Michael Jordan Faces His Toughest Opponent Yet—NBA Ownership

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IMarch 8, 2010

DALLAS - FEBRUARY 12:  (L-R) NBA players Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Michael Jordan attend the Exclusive FABULOUS 23 Dinner hosted by Jordan Brand during All-Star Weekend on February 12, 2010 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Jordan Brand)
Charley Gallay/Getty Images

Michael Jordan stood at the Symphony Hall podium and delivered one of the cruelest, pettiest enshrinement speeches in sports history, using an imaginary Taser to electrocute anyone who had doubted his greatness.

His victims ranged from his revered former college coach Dean Smith, to an old high school teammate, to Bryon Russell.

He did not have to feign sincerity. He welled up as images from his remarkable career flashed on a screen behind him. Among those hallmark moments: the shot he hit over Russell at the Delta Center to clinch his sixth and final championship.

Jordan berated the former Jazz guard-forward for suggesting he could stop the league's premiere star.

"At this time, I had no thoughts of coming back and playing the game of basketball," Jordan said in his speech. "Bryon Russell came over to me and said, 'Why did you quit? You know I could guard you.' ... From this day forward, if I ever see [Russell] in shorts, I'm coming at him."

His Airness ruled the hardwood even after his baseball detour. Birmingham residents who had never watched or cared about a Minor League game flocked to see the Chicago White Sox's farm affiliate.

They came to watch Jordan. He could do anything he wanted then because he was that good. No one dared to question or stand up to the league's sans-pareil savior.

If Magic Johnson and Larry Bird served as the faces of pro hoops in a defining decade, Jordan made the NBA soar. More than 72 million tuned in to watch that would-be final game in 1998.

No other star in the sport's history, not even Bill Russell, could command that kind of audience. When Kobe Bryant announces his retirement sometime this decade, to no fault of his own, he will be lucky to draw 30 million viewers.

Many still contend Jordan pushed off to free himself for the jumper that seemed like a career-winner, and he did. If J.J. Redick or Aaron Afflalo tried that same shot in the first quarter of a regular-season game, referees would whistle them for an offensive foul.

Bryon Russell wasn't the first victim of a long-running double standard, and he won't be the last.

Jordan ended his sub-zero hurling of insults last September with a memorable line that may sting him now.

"Limits, like fears, are often illusions."

He barked "don't laugh" after saying he might return to the court at 50. For one night in Springfield, he put on his old No. 23 and committed offensive foul after offensive foul without consequence.

Now, he joins a fraternity where stock market know-how is more valuable than a soft shooting touch. Jordan agreed to buy a majority stake in the Charlotte Bobcats in late February.

His bid awaits final approval, but most expect the other owners to say "yes" to the hoops legend.

How could anyone protest his pending purchase? There's a lot to like about BET founder Robert Johnson handing the franchise keys to someone with more of a reason to care about the product.

A black man selling to another black man in pro sports represents a step forward for a country with a disgusting history of racial discrimination.

Just as in the NFL, 70 percent of NBA players are black. An ownership group often derided as "too white" now adds the voice of one of the greatest black athletes ever.

Jordan knows as a former player what it takes to win the coveted Larry O' Brien trophy, but therein begins his problem.

He worked as hard as any baller from his high-school days, through his stint at North Carolina, to his heralded pro tenure. He also boasted more talent and athleticism than most of his peers.

Jordan was as ruthless in his induction speech as he was on the court, and his remarks could not have surprised anyone who watched his ego take off with him on every rim-rattling dunk.

In the 90s, his chief competition included Karl Malone, John Stockton, Gary Payton, and Patrick Ewing. As an owner, he'll spar with Peter Holt, Jerry Buss, Mark Cuban, Dan Gilbert, and the Maloof Brothers.

Anyone who saw Cuban hoop it up during the Celebrity All-Star Game in Dallas would tell the Mavericks owner to stick with his current gig. Cuban won't be usurping Jason Terry's job anytime soon.

At 47, Jordan would slay any of his fellow hoops CEOs in a one-on-one battle.

His latest challenge cannot be won in the weight room or on a practice court. A successful owner handles the finances and usually lets the basketball operations staff handle the decision making.

Instead of scouting where his next opponent likes the ball, he'll pay hotel bills, manage a front office, and shoulder a heavier burden than most in his post.

Charlotte fans will expect him to triumph as much in a suit as he did when he suited up for the Bulls. His iconic name will not sell as many tickets as a postseason berth would.

The buck stops with him, and it will take more than deep pockets to save the Bobcats.

His squad sits in ninth place at 30-31, chasing Milwaukee, Chicago, Toronto, and Miami for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

Haven't we been here before?

The 'Cats amassed five-game win streaks in each of the previous two seasons and looked playoff ready in doing so. After six-plus years in town, Jordan cannot expect disengaged fans to celebrate more moral victories.

Another lottery season would prove disastrous in a market where college hoops and racing rules.

To conquer NBA ownership, Jordan must disavow a cherished belief.

Organizations do win championships. Go ask Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant how many rings they would have without R.C. Buford and Mitch Kupchak, or Peter Holt and Jerry Buss.

Former Bulls GM Jerry Krause—a long-time, unnecessary arch-enemy of Jordan's—never scored 38 points in the NBA Finals while battling the flu.

Jordan, for his part, did not bring Scottie Pippen or Dennis Rodman to Chicago.

Until he embraces Krause as an integral part of his six championships, Jordan might as well toss his fortune into a giant dumpster and torch it.

Arrogance doesn't fly in the front office or accounting departments.

Portland Trail Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard allowed the fruits of two successful drafts to fill his head with the perils of self-importance. His peers saw his worst when Darius Miles decided to play again.

It's up to Jordan to use the playing field to his advantage. A six-time champion can endear himself to a fanbase more than an elderly white man who owns a tractor business.

Making the Bobcats a box-office success will require more than star-power and the personality that oozes from his signature shoes to his sports coats.

Only after a playoff run can Jordan ascertain the viability of the NBA's return to Charlotte. Many spectators are still bitter about the manner in which the Hornets split town.

The Bobcats continued their astounding mastery of the L.A. Lakers on Friday night. Fans packed the arena, and their team packed a serious punch.

What about the 31 times this year the 'Cats looked like a mediocre, business-as-usual operation?

In Larry Brown, Jordan employs one of the game's best tutors. He must also account for Brown's volatility and propensity to lose patience with struggling or egomaniacal youngsters.

The roster looks nothing like the one that debuted on Nov. 4, 2004. Only Gerald Wallace and Raymond Felton remain from that expansion-year roll call, and both players names have surfaced in trade rumors since.

The Larry Brown doghouse has sheltered more pro ballers than any hotel in the world.

He loves Stephen Jackson now, but what will the coach do when the mercurial guard visits the dark side again?

Brown grins like a kid in a candy store when he discusses talented youngster Tyrus Thomas, acquired in a deadline-day deal. How will he react when the forward shows the immaturity that sometimes enraged the Bulls' brass?

The Bobcats first and highest draft pick ever, Emeka Okafor, now plays in New Orleans. In an interview with the Charlotte Observer last spring, Brown questioned Okafor's desire to improve as a basketball player.

"I'd give him an 'A' in stretching and pilates, but I want him to get an 'A' in basketball," Brown said.

Nice vote of confidence in a former supposed franchise player, coach.

As a player, Jordan answered to a three-man officiating crew and Phil Jackson and his staff.

When assistant Tex Winter once chided him for aborting the triangle offense in a game, Jordan quipped: "There's no 'I' in team, but there's an 'I' in win."

As an owner, he will answer to thousands of officials—fans. They do not call charges or eject players.

If they don't like what they see on the court, they stay home.

Thousands filled two Chicago arenas to watch Jordan, the transcendent athlete. Now, he must use intelligence and innovation to attract more season-ticket holders.

My skepticism stems from more than his failed front office decisions—Kwame Brown, Adam Morrison, or Jason Richardson.

Late Wizards owner Abe Pollin fired him in the early 2000s, and the move surprised no one.

Jordan must fight the perception that he cares more about his tee time than scouting or fiscal responsibility.

He cannot push the Bobcats into the playoffs by invading shootarounds, or challenging rookies to H.O.R.S.E contests.

It would be easier if his on-court employees could just touch a ball and acquire Hall of Fame-caliber talent as the aliens from Moron Mountain did in Space Jam .

Welcome to reality, Michael. You won't see Bugs Bunny here, just an endless array of expenses and tough decisions on your desk.

Jordan heads the most successful shoe brand of all time. Where would Nike be without his namesake sneakers?

There is reason, then, to believe he can deliver similar results as the first player-turned NBA owner.

He needs smarts, not athleticism to guide Charlotte's necessary turnaround.

A public once mesmerized by his every move will root for him to win again.

This time, the opponent will not be as easy to shake as Russell.

When other owners see him in proverbial shorts, they will come after him.

No illusions, just business.

Just do it.


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