The new Jordan rules
By Dan Wetzel and Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo! Sports
March 20, 2007
Across the league, executives are decrying what they consider to be the new "Jordan Rules" of the NBA.
"Danny Ainge ends up seated next to Kevin Durant's mother and gets fined $30,000, but Michael goes out and plays one on one with [top high school prospect] O.J. Mayo and it is not a problem?" one Western Conference general manager grumbled.
"It's a conflict of interest."
The issue stems from Jordan's myriad roles within the basketball landscape. All at once, he's a minority owner, general manager, a retired icon, a marketing pitchman and sneaker executive.
In his role with Nike's Jordan Brand, he has operated both his annual All-American Classic – set this year for April 21 at Madison Square Garden in New York City – and summer "Flight Schools" in California and Las Vegas. The high school All-Star games bring together most of the 20 best prep players in the nation for several days. LeBron James, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant are recent alumni of the game.
In the past week, the NBA has flashed its disciplinary muscle over team officials found to be in violation of policies concerning interaction with college and high school underclass draft prospects. Ainge, the Boston Celtics' general manager, was fined $30,000 for talking with the family of Durant, now the freshman star at Texas. The league levied lesser fines to Jordan and Golden State Warriors coach Don Nelson for discussing the pro potential of Durant and Ohio State freshman center Greg Oden.
Such is the seriousness with which the NBA takes interaction between its officials and college underclassmen and high school players.
But just last summer, after becoming in principle the minority owner of the Bobcats (he was officially ratified as an owner in October), Jordan didn't just speak of likely future NBA draft pick O.J. Mayo. He also employed the West Virginia high school star – and other top prep and college prospects – as counselors at his Flight School camps. Jordan and Mayo even played one on one.
In early April, the Jordan Brand All-American Classic will bring together the Class of 2007's top prep prospects – some just 14 months away from being lottery picks – for four days of practices, meals, social opportunities and the game itself.
Either Jordan, or his underlings, will have exclusive 24-hour-a-day access to the players, allowing for not just evaluation of their talents but also of practice habits, personality traits and social skills.
"I would simply like to hear how the league explains that this is not a clear advantage for M.J.," one Eastern Conference general manager said.
"As part of his approval process with the Bobcats, Michael agreed to certain limitations with regards to the Flight School and the All-American Classic to keep in compliance with NBA rules," NBA vice president for communications Tim Frank told Yahoo! Sports.
On Tuesday Frank would not elaborate on what the restrictions were, but Thursday he said that, "beginning with this year's Flight School, Jordan will not be able to hire college or high school players as counsellors." He also said Jordan would have the same access restrictions during the All American Game as any other league executive, although that won't quell his critics who say having coaches who work for Jordan involved is the same difference.
Multiple calls to Nike's Jordan Brand for clarification were not returned. The Bobcats had no comment and chose not to make Jordan available for questions.
Until NBA commissioner David Stern implemented a new age minimum prior to the 2006 draft that demanded players be one year past high school graduation and 19 years old to be eligible for the draft, Jordan's enterprise hadn't come under league scrutiny. Jordan was a player, executive and part owner with the Washington Wizards from 2000 to 2003.
Under the revised rules, NBA teams are limited in opportunities to evaluate and interact with future draft prospects. No club representative can watch high school practices or games – let alone play against them as Jordan has. Out of fear that league executives can influence young prospects to leave school early, Stern has wanted to end NBA personnel's contact with prep players.
"This keeps our scouts out of high school gyms," Stern said when enacting the rule.
But Jordan continues to run his high school game. And in private practice sessions, he has an opportunity to watch elite prospects go head to head in matchups his own all-star coaches can create. For example, Jordan can measure the talent and competitiveness of top guards Mayo of Huntington, W.Va., and Derrick Rose of Chicago in the kind of closed-door workout environment that can give him insight into preferences over which point guard to chose in the 2008 draft.
That kind of evaluation is invaluable to league executives, and whether Jordan or one of his staff witnesses it, there's a widespread belief in the league that it gives the Bobcats an unmistakable edge. Other NBA teams are prohibited from attending any all-star game practices or functions and are allowed only to watch the game itself.
Then there is the off-court behavior, both good and bad, that so often can mean the difference between success and failure at the NBA level.
"If a kid gets caught smoking dope back at the hotel, Jordan is going to know about it and no one else will," one G.M. said. "He'll have a better evaluation on whether to draft that player."
While Jordan's presence at the events can vary, it can be argued that the less accessible Jordan makes himself, the more true-to-life the player's behavior actually would be. It stands to reason most players would avoid misbehaving or slacking in practice in front of perhaps the greatest player in history.
"It's not [just] about getting to evaluate their game," another G.M. said. "We all know if they can play. But it is a huge advantage to get to eat with the kids, interact with them, see their work habits in practice, find out their basketball I.Q., their maturity. That's why [many players either] succeed or fail.
"Michael can learn more about a kid in four days than I'll ever learn watching him play thirtysomething times."
High school all-star games are more than just what often is a free-flowing, low-intensity game. Players arrive early for two or three days of practices, meals and social activities. Often parents, siblings, coaches and other associates come along, too.
Jordan's Flight Schools, where adults pay to be taught by top coaches and players, also allow substantial access for Jordan and the kids over a week-long period.
Last summer's session in Santa Barbara, Calif., included Mayo and college players such as Arizona's Chase Budinger, Indiana's D.J. White, Kansas' Julian Wright and former Boston College center Sean Williams. They competed in daily counselor games, where direct competition was the norm. All but Mayo are eligible for this June's draft.
No other NBA team was allowed to watch those games at the Flight School.
"When Michael came back to the NBA, he should have dissolved any ties to anything in violation of the rules," one Western Conference executive said. "Jordan can have the coach [of the All-American game] work the player out, test his knowledge or ability to pick up NBA concepts.
"Most top players won't even have pre-draft workouts. They won't go to the [NBA draft] camp. We have so little information. Jordan has more."
What's more, there is leaguewide concern that the Bobcats are getting more of an immediate advantage in terms of the draft. They also are developing a long-term edge in future free agency.
When contract money could essentially be the same between teams, a free agent will sign where he feels most at home. Rivals contend that Jordan is able to develop a relationship with these players, families and associates at an impressionable age.
"They now have a relationship built in a social setting, at an age when they are easily influenced," one G.M. said. "No one else is allowed to build that. We would love that chance."
Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist, and Adrian Wojnarowski is Yahoo! Sports' national NBA columnist.
Updated on Wednesday, Mar 21, 2007 2:50 am, EDT