Jordan's legacy still being written
We'll always have the video montages -- grainy as they are now in our high-def world -- to remind us of Michael Jordan's greatness. The acrobatics. The big shots (Craig Ehlo and Bryon Russell still have sleepless nights). The moments (like too-sick-to-walk-but-healthy-enough-to-win and the wondrous shoulder shrug). The dunks. The tongue. The tears. Heck, we even have "Space Jam"!
And we'll always have Air.
The numbers won't change, either. Fourteen All-Star Game appearances. Eleven scoring championships. Five MVP awards. Six rings.
The best there ever was, at least from this seat.
That was just inside the lines. MJ also changed the industry's bottom line like no one before or since: The videos. The endorsements. The ratings. The tickets. The brand. And of course, Money, the shoes! In 1998, in a cover story for Fortune magazine called "The Jordan Effect," I and a team of journalists and economists calculated that he alone had generated $8 billion in revenue. And that was 14 years ago.
So Jordan's status as a player is secure. His claim to having the biggest financial impact on the basketball industry of anyone in the history of the game is etched in granite as well.
And his value as a brand icon remains as robust as ever.
Not so fast.
That's still being written. And frankly, the most recent chapters stink.
Two years ago to the week almost, MJ became the first former NBA player to own a controlling interest in a franchise when he and a group of investors acquired at least 15 percent of the Charlotte Bobcats from former owner Bob Johnson for at least $37.5 million. In a column back then, I called the purchase "historical." It placed Jordan right where he wanted to be once again -- with the ball in his hands -- and finished his unique transition from player to owner. Rare air indeed.
But as an owner, Jordan has been as much of a bust as many of his draft picks and trade decisions. His Bobcats are a lowly 55-88 on his wallet and have never won a playoff game. This season, they're an abysmal 5-31, as pathetic as his Chicago Bulls were dominant.
As has been well-chronicled, MJ's friend and peer Charles Barkley slammed him as an executive and owner recently, saying on ESPN Radio's "Waddle & Silvy" show that Jordan "has not done a great job, plain and simple." (And if you know Charles, that was tame; imagine what he said off the air.)
It's a tricky matter, this legacy thing, for any of us. As we make our journey through life, experiencing our highs and lows, for what will we be most remembered?
For athletes, it's usually easy. They generally cement their legacies with their skills, their performances. True greatness is rarely disputed, and, to borrow a phrase we hear a lot these days, numbers never lie.
How they lead their lives once the cheering stops should not affect their legacies, but it can. And sometimes does. For better and worse.
Do we think somewhat less now of, say, Lawrence Taylor, the NFL's most feared defensive player ever, after his ignominious 2010 arrest and subsequent plea to patronizing a prostitute and sexual misconduct, charges stemming from a sordid encounter involving a 16-year-old girl? Yeah.
What about former Mets outfielder Lenny Dykstra, whose slow but precipitous fall over the past few years culminated this week with a three-year jail sentence for grand theft auto and financial fraud? (He also faces a federal trial in June on 13 counts that could net him another 80 years.) Who even remembers "Nails" the baseball player?
Conversely, an athlete's legacy can be elevated by post-career successes in business, sports management or even charitable works. Magic Johnson's enterprising business savvy (his most recent deal: a new television network) has no doubt lifted his legacy above even his prodigious basketball feats; and that's above and beyond what he did to help us grow in our understanding of AIDS.
Post-career success has also added shine to the legacies of many other ex-athletes, including beef company (and MLB team) owner Nolan Ryan, mega-franchisee Junior Bridgeman (161 Wendy's and 121 Chili's), grillmaster George Foreman (you know you have one, or at least had one), and even documentary producer and historian Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- just to name a few.
Jordan, of course, isn't the first great athlete to stumble in a suit. Executive suites throughout sports are stained with the sweat of former athletes who couldn't make the transition from playing the game to playing the game. It's a major transition from performing with their bodies to assessing talent and making deals with men (and women) who aren't thwarted by a head fake, stutter step or physical prowess.
And yet those who successfully move from player to coach (Kevin McHale, Avery Johnson, Scott Brooks, Doc Rivers, Doug Collins, Rick Carlisle and a retired guy named Phil Jackson, for example), general manager (Otis Smith, Mitch Kupchak, Danny Ainge and others) and team president (Pat Riley and Larry Bird, among others) are no longer anomalies.
Jordan, alas, doesn't make that team. Not even close. He's been a decision-maker in some capacity for well more than a decade now and still hasn't eradicated the embarrassment of his first major draft selection as Washington Wizards president of basketball operations: teenager Kwame Brown, the No. 1 overall pick. That 2001 draft also bore future All-Stars Pau Gasol, Gilbert Arenas, Joe Johnson and Tony Parker. In fact, Jordan all but confirmed his ineptness by drafting Adam Morrison No. 3 overall in 2006, overlooking future stars Brandon Roy, Rudy Gay and Rajon Rondo, as a Bobcats minority shareholder and head of basketball operations.
As an owner, Jordan is still a relative neophyte. And that might be his only saving grace. He has time to figure it all out, and, well, he won't fire himself -- although he has actually done so, sort of. During the offseason, Jordan lured respected talent evaluator Richard Cho to Charlotte as the team's general manager. Cho had worked for Seattle and Portland, and was widely known for developing an effective model for assessing basketball talent.
Together, Jordan, Cho and former GM/now head of basketball operations Rod Higgins have actually embarked on a plan: eschew high-priced veterans, hoard draft picks, run with youngins -- and get damn lucky. Call it the Oklahoma City Thunder Plan.
The on-court results have not been pretty. And they won't be for a while. But the Cats could be in position to draft Kentucky's crazy-talented power forward Anthony Davis with the No. 1 pick this summer, should the 18-year-old wunderkind declare (wink, wink) for the draft.
Not even Jordan, the owner, can mess that one up.
In the meantime, I'll watch "Space Jam."
Roy S. Johnson is a veteran sports journalist and media consultant. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.
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