OPINION: What Made Michael Jordan a Great Player Makes Him a Bad Owner
Was there ever a more perfect ending than Michael Jordan’s final shot for the Chicago Bulls in 1998 against the Utah Jazz — the dagger as he sealed the deal on a second three-peat for the Bulls, posing after letting the ball go while it dropped ever so perfectly through the net? If ever there was a Hollywood ending, that was it, as the hero rode off into the sunset … sort of.
In mid-March, word surfaced that Jordan is looking to sell his majority stake in the Charlotte Hornets, a team he initially joined as a co-owner and head of basketball operations in 2006 and became the majority owner in 2010. The buyers are speculated to be a group led by Hornets minority owner Gabe Plotkin and Atlanta Hawks minority owner Rick Schnall.
Since he bought the team, which at the time was called the Bobcats, they have made the playoffs only three times and lost in the first round each of those times. Their highest finish was during the 2015-16 season, when they came in sixth in the Eastern Conference. That also marked the only year they have won a single playoff game since Jordan owned the team.
It’s a far cry from his record with the Bulls, where he made the playoffs every season he played. On the court, Jordan was known for his fierceness and desire to win at all costs — someone who wouldn’t back down from a challenge. In the front office, not so much.
What happened to Jordan’s fire as an owner? His drive to win? Did he get complacent? To understand Michael Jordan, the owner, I think you first have to understand Michael Jordan, the player. As a former Chicago sportswriter who covered the legend in his prime only to later move to Charlotte and witness what appears to be the tail end of his career as an owner, I feel I can offer some insight into the two Micahel Jordans I’ve observed over his time in both roles.
When Jordan was a sophomore at Emsley A. Laney High School in Wilmington, he failed to make the varsity team. It’s a well-known part of Jordan’s legend at this point; not seeing his name on the roster drove him to work harder and push himself beyond exhaustion. It worked, as he was recruited by the legendary Dean Smith, coach at the University of North Carolina.
During his freshman season in Chapel Hill, Sports Illustrated ran a cover featuring the Tar Heels on the college basketball preview issue, spotlighting Smith and four of Jordan’s teammates. Smith would not allow a freshman who had yet to play his first game appear on the cover. Coach Smith was a beloved figure to Jordan, but he didn’t forget that slight.
In his first season in the NBA, Jordan made the All-Star team, but he was frozen out by some veterans, including Isiah Thomas, who thought the rookie was too flashy and needed to be taken down a peg. Jordan finished with just seven points that game, but once again, he never forgot. He paid Thomas back by making sure he wasn’t on the roster of the U.S. Olympic “Dream Team” several years later, as documented in the 2020 Netflix docuseries The Last Dance.
If there’s one aspect of Mihael Jordan’s personality that defines him better than any other, it’s that he hated to lose. There are stories he once cheated in a card game against his college teammate Buzz Peterson’s mother.
He was a notoriously fervent trainer, practicing just as hard as he played in games. Jordan one time accused his then-coach Doug Collins of purposely mistaking the score in the scrimmage, which so angered him that he stalked out of the gym.
In a Los Angeles Times article that followed the incident, Jordan explained: “People may think this to be so trivial, but when you’re a competitor and want to win, nothing is trivial. I always keep score in everything — scrimmages, games, whatever — and I know the score was 4-4. Doug said it was 4-3, my team losing. I know after a long, tough practice, the losing team has to run. I felt like he was stacking the odds against me on purpose. If he wants me to run, fine. Stop practice, and I’ll run all he wants. But why kill myself in a scrimmage and make me run?”
Jordan had similar situations in his rookie season with the Bulls when coach Kevin Loughery would switch Jordan off the squad he was leading to victory and put him on the losing team. He protested then too, but instead of walking out, he did the one thing he knew how to do; he turned his anger into motivation to lead that team to victory.
Despite being a great player, Jordan’s Bulls teams continually fell short in his early years, especially to hated rivals the Detroit Pistons. In 1989, Collins was let go and assistant Phil Jackson took his place. Known as the “Zen Master,” Jackson talked to Jordan about trusting his teammates and sharing the ball more with them. They utilized the triangle offense, which was built to involve all five players on the floor, as Jordan had been used to dominating the ball in crunch time.
Once he adapted Jackson’s philosophy, the Bulls knocked off the Pistons and went on to win their first title in 1991. Two more followed, making for Jordan’s first three-peat. After a short-lived retirement in which Jordan pursued baseball following the murder of his father, he returned in 1995 and led the Bulls to another three-peat from 1996-98.
Jordan even conceived made up put-downs to motivate him. When a role player with the Washington Bullets named LaBradford Smith scored 37 points in a game against him, Jordan said Smith came up to him after the game and said, “Nice game, Mike.” They had a rematch a few days later and Jordan was determined to match his scoring output by halftime. He almost succeeded, scoring 36 and ending up with 47 as he did everything he could to show him up. Jordan later revealed that Smith never said those words to him.
In 2009, Jordan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He treated the induction ceremony as his version of Festivus from Seinfeld — a time to air all of his grievances. He mentioned being cut from his high school team and even flew in his former teammate, the one who beat him out to make the varsity team, to watch the festivities.
Jerry Krause, the GM Jordan played under, was famous for the phrase, “Organizations win championships.” During his induction speech, Jordan made sure to note that organizations put teams together but the players win the championships.
As a player, Jordan had few peers, if any. He was one of the most famous people on the planet when he played for the Bulls. His skills allowed him to excel at whatever he wanted to do in the game of basketball. He was supremely talented, had instincts you can’t teach, and was a killer on the court.
So what happened to Jordan the owner?
When you’re a great player, it’s hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes because they can’t give you what you expect from them — something that came so easily for you. That’s why the best coaches were rarely the best players. Basketball came naturally to Jordan. As an owner, however, he was placed on an even playing field — no longer dominant like he was on the court. He couldn’t overwhelm people with his talent.
Jordan’s former best friend, Charles Barkley, once said Mike liked to keep people around who wouldn’t tell him no. In fact, their friendship ended after Barkley criticized how Jordan ran the Hornets.
Under Jordan’s ownership, the Hornets kept spending down, never getting into the luxury tax. He did a terrible job drafting players for the team, and neither his celebrity nor legendary on-court status has helped bring high-end free agents to Charlotte. When Jordan hired former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak in 2018, he gave him full control of the day-to-day operation of the team.
The drafting has improved since then, but the Hornets are still wallowing in mediocrity, which would almost be a compliment. They struck gold with LaMelo Ball in 2020, but he’s had injury issues and the team currently owns the fourth worst record in the league.
What’s surprising is Jordan’s timing in wanting to sell the team now. Forbes in 2022 said the Hornets were worth $1.7 billion. There is a transcendent player in this year’s NBA Draft named Victor Wembanyama who has the potential to completely change the future (and the value) of the franchise. It would make sense to wait until that happens before dipping any pen in the ink.
If he sells now, he may be leaving money on the table, another missed opportunity by Jordan the owner.
Michael Jordan excelled as a player because he utilized slights — real or imagined — to his advantage. As the boss, he didn’t welcome anyone challenging him. Instead of bringing in voices with different opinions, he surrounded himself with people he knew when what he needed was to hear the word no, or maybe even be told he wasn’t good enough. After all, that’s what made him the player he was.
Michael Jordan the player would have never let his team become what the Hornets are today. It would appear his fire and desire are flaming out.
When he walks away from Charlotte, there won’t be a moment frozen in time. When the screen fades to black, we will be left with the disappointment that a great player could not come close to reaching the same level as an owner.
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.