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Somehow, it's the 1990s all over again: As the NBA season starts, people are getting trampled and stabbed for overpriced Air Jordans. The planet's most powerful center wants out of Orlando. Everything and nothing has changed. Michael Jordan is still the biggest shadow over the sport, still the relentless comparison for stars. For better and worse, he never goes away.
Jordan was a silent, but hard-driving owner in the NBA's labor lockout, determined to beat up the sport's players in the board room the way that he always did on the court. All these years later, the Chicago Bulls are a championship contender again, and the residue of the sneaker explosion born out of Jordan's marketability probably makes the title path a little tougher for the Bulls.
For now, Dwight Howard has delivered the Magic a list of three teams that can trade for him this season with the assurance he'll sign a contract extension with them: the Los Angeles Lakers, New Jersey Nets and Dallas Mavericks. The Bulls have the most attractive package of young players – and the possibility of draft picks – for the Magic, but the NBA that Jordan created for superstar players is a significant part of the reason that Howard will take a pass on Chicago.
Adidas has two franchise endorsers: Derrick Rose and Howard. Rose signed a $94 million extension with the Bulls, and sources say Adidas is working on a lifetime shoe deal for him now.
And as one high-ranking sneaker executive says, "Adidas simply cannot have its two signature players on the same team in the same market. … Derrick is the face of that market, owns that market, and Adidas can't possibly have maximum bang for its buck with Dwight there.
"It serves Adidas no purpose. They need them as rivals in competing markets."
[ Related: Air Jordan fans trample shoppers for new shoes ]
Howard knows this, too. He has an Adidas renewal on deck in the next year, and Los Angeles and Brooklyn guarantee him maximum money. The shoes aren't the sole reason, but it's a reality. In an NBA where the owners want the superstars worth $50 million and more to make far less than market value, it's hard to imagine you'll get them to take far less on endorsements.
And as had been the case with LeBron James' free agency, Rose will never go out of his way to convince Howard this is a trade that he ought to push. "Derrick is too loyal to the guys he plays with to get involved with doing that," a source close to Rose said. "It wasn't his nature [to recruit] with LeBron, and it still isn't now."
For the record, Adidas' vice president for global basketball, Lawrence Norman, says: "As a partner, we're completely supportive of Dwight with whatever decision he makes. He's an outstanding partner with broad appeal to fans across the world."
Norman is telling the truth: Adidas will still pay Howard well wherever he winds up, but Orlando and Chicago won't get him paid and marketed the way Los Angeles and Brooklyn will. Rose could become the highest-paid shoe endorser in the NBA with his next Adidas contract, sources said, and remember: Shoe companies don't market teams. They market individuals. That's true of the NBA, too.
That's why Howard will end up with the Lakers or the Nets – Los Angeles or New York. Everything could change with Howard in Chicago, because everything changes with the league's best center and best point guard on the floor together. Nevertheless, this NBA season starts with Howard in Orlando, and so much of the sport's balance of power will be dictated by where he ends it.
Jordan changed everything in the endorsement and NBA star game, and sadly, the violence from people trying to get their hands on old-school Air Jordans ought to leave everyone speechless and numb over the part those shoes – and the prices for those shoes – have contributed to the exposing of a disintegrating culture.
Shaquille O'Neal found his way to the Lakers in free agency in 1996, and with Kobe Bryant, turned them into the NBA's first post-Jordan championship dynasty. Wherever Howard goes now – with Kobe, with Deron Williams – promises to change the sport again. Howard could play a part getting Bryant that sixth title to catch Jordan, or go to Brooklyn and get a Knicks-Nets rivalry for the ages. Opening night in the NBA, and commissioner David Stern has chosen to travel to Oklahoma City for the Magic-Thunder game. Two small markets, two magnificent stars: Howard and Kevin Durant. They're starting the season late, because the lockout was supposed to have two goals: Take back billions of dollars from the players, and take back much of the freedom to create super teams out of superstars.
No one pushed harder for that than the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, an irrelevant franchise with a most relevant owner. No one will hear much out of Michael Jordan's basketball team this season, yet his gravitas on this league remains unmistakable. All these years later, everything and nothing has changed. Still a star league, still the Jordan rules.
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