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The king is not dead, but he may be suffering a fate worse than a faltering pulse: fading marketability. According to a recent Harris Poll, Tiger Woods has replaced Michael Jordan as the nation's favorite athlete, ending His Airness's 13-year reign at the top. The news that Jordan had dropped to second place didn't exactly stop traffic on Main Street, but you can bet it drew notice on Madison Avenue. Is an era finally over? Has the shoe finally dropped?
For years Jordan the man was indistinguishable from Jordan the brand. But since his tenure as a Washington Wizards player-executive ended ugly in 2003, being like Mike has entailed a lot of golf, a fair amount of casino gambling--and, as far as the public was concerned, little else. Jordan's did not seem to be a life fully lived. Except for an occasional Hanes commercial or a trip to Vegas, the NBA's greatest player was largely invisible and drifting toward irrelevance in his retirement.
That all may have changed last week with the announcement that Jordan was buying back into the NBA as co-owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. Media magnate Bob Johnson, 60, still maintains a majority share of the team--the BET network founder, who is worth an estimated $1 billion, paid $300 million for the expansion franchise in 2002. But Jordan, 43, who reportedly invested between $10 million and $20 million in the franchise, assumes the verbose, and perhaps life-changing, title of "managing member of basketball operations." He will essentially serve as team president, with full authority over basketball decisions. And he will, in all likelihood, be playing a lot less golf.
For the past three years, Jordan has been eager to get back into the league in an ownership role, a cause that commissioner David Stern championed. At first glance the lowly Bobcats might seem an odd object for his affections. There is little glamour or poetry in the marriage: The Bobcats are not the Lakers, the Knicks or the Bulls. Charlotte went 44--120 in its first two seasons and has been a financial disappointment in what once was an NBA-friendly market. (The Hornets' scorched-earth defection to New Orleans in 2000 changed that.) The Bobcats ranked 22nd in the league in attendance last season, and, according to two league sources, the franchise lost money despite having the NBA's lowest payroll and newest arena.
Johnson, who tried to recruit Jordan as an original member of his ownership team, is clearly banking on Jordan's status as a hoops god and Carolina folk hero to turn things around. But the Bobcats can do as much for Jordan as he can do for them.
Jordan and Johnson are close friends--they met at a Chicago Bulls game 17 years ago--and Jordan trusts that Johnson will not exploit him as his last NBA partner did. After suffering the humiliation of being dismissed by Wizards owner Abe Pollin after a three-year run as a player and a team president in 2003, Jordan wanted his next involvement in the NBA to be as something more than an employee. But Jordan, who came close to buying into the Milwaukee Bucks in 2003, didn't want to invest huge sums of his own money, preferring to serve as front man for an investment group. That's exactly what he's doing with the Bobcats, who agreed to cede him a lot of influence for a relatively small sum of money. Space was freed up for Jordan in their front office when team president Ed Tapscott and his top two lieutenants resigned.
Still it remains to be seen if Jordan has addressed his weakness as a talent evaluator and executive. In three years with the Wizards--he unofficially maintained front-office control during his two seasons as a player--the team was 110--179. He hired coach Leonard Hamilton, who went 19--63 in his only season in charge before Jordan replaced him with Doug Collins, and Jordan used the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft on high school center Kwame Brown, a bust who was ultimately dealt to the Lakers last summer.
Jordan is not the type to take advice, but he may have looked around and learned a few things in the interim. He'll need every bit of his basketball smarts in Charlotte, where it seems there can be no quick fixes. The Bobcats have the No. 3 pick, but this year's draft is short on big-name talent. The team has $20 million in cap space, but the free-agent market is weak. As Jordan discovered in Washington, his reputation as a player won't help him assemble a winning team. And as happy as his fellow Carolinians will be to have him back home, he's not America's most beloved athlete, not the Golden Child anymore. The fans will still cheer for Michael Jordan, but only after he gives them something to cheer for.
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