Michael Jordan’s big score: why his NBA ownership tenure is far from a failure

<span>Photograph: Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

It used to be that only the truly exceptional were called “the Michael Jordan of” their particular arena: of acting (Viola Davis), of fibbing (George Santos), of the Democratic party (Barack Obama). “They know what you’re talking about,” Obama said before bestowing the Chicago Bulls legend with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, “because Michael Jordan is the Michael Jordan of greatness.” And now he’s poised to win another title: the Michael Jordan of dealmakers.

Last week came news that the six-time NBA champion was in serious talks about selling a portion of his majority stake in the Charlotte Hornets. This comes four years after he sold a slice of the franchise to a group led by the venture capitalist Gabe Plotkin – the Michael Jordan of short-selling, according to some. It’s unclear whether Jordan is trying to bring in investment, or whether he wants to cash out of the league entirely. In the latter case, his take would be an 80% slice of a pie valued at more than $1bn. As investments go, it’s nothing but net.

But it isn’t just the money that makes this a big deal. For the better part of two decades the Chicago Bulls great has been the Michael Jordan of front office executives, exceptional by virtue of being the only Black majority team owner in America’s big four sports leagues. A divestment may leave him better off, but a larger movement toward diversity, inclusion and fair play will be poorer in the end.

All of which is to say: this isn’t a case of one bored rich guy selling to another who’s never known the thrill of victory. This is for higher stakes. There’s so much to consider – from what it means for North Carolina’s most prominent professional franchise to lose its favorite son as a steward, to whether the Hornets even have much more room to grow while stuck in the NBA’s eighth-smallest media market.

Related: Why are there so few Black team owners in US professional sports?

Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd, however, could only reach the lowest hanging fruit – the team’s record under the greatest player to ever lace ‘em up. (Note: born and raised Chicagoan here.)

“He tried baseball, he failed,” Cowherd fumed last week. “He tried ownership, he was awful. He tried the Wizards, it bombed. Everybody understands that, take Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson, this whole Michael Jordan mythology is just that.” And this is coming from someone who professes respect for Jordan’s singular air. Imagine what MJ’s real haters must think.

In their defense, there’s certainly no arguing with the scoreboard. Since Jordan bought a stake in the Hornets in 2006, Charlotte have posted a winning record just four times in 17 tries. That’s including this season, which finds Charlotte racing to the bottom in hopes of winning the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes.

Worse, the best player of his generation has demonstrated a weak eye for talent – reaching to draft shaggy Gonzaga star Adam Morrison, splurging on a new deal for underachieving center Emeka Okafor, blowing up one rebuild after another, never hitting on a coach or general manager anywhere near as good as the odd couple he had in Chicago.

The close friendship between Jordan and Charles Barkley was destroyed when the TNT analyst castigated Jordan for insulating himself with yes-men. “He called me and the last thing I heard was, ‘Motherfucker, fuck you. You’re supposed to be my boy,’” Barkley recalled in a recent guest appearance on the podcast All the Smoke. “I said, ‘Man, I gotta do my job.’ We haven’t spoken since that night.”

Given Jordan’s reputation as a serial competitor with a knack for refining slights real and imagined into fuel for conquest, you’d think the criticism – which was hardly exclusive to Barkley – would have launched the Hornets into rarefied air. Instead, they barely got off the ground.

But what about Jordan’s other achievements in Charlotte? Recall: when he bought into the team in 2006, they were called the Charlotte Bobcats – a vanity play by previous owner Bob Johnson, the BET co-founder who relaunched basketball in the Queen City after the original Hornets relocated to New Orleans in 2002. It was Jordan who restored the team’s brand and clawed back its heritage from the New Orleans Pelicans, effectively undoing what had been a messy divorce from the city.

Jordan called the un-branding “an historic day” – and he wasn’t kidding. Ask any Carolina hoops nut: That smirking Hornets logo – and the visions it conjures of Larry Johnson streaking through the air, of Alonzo Mourning bulling his way through the paint, and of Muggsy Bogues confounding defenses off the dribble – belongs nowhere else.

Those yes-men? A fair few were people of color and women, far more than could be found in other front offices when Jordan took over. Those misses on court? No doubt, Jordan’s touch was dulled by his distance from the game. But it’s hard to crush the guy for not trying when he hired Larry Brown, brought back all-time wins leader Paul Silas and made San Antonio assistant James Borrego the NBA’s first Latino head coach. What’s more, there’s no question Jordan’s Hornets have turned a corner since bringing on former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak, who has built a promising young roster around Miles Bridges and LaMelo Ball.

This sale? Isn’t the point of investing was to make money? When Jordan consolidated his purchase of the Charlotte franchise for $275m in 2010, it seemed as if he had more money than sense – but only just. Back then Forbes estimated Jordan was worth $550m, a pile that included all the money he made from Nike – a company, a forthcoming feature film reminds us, that was going nowhere before he set foot in that first pair of Airs. That failed comeback with the Wizards that Cowherd referred to began with Jordan being invited aboard as part-owner of that team and the NHL’s Capitals, which bolstered his portfolio.

More to the point: Jordan got in early. He parlayed the wealth he accumulated on the court into a proper ownership share at a time when player salaries were relatively modest and most owners had made their ransoms in real estate. He bridged the gap between the owners and players, helping the former appreciate the latter’s reasons for walking off the job during the 2020 playoffs after the police shooting of Jacob Blake.

In the age of billionaire venture capitalists and tech moguls, it’s tough to see LeBron James or another high-earning NBA star pulling off as spectacular an upward move. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer changed NBA math forever with his $2bn acquisition of the LA Clippers.

And while it’s true that bought a halfway decent team in a top media market, it was also almost a decade ago. Since then, the Houston Rockets sold for $2.2bn, the Brooklyn Nets for $3.2bn and the Phoenix Suns just went for a record $4bn. Given those prices and the NBA’s global expansion, the Hornets’ true value could be a lot higher than the $1.6bn figure that has been thrown about

There are some who will always see Jordan as a failure for anything he does outside the Bulls, whether he’s playing baseball or working as a Nascar owner. (And with Jordan seemingly looking to get out of NBA so soon after getting into stock car racing, it’s hard not to be reminded of that famous Junior Johnson quote about how to make a small fortune in motor sports: “Start with a big one.”)

But the fact is that even Jordan’s disappointing tenure as Hornets owner is a staggering success. By standing apart for so long, he gave other athletes turned executives another reason to be like Mike. It’s just a shame it’s him who wants to sell and not, say, New York’s James Dolan. It’s hard to imagine the NBA without Jordan as a final boss. Whoever follows him will have big shoes to fill. The Michael Jordan of shoe-filling, no doubt.