking noise, he’s joking. It’s good for him to be around because everybody wants to play hard.
“You better play hard,” he adds with a knowing laugh.
There are still way too many empty seats some game nights. On others, however, the building comes alive, bringing to mind how the old Charlotte Hornets used to make the joint jump in those sweet seasons before their owner, George Shinn, somehow managed to extinguish the fun.
That’s the Charlotte Jordan remembers, and that’s the Charlotte Jordan wants to see again, explains Fred Whitfield, Jordan’s longtime friend who serves as president and chief operating officer of the Bobcats and Jordan’s entertainment company.
“Michael has made a commitment to Charlotte.”
Whitfield acknowledges that it will take time for Jordan to grow into being an owner, just as it will take time to heal the hurt left in this community by the Hornets experience.
The unpopular Shinn finally packed up his team in 2002 and departed for New Orleans in a dispute over a new arena.
Two years later, entertainment magnate Robert Johnson introduced the expansion Bobcats, but the community’s hangover from the Hornets and a bad TV contract meant that Johnson – the league’s first black majority owner – was soon losing millions each season.
Faced with staggering red ink, Johnson slashed the front office payroll, and the state of the franchise only worsened.
Johnson’s difficulty, however, created both the opportunity and the challenge for Jordan, who bought the team at a bargain last March to become the first former player to assume major ownership of an NBA franchise.
In so doing, Jordan once again stepped up as a role model for future generations of players. Always mindful of the league’s horizons, NBA commissioner David Stern has taken special interest in helping Jordan’s reclamation project in Charlotte.
After all, who knows how many former players, trying to Be Like Mike, will take on a similar challenge by, say, 2025?
While not staggeringly spectacular, the early returns on Jordan’s stewardship are at least promising after 12 short months.
Whitfield says sales have jumped nicely since Jordan took over the franchise and stirred his own staff as well as his partners and customers by meeting with them all and vowing his commitment to Charlotte.
Such a posture was essential in the wake of criticism that Jordan had operated too much in absentia while overseeing the Bobcats’ basketball operations as a minority owner.
Following up on that pledge, he has spent millions on a condo not far from his arena, the centerpiece in his plans to grow a major entertainment company in the heart of this vibrant Southern city.
And he has plunked down extra cash to re-fill many of the positions the Bobcats laid off during their financial swoon two years ago.
Beyond that, he’s invested heavily in the essential extras so that game nights sparkle with top-flight musical entertainment and dancers.
MJ’s biggest coup to date, though, is that his handsome building and the city of Charlotte will host the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 2012. Yes, President Obama will bring his nomination event here, to Charlotte, matching the history of his presidency with the history of Jordan’s entrepreneurship.
Beyond MJ’s date with the president, all sorts of musical acts have lined up to play his place, keeping the arena busy almost 200 nights a year. And corporate clients have stepped up to show they are eager to associate with that Jordan image.
And why not? If you set aside all the Internet noise and consider the circumstances, Jordan’s doing an admirable thing in trying to revive Bobcats. After all, he has hundreds of millions in his bank account. It’s not like he has to do this.
Yet Jordan has always been an economic engine, and what his presence has brought to Charlotte is a variation on an old theme.
Critics tend to forget that this isn’t the first time he has rescued a franchise. The Chicago Bulls were in tatters financially with a roster riddled with cocaine abusers when Jordan arrived there as a rookie in 1984.
He brought stunningly swift change just by how hard and how well he played. In the process, he added hundreds of millions in value to the franchise, not to mention a dramatic revitalization in the blighted neighborhoods around first Chicago Stadium and then the United Center.
During a recent 20th anniversary celebration of his first championship there, Jordan didn’t hesitate to express his great love for the city of Chicago. But Carolina is the natural place for Jordan to make a stand and show that he is indeed capable of a second act beyond his world-changing first act as an NBA star.
His building likewise is a serious economic engine for the Carolinas. HIs presence has helped breathe life into this city in a few short months.
Yet, for all the talk of business and economics, it’s basketball that occupies Jordan’s mind and basketball that has troubled his soul much of the past decade.
He needs no reminders that his first foray into the managing an NBA team ended in disaster and humiliation with the dysfunctional Washington Wizards franchise.
As Jerry West once told me, it’s brutally difficult to run the personnel side of an NBA team, and especially so for a former star. Jordan got a lesson in that when his first major move – selecting Kwame Brown as the overall number one pick of the ill-fated 2001 draft – proved a huge disappointment.
It also says much that as an owner, Jordan agreed to sign Brown, who while never a star has established himself as a serviceable pro center. Most sports executives run like mad from their personnel mistakes. But Jordan knew Brown could help the Bobcats, so he signed him as a free agent.
Perhaps MJ wants Kwame around for motivation, as a reminder of his harsh lessons learned.
When Jordan arrived in Washington in 1999, he found a team plagued by decades of mismanagement. Caught in a post-retirement funk as a part-time manager, his answer was to come out of retirement in 2001 as a player yet again. At age 38, he had to battle through his arthritic knees, but it certainly proved a quick way to revitalize the organization.
It’s hard to float the idea that anything Jordan does is overlooked, but the scope of his effort in Washington has been given short shrift by both the media and NBA fans.
His Washington performances pale in comparison to the six NBA titles he won in Chicago, but it wasn’t a total bust, as many frequently suggest.
For example, he donated his entire salary as a Wizards player to September 11 victims’ organizations. Despite his knees, he hardly took off a practice or missed a performance for two full seasons with the Wizards.
His presence on the floor brought sell-outs every night in Washington, where basketball had been irrelevant for years. That, in turn, generated fat millions in revenue for a franchise that had been mired in financial losses that mirrored its on-court woefulness.
He and Rod Higgins, also an executive in Washington, worked to clear up the team’s salary cap issues and created operating room for the Wizards’ future.
Most impressive of all, Jordan set aside his legendary harshness as a competitor to become a coach on the floor, patiently trying to show that young Wizards team the right way to play.
His reward for all of this came just days after he had again retired in 2003 – a sudden dismissal by then Wizards majority owner, the late Abe Pollin, during a meeting in which Jordan rightfully expected to be reinstated as a minority owner of the franchise.
To add insult to injury, Washington Post feature writer Michael Leahy published a best-selling book, When Nothing Else Matters, that portrayed Jordan as a pathetic, adrenalin-addicted figure, attracted to high-stakes gambling and a shadowy night life.
The crime that supposedly drew Jordan this harsh treatment? Arrogance and his failure to massage the egos of Pollin and other Wizards officials.
All in all, the dismissal was a shabby way to treat the figure who had done so much for pro basketball, regardless of his supposed arrogance. While the experience mostly confirmed Washington’s impossibly cynical atmosphere, there was no question that it profoundly staggered Jordan.
Perhaps his worst crime was that, despite playing brilliantly many nights, he was too old and too slow to deliver the hapless Wizards to the playoffs. The basketball public had doted on Jordan for his brilliance with the Bulls, but it turned on him swiftly with his failure in Washington.
He soon enough landed on his feet as an executive in Charlotte. But more disappointment followed with Charlotte’s drafting of Adam Morrison with the third overall pick in 2006. Morrison would prove another huge disappointment and another blow to the Jordan image.
Add to that the pain and fallout from his divorce – after 17 years of marriage to wife Juanita and three children – which was finalized in December 2006 and estimated by Forbes to have cost Jordan $150 million.
During his playing days, he had built the perception that he was the most competent human being on the planet. No one anywhere did anything as well as His Airness played basketball.
Yet in a few short years, that image had taken a huge hit, with the madding crowd routinely having a field day on Internet sites punking out Jordan for his missteps.
In 2008, MJ sat down with me for about 20 minutes for a one-on-one interview at the NBA’s pre-draft camp in Orlando, and frankly I was left unsettled by his seeming lack of confidence. Although he was as congenial as ever, he seemed out of sorts, out of place, unsure of himself. Mostly the meeting reminded me of just how much Jordan had been through since the end of his glory days.
Our talk left me guessing that his body language in Orlando bore a resemblance to his mindset in 1979 when he failed to make the Laney High School varsity basketball team.
In many ways, his answer to setback as a grown man resonates his answer then. His fierce pride wounded, Jordan is obviously determined these days to answer his critics.
As Jerry West once told me, it’s brutally challenging for a former great player to fit the competitiveness displayed on the floor into the routines and drudgery of the front office.
“It’s so different,” said West, who also struggled to find his place after his playing career ended.
Jordan had always been slow to trust, and his experiences in Washington only reinforced those instincts.
Taking over the Bobcats seems to have helped resolve the trust issues. Jordan is now the man in charge. While that also means a heavier weight with each decision, he’s had time to absorb his mistakes and process them. He has old friends – Whitfield and Higgins – who obviously care deeply about helping him succeed.
And each day has brought new reminders of the challenge he’s chosen.
Jordan watched the Bobcats make the playoffs for the first time in its short history last spring, but then he had to peel off some of the team’s best players in a difficult cost-cutting move during the offseason.
Observers have noted that the loss of point guard Raymond Felton and center Tyson Chandler have contributed to the Bobcats’ struggles this season. Which in turn meant that Jordan soon had to part ways with Hall of Fame coach and fellow University of North Carolina alum Larry Brown.
He then brought veteran coach Paul Silas out of retirement to replace Brown and watched a brief revival of the team’s fortunes before deciding to pull the trigger on a trade that packaged the team’s veteran leader and All-Star, Gerald Wallace, to Portland for draft picks and an odd assortment of role players.
The deal sent the Bobcats reeling into a losing streak. And Wallace, a family man and strong community figure in Charlotte, later told the media that he felt “betrayed” by Jordan. It’s a fair guess that some of the players in the Bobcats’ locker room have felt the same way.
Jordan clearly understands this. As a player, he sat in locker rooms feeling confused and betrayed as Chicago Bulls management traded away his best friends and competitive brothers in moves aimed at building the franchise’s future.
Now it’s Jordan’s turn to be the bad guy.
In the days after the trade, he offered the community here little more than stony silence, which led some observers to conclude that Jordan was insensitive and uncaring about the harshness of the deal.
Veteran Jordan observers know nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the move has been unpleasant for both Jordan and Higgins, his GM.
They know well that small markets simply don’t attract the NBA’s top free agents. The model for their approach is the San Antonio Spurs, which built its championship success on a series of fortunate draft picks in the 1990s.
Jordan and Higgins know that draft picks are gold for small market teams. Besides giving them coveted draft picks, the Wallace trade also gives them more room to develop Gerald Henderson, the 12th overall pick in the 2009 draft, taken out of Duke no less. Henderson shows promise as an exceptional defender, but young players have to have playing time to develop.
If I wanted to be a smart ass, I’d mention to Jordan that the move is the kind that former Bulls exec Jerry Krause would have the brass to make.
The last man Jordan wants to talk about is Krause, a man he has long disliked. Yet it’s obvious that his legendary clashes with Krause as a Bulls player resonate in his own choices as an owner.
A few minutes after going into the Bobcats’ locker room Jordan emerges to shake my hand as I stand in the hallway talking to Charles Oakley, another of Jordan’s longtime friends and former teammates who is a Bobcats assistant coach.
“He’s a good guy,” Oakley is saying as MJ steps up behind him.
Jordan smiles and tells me that if Oakley can just get 10 rebounds a night, then he’ll come back to the game and score big.
“If he can get 10, I can get 20,” he says gamely.
He’s kidding, of course.
If only it were that easy.
No, Jordan well knows he’s facing a long, narrow path to success, one where respect is won one step at a time.
The next day he will be up early and about the town, leading his players in public service projects for the local schools, where he has poneyed up hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep middle schools sports programs from being lost to budget cuts.
The odds are a bit longer than he usually likes, but the inside money signals this time that MJ is getting it right.
Far be it from me to suggest otherwise. I learned long ago not to bet against him.