At tip-off of a recent Charlotte Bobcats game, it was easier to take note of who wasn’t in attendance than who was. The arena was maybe one-third full and the owner’s box was empty.
As play began, a few more fans found their seats, but there would be no owner sighting. Michael Jordan likes watching on television, but on this night, he wasn’t even in town. Instead, Jordan was in Las Vegas, at the Aria Resort and Casino, hosting a celebrity golf tournament with Ashton Kutcher serving as his caddie.
The game’s greatest player has become one of its most curious owners, a fanatical competitor who can’t field a competitive team. At 49, he is the most recognizable part of the franchise, but the basketball world questions how active he wants to be as an executive, much as it did during his time with the Wizards in Washington.
“The work he put in to be a great player and the work you put in to be a great executive, those are different things,” said Sam Vincent, whom Jordan hired as his head coach in 2007 less than a year after he became minority owner. “That additional time you spend on jump shots, running, dunking, I don’t know if he puts in that same amount of time as an executive or if he even cares to.”
The New York Daily News cited an unnamed source last week in reporting that Jordan might be preparing to walk away from the franchise if it can’t win soon. He became majority owner just two years ago. Jordan hasn’t granted an interview this year, but the team immediately issued a denial from its owner: “I am 100 percent committed to building the Bobcats into a contender and have no plans to sell the team.”
In the meantime, his squad continues to lose. Monday night pits the Bobcats, owners of a 7-47 record, against the NBA’s second-worst team. The Wizards are 12-44, and both teams are vying for better position in the draft lottery as the season winds down.
Jordan’s brief tenure as an executive with the Wizards was dismal. In his fifth full season with the Bobcats, he’s yet to improve on that record. The Charlotte community has been reluctant to embrace the franchise, and many NBA scouts say the Bobcats’ roster features the worst collection of talent in the league.
“It gets to you,” Paul Silas, Charlotte’s current head coach, said of the losing. “Yes, there is a plan. You have to look at that also. But we're dealing with the day to day. . . . It’s still tough for us. We want to do well. We want to win. That’s what I tell my players: We’re not in the basketball business. We’re in the win business.”
Shortly after he was hired, Vincent recalled, he would go to rotary clubs and business luncheons around Charlotte and inevitably hear the same questions, many shaped by the decision of the city’s previous NBA franchise, the Hornets, and their owner, George Shinn, to move to New Orleans in 2002.
“They wanted to know, how committed is Michael to the community? Has he bought a house here? That kind of stuff,” Vincent said. “It appeared to me that the relationship Michael had started off good, but somewhere it just really soured. I felt a big part of the reason why we could never get the support back then — and still today — there was so much damage from the relationship fans had with the previous ownership.”
Vincent, who was dismissed as the Bobcats’ head coach after one season, is now an official with the NBA retired players association.
While sports team owners spend varying amounts of time handling day-to-day affairs and watch their teams’ games from different places, few have the star power to host a celebrity golf tournament 2,000 miles away.Jordan operates on a delicate balance, managing his team’s affairs and the myriad other ventures attached to the Michael Jordan brand.
“He assured us he’s working harder than he ever has in his life, and is playing less golf than he ever has in his post-playing career,” NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver said at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston last month. “It’s hard work. . . . We’re hopeful that Michael will turn it around in Charlotte. We think it's a great market.”
Jordan is connected to a lot of cities and a variety of business ventures. He has a steakhouse in New York and a couple of more restaurants in Chicago. Nike's Jordan Brand is bigger than ever. He owns a motorcycle racing team, has a car dealership in Durham, N.C., and is still a popular celebrity endorser. Forbes estimates that Jordan earned $60 million last year through endorsements, more than any active basketball player. He’s still closely aligned with Nike, Gatorade and Hanes, to name a few.
Jordan and the Bobcats have made substantial efforts to connect with the Charlotte community, partnering with an area hospital and launching the “Cats Care” program, which supports education and battles hunger. The goodwill hasn’t translated into ticket sales. The Daily News reported that the Bobcats lost $20 million last season.
In a December interview with the Charlotte Observer, Jordan said he’s looking for young players with the drive he brought into the NBA nearly 30 years ago. “I hope there are still players out there with that same perspective,” he said. But friends and critics alike say one of Jordan’s biggest faults has been surrounding himself with people who are eager to think like him — at least on the management side.
“I don't know if he has hired enough people around him who he will listen to,” his friend Charles Barkley, the former NBA star, recently said on ESPN radio. “One thing about being famous is the people around you. You pay all their bills so they very rarely disagree with you because they want you to pick up the check. They want to fly around on your private jet so they never disagree with you.”
In fact, since taking over as the Bobcats’ owner, Jordan has surrounded himself with some of the same people he had in Washington, where he served as part owner and president of basketball operations. Fred Whitfield, Jordan’s longtime friend and the Wizards’ former director of player personnel, is the Bobcats’ chief operating officer. Rod Higgins, Jordan's former Chicago teammate and the Wizards’ former assistant general manager, is Charlotte’s president in charge of basketball operations.
Perhaps the second-most powerful person in the organization is Curtis Polk, who has managed Jordan’s business and career for more than two decades and serves as vice chairman of the Bobcats. He’s the lone team official who can vote on Jordan’s behalf at league meetings. Polk lives in Potomac but regularly visits Charlotte.
Gerald Henderson, the Bobcats’ third-year guard, says players regularly see the owner. Jordan doesn’t lace up his Nikes and get on the court with them, but he’s still a resource.
“He's got a lot of things for me that have helped me this year,” Henderson said. “It's pretty special. I’m pretty lucky to have him there.”
Prior to this season, Jordan finally welcomed an outsider into his inner circle, hiring General Manager Rich Cho, who’d held the same position in Portland, Ore., and was previously an assistant general manager in Oklahoma City.
Cho’s task is to replicate what he helped do with the Thunder: take advantage of high draft picks, don’t blow salary on short-term Band-Aids and stockpile as many picks as possible.
“I think when they hired Rich Cho, who’s really a respected general manager, they charted a course that’s almost the NBA blueprint by a lot of teams now — even the Wizards,” ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said. That formula, he said, is “to get as bad as you can, rather than try to win and be pretty good.”
“You can call that smart management or you can call it a detriment to the NBA. It all depends on your point of view,” Van Gundy continued. “The way they set it up, the way the NBA has basically condoned tanking — not a game or a stretch of games, but tanking a whole season — that’s what the fans of teams in Charlotte and Washington, have been fed.”
When: 7 p.m., TV: CSN HD