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There was a time, back when Michael Jordan could fly, when he dealt with the rare opponent who had the audacity to criticize him by simply administering a basketball beatdown. You want to talk trash, young fella? Come on out here and guard me. He would drop 50 points on the poor soul, and the rest of the NBA learned the lesson anew: To speak ill of Jordan was to invite humiliation.
But at 48, with his Bulls jersey long ago hung in the rafters for good, Jordan can't silence the impudent the way he once did. As principal owner of the Bobcats—and as one of the owners apparently most determined to shrink the players' share of league revenue from 57% to no more than 50% in this interminable NBA lockout—he has found that today's players, many of whom hung his posters on their bedroom walls as children or saved up their allowances to buy Air Jordans, are willing to speak up against him without fear of reprisal. Jordan may still be an icon, but he intimidates no one anymore.
When it was reported that he was one of the strongest voices urging commissioner David Stern and the other owners to hold out for even more concessions from players than the givebacks union leaders seemed amenable to, some of the NBA's rank and file tore into Jordan, verbally, the way he once attacked defenders on the court. They accused him of turning on his own, remembering that he had been one of the most strident voices in labor negotiations when he was a player, arguing exactly the opposite of what he is calling for now. His words during the 1998 lockout to Abe Pollin, owner of the Wizards at the time, are now being thrown back at him. "If you can't make a profit," he told Pollin then, "you should sell your team."
As if to emphasize to Jordan that he is in a whole new world, most of the criticism has arrived via Twitter, a medium that didn't exist when he ruled the courts. Stephon Marbury took time out of his retirement to tweet a series of anti-Jordan rants. "Micheal [sic] Fake Jordan is a sell out," he tweeted. Several active players followed suit. "Straight hypocrite," Pacers forward Paul George wrote. Warriors rookie guard Klay Thompson added, "You think the 1996 MJ would pull this?" Perhaps most ominously, Washington guard Nick Young suggested Jordan's stance might have repercussions on the Jordan Brand, the arm of Nike he operates. "im not wearin jordans no more," Young tweeted. "can't believe what I just seen and heard from MJ. #ElvisDoneLeftTheBuilding."
Jordan not only can't take these young, relatively unaccomplished players (and the often-bizarre Marbury) to the hoop for a lesson in humility, he can't even respond publicly while commissioner Stern's gag order on the owners is in effect. He can only absorb the blows, the way he has for much of his post-playing career. The statue outside the United Center in Chicago that captures him forever in his prime will never change, but in retirement the real man has seen the perception of his perfection steadily erode.
First, he didn't seem fully engaged as president of basketball operations for the Wizards; there were times he seemed to be running the team from the golf course. Then his decision to take center Kwame Brown with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2001 draft turned out to be a disaster, and Jordan was eventually relieved of his duties with Washington having gone 110--179 during his tenure as a player and executive. Even his induction into the Hall of Fame in 2009 took a negative turn when he delivered a graceless speech in which he aimed caustic zingers at everyone who had slighted him, in a real or imagined way, all the way back to his high school days.
Uninterested, incompetent, ungracious and now disloyal—they are hardly descriptions befitting a legend. But Jordan doesn't seem deserving of that last one in the flap over his role in the lockout. He is a small-market owner who sees a chance to reshape the market to his benefit, financially and competitively, and it's hard to blame him for trying to take advantage of it. "The criticism he's been getting is unfair," says his friend, TNT analyst Charles Barkley. "He's got a dog in this fight." When Jordan fights, he does not settle for half measures.
If Jordan is being a hawk on the labor front, it's because he wants to have a real chance to be a moneymaking, championship-winning owner. (The Bobcats, who have one winning season in their seven-year history, reportedly lost $20 million in 2010--11.) The idea that he would be sympathetic to the union because he was once a member of it is as unrealistic as expecting him to go easy against the Bulls after he became a Wizard. Some may call what he's doing flip-flopping, but really, it's just Jordan being more Jordan-like than we have seen in years.
Anyone who is surprised by his position as an owner isn't familiar enough with his work. (Or with the NBA's labor history: In 1995 and 1999 the union, with Jordan as a prominent member, agreed to CBAs that gave players roughly a 48% share of the NBA pie—less than he's supposedly lobbying Stern to give them now.) The Jordan pushing for a hard-line stance is the ruthless Jordan we have always seen in competition—wanting not just to win, but to leave Nike tread marks on the opponent's windpipe. The only difference is that he's playing for a new team.