Michael Jordan won six NBA championships and delivered several of the league's most iconic moments during his remarkable career. The greater the pressure, the greater he played. Even now, more than eight years after his retirement – and more than 11 years after his unforgettable shot over Bryon Russell gave the Chicago Bulls the last of those six titles – Jordan's legacy remains as vibrant as ever. This generation's players still wear his No. 23 jersey, and, yes, his shoes remain among the most popular in the world. He's gone from the court to the owner's suite, and somehow he makes more in endorsement money now than he did as a player.
All of which makes it distressing that Jordan has been largely invisible in the NBA's ongoing labor standoff. He fought in this battle as a player and now he's on the opposite side as owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. He can offer a unique perspective at the negotiating table – if only he'd take a seat at the table.
The awkwardness of Jordan's position – many of the same star players his ownership peers are negotiating against are part of his Jordan Brand stable – might have contributed to him distancing himself from the talks. But with NBA commissioner David Stern just cancelling the first two weeks of the season and putting the rest of the 2011-12 schedule on notice, the league would benefit from having Jordan's presence at any future negotiations. Players Association executive director Billy Hunter said he and Stern will meet with a federal mediator next week – a positive step – but if there's any one person within the league who can coax the two sides closer toward a middle ground, it's likely Jordan.
In simpler terms: The NBA once again needs its greatest player to come through in the clutch.
Jordan's background in the league is as diverse as anyone's: He's gone from star player to general manager to owner. He played (and worked) in big markets in Chicago and Washington, and is now trying to make the small-market Bobcats relevant in Charlotte. He entered the league making $630,000 as a rookie and earned as much as $33 million for a single season. He's the only African-American majority owner in a league predominantly made up of African-Americans.
Most of the league's players still admire or respect Jordan. And even those that don't trust him as an owner would at least listen to what he has to say.
Yes, it's a reach to think the league and Players Association will simply make peace and ignore the millions of dollars that separate them just because Jordan walks into the room. Yet, the two sides could use a voice of reason to cut through all the rhetoric, a voice to help steer them closer to a compromise, and Jordan's still carries considerable influence.
So far, however, Jordan has largely stayed out of the fray. He attended the owners' board of governors meeting in Dallas last month, but no players were present. He's been engaged in some franchise meetings with the Bobcats, but much of his recent time has been spent touring with his Michael Jordan Motorsports group.
Jordan was retiring during the league's last lockout before the 1998-99 season, but he still showed up at a big labor meeting in New York to confront the owners with the players present. He told Abe Pollin, the late owner of the Washington Wizards, that if he couldn't afford to compete, he should sell the team.
"Michael Jordan was going at commissioner Stern and Pollin, talking about if you keep writing these bad checks to these bad players maybe you need to give up ownership of your team," former Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller said in an interview on NBA TV. "Michael Jordan was, and still is, the greatest basketball player ever, and he was stepping up for the players.
"There's always strength in numbers, and the high-profile players needed to stand up like Michael Jordan did in '98-'99. Because of what he did, that's one of the reasons that everyone said the players came out on top in that lockout situation."
Jordan's words to Pollin now sound ironic, given that he and Milwaukee Bucks owner Herb Kohl have lobbied other owners for increased revenue sharing to protect small-market franchises.
"The model we've been working under is broken," Jordan told Australia's Herald Sun in an interview that netted him a $100,000 fine from the NBA. "We have 22 or 23 teams losing money, so I think we have to come to some kind of understanding in this partnership that we have to realign. I know the owners are not going to move off what we think is very necessary to put a deal in place that allows us to co-exist as partners. We need a lot of financial support throughout the league as well as revenue-sharing to keep this business afloat.''
Still, even now it's likely Jordan can admire the passion of some of today's players in the latest labor battle. He's even mentored a few of them: Dwyane Wade(notes), Carmelo Anthony(notes) and Chris Paul(notes) are among the stars who endorse the Jordan Brand. During All-Star weekend, Jordan attended a labor meeting with players present, and sources said he later privately tried to explain the owners' position to some of his endorsers at a Jordan Brand party.
Some owners might consider Jordan too sympathetic to the players. In truth, both sides have reason to question his loyalty, and that just might make him the person best equipped to help broker more productive talks. He's still powerful, he's still respected. His presence would help more than hurt.
Jordan has never been afraid of taking the big shot. So where is he now when the NBA and its players need him in crunch time?
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