Michael Jordan’s drive and immense physical talent made him an NBA superstar. His stardom and shrewdness helped him make millions in business.
His latest venture will test his talents and skills like no other.
NBA commissioner David Stern said Saturday he expects Jordan to be approved as majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats by the end of next month. Minutes before his exclusive negotiating window expired late Friday night, Jordan struck a deal with owner Bob Johnson to take over the money-losing team in his home state.
It puts the biggest basketball star of his generation in charge of a 6-year-old team that’s never made the playoffs, has struggled to win over fans and has more than $150 million in debt.
Can Jordan’s streak of business success continue?
“If he’s going to be an absentee owner, just like Bob was, it’s not going to work,” said Felix Sabates, a NASCAR team owner who also holds a minority stake in the Bobcats. “I think if Michael makes a commitment and shows dedication, he can be very successful. He’s a big icon in this part of the country.”
An icon that has been rarely seen. He’s been a part-owner of the Bobcats with the final say on all basketball decisions since 2006. But Jordan has kept a low profile, rarely attending practices or games, taking no role in marketing and leaving the day-to-day operations to a team of assistants.
But former Houston Rockets executive George Postolos, who had an ownership group together to buy the team before Jordan swooped in at the last minute, thinks the deal shows Jordan really wanted the team.
“It’s a very substantial part of his net worth,” Postolos said. “He’s very, very committed.”
Jordan remained silent on Saturday. Details of his ownership group — called MJ Basketball Holdings LLC — weren’t available. Sabates said he won’t be part of Jordan’s ownership group, and believes Jordan is buying 100 percent of the team.
Johnson, the first black majority owner of a major professional sports team, has also declined comment after coming close to ridding himself of a venture that cost him a fortune.
“Whatever the number is, Bob is taking a huge financial loss,” Sabates said. “He tried hard. He just made some stupid mistakes. Bob has a bit of an attitude problem that some people owe him. Nobody owes anybody anything.”
Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, paid $300 million for the expansion team, which replaced the New Orleans-bound Hornets in this town and began play in 2004-05. Johnson, who maintained his residence in Washington, had several missteps, from a failed venture to start a regional sports network, pricing tickets too high, clashing with business leaders and struggling to win over fans soured by the Hornets’ ugly exit.
While the Bobcats lost on the floor, Johnson was losing tens of millions of dollars each year despite a new arena funded by taxpayers. The losses mounted as he increased the player payroll after his successful effort to recruit Jordan, who bought a small stake in the team and was given control of personnel moves.
Just like his stint running the Washington Wizards and his decision to draft Kwame Brown No. 1 overall in 2001, Jordan quickly had a gaffe in Charlotte when he selected the disappointing Adam Morrison with the third pick in the 2006 draft.
While Jordan was eventually fired in Washington, he’s been praised for some recent moves in Charlotte, most notably persuading fellow Hall of Famer Larry Brown to take over as coach before last season. They’ve paired up to complete seven trades involving 21 players since the start of last season, and the Bobcats (28-29) are in playoff contention in the Eastern Conference.
“Everybody wanted to see him involved and I can’t imagine the NBA not having Michael Jordan involved,” Brown said Saturday while watching the North Carolina-Wake Forest game. “He’s been great for us to work with, he lets us do our job and he’s the best. So thankfully, he’s back.”
Bobcats guard Stephen Jackson echoed his coach. Jackson, acquired from Golden State in November, has been one of Jordan’s best pickups.
“I think it’s great, an opportunity for me to continue to play for a guy who I’ve looked up to my whole career, the best to ever play the game,” he said Saturday night. “I think he’s going to get this team, the right guys on the court, and go in the right direction to be a consistent team in the playoffs.”
Jordan will become the second black majority owner for this franchise in a state where he’s adored. He grew up in Wilmington and hit a last-second shot to give North Carolina the 1982 national championship.
“We have been anticipating an agreement for transfer of a majority interest in the Bobcats and are pleased it has occurred,” Stern said in a statement. “Bob Johnson brought the excitement of the NBA back to Charlotte and I am certain that as Michael Jordan returns to his home state as the principal owner of the Bobcats the team will continue its growth as a success on the court, as a business success and as a valued community asset.”
Sabates said making Charlotte his home is key to making it work for Jordan. If he doesn’t, his streak of business success may end.
“If Michael doesn’t do that, he’s wasted a lot of money,” Sabates said. “But Michael is pretty smart and Michael’s got some pretty good advisers. He didn’t get to where he’s at by being dumb.
“This is the biggest investment of his life. He can have 19,000 people at every game. It’s up to him.”