- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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ON APRIL 26, the final minutes of the Charlotte Bobcats' 2011-12 season ticked away. The crowd was dispersed throughout the Time Warner Cable Arena -- the official attendance of 16,023 being an actual attendance of about half that number. All of them were there to witness history. The 104-84 loss to the Knicks was just moments from going into the books, officially making the Bobcats and their .106 winning percentage the worst team in the 65-year history of the NBA.
That's when an image of the Bobcats owner flashed onto the massive HD screens over center court. Michael Jordan wasn't in his customary spot at the end of the Bobcats' bench. He was ensconced -- a cynic might say hiding -- in his private box high above the floor. But the scoreboard operator hadn't gotten the memo, and as Jordan's face appeared on the screen, what had once seemed all but inconceivable happened. From somewhere in the sparsely populated upper deck came a short but strong burst of ... boos.
"Did you hear that?" Knicks point guard Baron Davis asked his teammates, most benched for the night, resting for the playoffs. Davis had played in Charlotte when the Hornets ruled the city, before an ugly divorce between team and town. "Do you think that's ever happened to MJ at his home court? There's no way, right?"
This is the new reality for Michael Jordan -- in which a man who as a player is still regarded as the GOAT is forced to hear whispers that he's a goat as an NBA executive; in which the likes of the underachieving Kwame Browns and Adam Morrisons now threaten to obscure the images of the vanquished Craig Ehlos and Bryon Russells. As a player, Jordan orchestrated the greatest season in NBA history. As an executive, he now owns the worst.
"Obviously, I'm a competitor," Jordan said this summer when asked about the Bobcats' 7–59 season. "I never want to be in the record books for failure."
But he is. And what's more, to get off this already unlikely path, there comes word that Jordan has taken the most unexpected turn of all during the past year: In order to win basketball games, Michael Jordan has removed himself from the equation. He's promised his front office staff that he'll let them do their jobs without his shadow looming over their war-room marker boards. More unlikely still, he's handed over the reins of the Bobcats to a next-generation GM, armed with high-level metrics, to do for Charlotte what he helped do for Oklahoma City -- and in doing so, salvage Jordan's flagging basketball reputation.
Michael Jordan, whose claim to ownership stems almost solely from his inability to admit defeat as a player, has, if only by his actions, admitted defeat as president. The dinosaur is making himself extinct.
THIS IS NOT how Jordan envisioned life as an NBA owner when he bought the 6-year-old Bobcats from cable-TV magnate Bob Johnson in 2010. The six-
time NBA champion promoted himself from president of basketball operations to majority owner, assuming control of the $175 million franchise by putting in his own cash to cover operating losses. Unlike his experience as a front office man in Washington, he now had to answer to no one.
In both of those front office roles, Jordan at first was a constant contradiction, with ultraselective public appearances and a front office omnipresence that came and went in streaks. Both strategies became increasingly ineffective. He was criticized by fans, and most recently former head coach Sam Vincent, for not being around as much as they would like. He would swoop in each spring, largely inspired by what he had seen during the NCAA tournament, and reset the personnel chess pieces that his staff had spent all year, not just March, positioning for the NBA draft. His plotting was ultimately executed -- many use the word "endured" -- by then-general manager and former Bulls teammate Rod Higgins and then-head coach and fellow UNC alum Larry Brown. Attendance was solid, thanks to a handful of not-great-but-nonetheless-beloved franchise anchors in floor-diving Gerald Wallace and fellow UNC alum Raymond Felton; the scrappy squad had just squeezed into the playoffs for the first time. But erosion had started beneath the hardwood.
"It's a tough spot," says Brown, now head coach at SMU. "Are you going to stay ninth in the Eastern Conference and over the salary cap? Because once you're there, it's a hard place to climb out of. You can live with that, or you can blow it up and start over. Option B is dangerous. The long-term payoff might work, but the hole is going to be a lot deeper."
That's the route the Bobcats and Jordan apparently chose in 2011. To get good, they would suck. The core of their 2010 playoff team was shipped away amid the howling of fans to create room under the cap -- like $21 million of room. Gone within a year were Brown and his successor, Paul Silas, a pair of aging league stalwarts replaced by roll-of-the-dice hire Mike
Dunlap, a 55-year-old rookie NBA coach. Higgins was promoted to Jordan's old position, president of basketball operations, working alongside his replacement, Rich Cho.
"Every single one of those moves is evidence that Michael is serious about getting out of the way," a rival Eastern Conference GM says. "They are now going to succeed or fail with Rich. And I can guarantee you that Michael has made sure that Rich knows that."
That same executive describes the 47-year-old Cho as a "Moneyball kind of guy," respected around the league for his involvement in the construction of the rosters of both Portland and Oklahoma City. According to Cho, when he left his job as the Trail Blazers GM to come to Charlotte 15 months ago, his marching orders from Jordan were simple and specific -- build through the draft and get free agents to complement the youngsters and put them over the top. The old Jordan, by his own admission, believed that if he cleared enough cap space, he could personally lure the likes of Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. But as he learned last year, even "MJ" appearing on their caller IDs wasn't enough to offset the lure of LA.
"In today's world of restricted free agency, that's much tougher to do than it used to be," says Cho, who's already earned praise from around the league for a draft-eve trade that brought in Ben Gordon and, more important, a protected 2013 first-round pick. "It's a system where a team that has a player isn't going to lose that player easily. That limits the shopping list. A young guy isn't going anywhere because a team is willing to spend on potential. So we have to find potential."
Which makes sense. But how exactly did Jordan come to see the truth in it? According to Cho, Jordan's buy-in goes back to Cho's first job interview, in which the former Boeing engineer-turned-law student-turned-NBA exec openly questioned the Bobcats' antiquated scouting methods. Cho said the
team needed a bigger scouting staff and new software. Jordan, swayed, hired both Cho and that expanded staff, handing them a six-figure budget to create a proprietary Internet-fueled database. Now Cho's phone can instantly dig up and stack scouting reports, news stories and contract details on every professional and college player on the planet. A bit more sophisticated than an MJ March hunch.
The difference in the approach is already evident. In June 2011, with Cho recently arrived and not yet calling the shots, Charlotte drafted Kemba Walker with the overall ninth pick. It was a classic Jordan choice: a guy he'd watched get hot and lead his team to an NCAA title. In other words, he saw himself. One year later, the Bobcats selected Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Anthony Davis consolation prize. Praised by Kentucky head coach John Calipari as "the hardest-working member of our national championship team," Kidd-Gilchrist is viewed internally as Cho's kind of guy.
"Character has a lot to do with where we want to go," the GM explains. "You need to understand what it will take to get there and the work that has to be put in to make it happen."
Enter Dunlap, the longtime assistant whose previous head-coaching jobs were with D3 Cal Lutheran, D2 Metro State and the Adelaide 36ers of the Australian National Basketball League. The Bobcats' preseason roster carries a dozen players with five or fewer years of NBA experience. When Jordan sent out word that he was looking for a "teacher" to help the kids grasp fundamentals, it was fellow UNC alum George Karl who first suggested Dunlap.
"It's no secret that we're young, and we have to be honest about that," says Dunlap, who stepped in to run the St. John's program last season while head coach Steve Lavin battled prostate cancer. "We have to say that sometimes we're going to fall down and skin our knees, and we're going to run into some walls. It's an inch-by-inch process. It doesn't happen overnight."
NO ONE KNOWS that better than the owner, no matter how difficult that truth has been to swallow. He finally seems to have experienced the same epiphany that eventually came to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird -- that the same "I'll outwork you" skills that shattered opponents on the hardwood don't have the same effect at a mahogany desk. There are people who were born to build teams, just as there are people who were born to sink clutch threes. The key is for people to know which group they belong to -- and then to get the hell out of the other group's way.
According to his employees, Jordan has been sticking to his new plan, stepping away from the draft board and into the boardroom. Jordan, for his part, declined to be interviewed for this story, citing a summer schedule packed with "face of the city" obligations before and during the Democratic National Convention, held at the Bobcats' arena. That's just one part of finally taking on the burden of repairing bridges with the city long ago napalmed by Bob Johnson, who laid off his community relations staff to save cash, and former Hornets owner George Shinn, who relocated the team to New Orleans while keeping his middle finger fully extended.
"There was an atmosphere that existed in this city that we want to re-create," Jordan said at a recent appearance for his newly launched Cats Care charity initiative. "We'd come in here with the Bulls, and this place was rocking. That passion is still in this city. That connection can come back. We just have to make that connection from our end."
Then a listener suggested to the legend that handshakes were great, but winning was the quickest way to rebuild that bridge. Jordan smiled and nodded. "You're right. Trust me, I'm ... we are working on it."
In ESPN The Magazine, Ryan McGee writes that the greatest NBA player of all time is also the owner of the worst NBA team of all time. So after his most humiliating season ever, Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan is rethinking his management style.