CHARLOTTE – What’s it like to play for Michael Jordan? Charlotte Hornets forward Marvin Williams calls it the million-dollar question.
Friends, family, reporters, strangers all want to know. After all, the team owner is a Hall of Famer, six-time NBA champion, five-time MVP, six-time Finals MVP and is considered one of, if not, the greatest to play basketball.
“It’s actually really cool. It’s not like people think,” Williams told USA TODAY Sports. “For the most part from what I hear, most people think it’s a lot tougher playing for him than it really is. He’s the total opposite.”
MJ, a softie? Let’s not go that far. Earlier this season, Jordan slapped Hornets guard Malik Monk on the back of the head after Monk prematurely ran on the court after a go-ahead basket by Jeremy Lamb and received a technical foul. Jordan called it a big brother-little brother tap. Still, video shows Jordan was unhappy with the technical.
The competitive fire that fueled Jordan as a player still burns bright.
“He just wants you to compete,” Williams said. “That’s not a lot to ask. If you compete, he’s going to live with the wins and the losses.”
With All-Star Weekend and the game Sunday in Charlotte, eyes are on the city, the team and Jordan, who spoke to a small group of Charlotte-based reporters Tuesday. He celebrates his 56th birthday Sunday.
“It is a constant reminder that I am getting old,” Jordan said. “The All-Star Game is always around my birthday … but it is a constant reminder that the game is evolving, I’m evolving as a person. It is the one time where I can bring everyone in and celebrate and enjoy the game of basketball all at the same time. I am looking forward to it.”
In his ninth season as owner, Jordan’s tenure is marked by off-court successes and on-court struggles.
Jordan is on the league’s competition and labor relations committee, and when the league negotiated its 2017 collective bargaining agreement, Jordan was instrumental in helping fund a new health insurance plan, increase in pension benefits and expanding education and career development programs for retired players.
Given his experience, Jordan is a go-to voice on the competition committee, and assisted Houston’s Chris Paul in creating the new All-Star Game format.
“You need someone who can connect the dots and oddly enough, ironically enough I was put in that position, being a player and then as an owner,” Jordan said. “I pull on both sides to try to communicate to both sides. Those are tough conversations to have because emotions get involved sometimes and even from my standpoint, sitting in those meetings, to have the ownership understand that this is what the players think. There’s a certain way you need to say it so that they understand it.
“And then on the players’ side, ‘Hey look, this is how the business operates, this is the goal, this is a piece of the pie that we need to understand, that we need to show and grow. Now you have a responsibility, and we have a responsibility.’ If you don’t have that kind of communication between the two parties you’re going to have a disconnect.”
Hornets eyeing playoffs
Jordan bought Charlotte for $275 million in 2010. The Hornets now are worth $1.25 billion, according to the Forbes team valuations released last week. The league’s TV deal and growing revenue aided team valuations, but Forbes reported the Hornets made $22 million last season.
Charlotte rebranded as the Hornets in 2014 after New Orleans ditched that nickname for the Pelicans. The Hornets began an aggressive season-ticket sales and merchandise push. They doubled season-ticket sales to 10,000-plus and have increased retail sales 300%, according to NBA data.
The team wears and sells gear by Jordan Brand, which also is Charlotte’s logo sponsor on jerseys.
One longtime NBA owner told USA TODAY Sports that Jordan is doing a great job, bringing a rare player perspective to ownership, especially when it comes to economics of the game.
The owner requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about Jordan’s ownership.
Success on the court has proven more difficult – just two winning seasons and two playoff appearances since Jordan bought the team. The Hornets are on their fifth coach. Larry Brown didn’t last a season under Jordan. Paul Silas didn’t coach two full seasons, and Mike Dunlap made it one season. Steve Clifford was fired after a five-season stint last April.
First-year coach James Borrego has the Hornets in seventh place in the Eastern Conference and poised to make the playoffs. They are 27-29 headed into Thursday’s game in Orlando.
“I knew him as a basketball player, but I didn’t know what he stood for as an owner, as a basketball mind,” Borrego said. “I saw him as the basketball player, the competitor. Growing up, he was the man.
“He said this early on when I interviewed. ‘I’m just here as a resource. I’m going to help you whatever area you need, but I’m here to fully support you. You do what’s best for this team.’ He’s held up that end. He’s been nothing but supportive, positive. He’s given added resources to our group this season.
Like any owner, he is hand’s on. But he’s not overbearing.
“We’re in constant communication,” Borrego said. “There’s real transparency there. He’s been in coaching meetings. He understands our philosophy. I try not to look at it through the lens of Michael Jordan the basketball player. I just see him as a partner trying to build this organization.
“He’ll ask, ‘What do you need from me?’ To me, that is leadership. He is leading our group and trusting and listening to what our group needs from him. He’s not telling me who to play, what to run. He says, ‘I trust you.’ That’s the best thing I can hear from any owner.”
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‘We still have a lot of work to do’
It is not easy to win consistently in the NBA and in a smaller market like Charlotte. It will take a sustained effort from ownership and the front office to create a situation like the one that exists in San Antonio or Oklahoma City. The Hornets need to draft well, keep their star free agents on good contracts (such as Kemba Walker this summer), trade smart and lure quality free agents. All while creating a culture that appeals to players.
“It’s still up to us to make this city proud about this team,” Jordan said. “We’re still committed to do that. … … We still have a lot of work to do in terms of making the fan base even more proud about playing in June. To me, that’s still major focus. Major.”
Losing frustrates Jordan, but he also enjoys owning the team. He is a regular presence at home games.
“The one thing about him, he is very much a giving person,” Williams said. “At Christmas, he throws us a big party and buys us gifts. I remember when I had my daughter, he had a nice congratulatory package for my family. He’s done that for other guys as well.”
Christmas presents for players have included drones and high-end wireless speakers.
“It’s great for the prestige especially guys like me who grew up watching him. It’s pretty cool,” Hornets guard Tony Parker said. “At the end of the day, you still have to go out there and perform and try to win games.”
Hornets rookie Miles Bridges was just a few months old when Jordan won his last title with the Bulls in 1998 and was 5 when Jordan played his final NBA game. He has no recollection of watching Jordan the player. But Bridges has done his homework.
“I watched a lot of his highlights in college,” Bridges said. “MJ, he’s the GOAT.”
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt