His throne may be empty but he is here, there and everywhere. You can see him on the scorekeeper’s table, the Jumbotron and the shoes of the mortals whose soles squeak as they lift off. This is no longer Michael Jordan’s playground. It is his temple. Where those who still believe in his power congregate to watch his disciples in their struggle to carry on in his image. But this is also Jordan’s hell. His vacant courtside seat a reminder of his own struggles with humility.
The clock ticks down toward an unfamiliar end. It’s opening night in Charlotte and the worst team in the NBA last season—or any season—is moments away from their first victory after 23 straight losses. A lay-up has them in the lead, one point ahead of the Indiana Pacers. The crowd, more accustomed to abandoning the home team in the third quarter, is on its feet willing the Bobcats to hold on and do what the world outside this temple no longer thinks possible.
Children have been conceived, carried and birthed since the Bobcats last won. A middle-aged caddy in the fifth row across the wooden floor from Jordan’s seat attempts to put into words what is on everyone’s mind. “It’s been so long I forgot what this feels like—them lookin’ like winners. Michael should be here, but I doubt he’ll show. He doesn’t like to sit by the team anymore. It’s hard for him. Last year, he’d just sit there and yell. Now I guess he just yells from somewhere up there.”
He looks to the rafters of the Time Warner Cable Arena, wondering for a moment if he’ll glimpse the icon looking down. He doesn’t spot him. But he knows he’s there. Everyone does. Last time Jordan showed his face in this place, the fans booed it. “Nope, I don’t think you’re gonna see him,” the caddy says. “Even if they win, he isn’t comin’ down here. Not after last year.”
But that’s OK by the caddy. For he has seen his Airness out on the Carolina greens that surround this colonial town, seeking refuge from those who might bother him. He has watched Jordan pull up to the golf course in a charcoal Ferrari, puffing on a cigar and smiling at those who wish to touch or be near him while avoiding all who dare question or criticize what he has done to the Bobcats. Yes, the caddy understands. Jordan, for the first time in his life, must disappear to succeed.
Artists, the great ones anyway, challenge our perception of the world. They alter our reality and push us to see beauty in places we never thought to look. Pablo Picasso was a great artist. He flipped the canvas upside down and inspired a generation of imitators. And yet, he was a mediocre speller. But that didn’t matter because he never tried to reinvent himself as a writer.
Michael Jordan dominated his sport like no other athlete. The court was his easel, his body his brush. His singular determination, the product of an unchecked competitiveness that pushed him to unseen heights and changed the way we viewed the game of basketball. Then his aging knees failed him and he began the process of reinvention.
On this day in Charlotte, two buskers stand on a moonlit sidewalk. Dressed in overcoats, one croons into the night, beckoning passersby to venture closer and drop a quarter in a fedora while the other waits for the opportune moment to bow forward with an outstretched hand. “May I paint your portrait, sir?” These men are not artists—they are midnight entertainers working Charlotte’s downtown streets for money and just so happen to be working on Jordan’s doorstep. When they discover where they are, they look up seven storeys and question what might be the source of the twinkling light coming out of his penthouse. Probably a television. But what might Jordan be watching? Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous? Doubtful. Highlights from his career? Perhaps.
They’ve seen him on these streets before, wandering around like some average Joe. Each time they spot him they are wowed. “That’s Michael Jordan,” they say to themselves. “The greatest basketball player of all time.” It’s only when he’s out of sight that they think of him less for what he was and more for what he has become: the most inept NBA owner in history, steward of the 2011–12 Charlotte Bobcats, the team with the .106 winning percentage, the lowest ever. It’s hard to reconcile the contradiction. And so they compartmentalize the two images in their minds. There is Jordan: the basketball player who brought artistry to the game. The one who ate Big Macs, wore Hanes, sold Nikes and taught Bugs Bunny how to dunk. And then there’s Jordan: the Bobcats owner. The one who drafts prospects who don’t pan out, screams at his players and walks out of games because his team isn’t good enough to warrant his attention. One was a god and the other is a man. And yet they share the same traits. Neither was ever very humble (except in the commercials). Neither accepted limits and each surrounded himself with worshippers. The only difference between Jordan the god and Jordan the man is that one could fly and the other cannot.
There’s an old jingle that still resonates on pick-up courts from Chicago to Barcelona, Luanda to Belgrade and back. Written and recorded 20 years ago as part of an ad campaign, its message was more overt than subliminal. “Be like Mike. Drink Gatorade.” And though a lot of people forget that last bit, they remember the chorus: “I wanna be, I wanna be like Mike.” At the time it was written, Michael Jordan was bigger than Mickey Mouse. He was as recognizable as the Pope, but infinitely cooler. Everyone wanted to be like Mike because Mike was a winner. Mike was special. He had his own Saturday morning cartoon. He drank Coke and wore shoes you could buy for about $100. He could sell you things you didn’t know you wanted because Mike had earned your respect. He was just 21 years old in 1984 when he was drafted third overall by the Chicago Bulls, but he had already captured the North American consciousness when he led North Carolina to a national title in 1982—hitting the winning shot with 17 seconds on the clock. By the end of his rookie year, freighters full of shoes bearing his name and image were already crossing the Pacific. Ronald McDonald, Jack Nicholson, Michael Jackson and George H.W. Bush—they all wanted to see him and be seen with him. It wasn’t long before basketball’s greatest stars, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, recognized his power. It was a bewildered Bird who, shortly after watching Jordan score 63 points in a one-man show against the Boston Celtics, turned to the press and decreed, “I think it’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.” But that was only 1986, and Jordan wasn’t even at the top of his game yet.
By the time Jordan arrived in Barcelona as part of the 1992 Dream Team, he was a global phenomenon and a two-time NBA champion. That’s when a foreign journalist looked him up and down and asked the question on everyone’s mind. “Are you of this Earth?”
“Well,” Jordan replied, “I live in Chicago.”
Charmingly honest and yet a complete understatement. Jordan didn’t just live in Chicago. He ran it.
Before Jordan arrived, the Bulls were one of the worst franchises in the NBA. It took seven years for the team to win with Jordan on the court, and though his marketing team would have you believe he did it with a smile and his tongue hanging out, that’s not exactly true. Jordan’s early years in the NBA were marked by fits of arrogance and maniacal egotism. He wowed audiences but also found time to publicly patronize and criticize the team’s GM, Jerry Krause. And when the Bulls struggled in the playoffs, he belittled his teammates, referring to Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and others as “my supporting cast.” The Bulls became known colloquially as “Michael and the Jordanaires.”
Reports that Jordan was bullying his teammates began to circulate, especially after a 1991 book by a Chicago Tribune writer claimed Jordan once punched teammate Will Perdue and had long sought to embarrass Bill Cartwright by throwing hard-to-catch passes in his direction. But none of this seemed to damage Jordan’s image as a champion until it was added to the pile of evidence that pointed toward a possible gambling problem. Neither the media nor the North Carolina courts could overlook the fact that Jordan owed gambling money to a convicted cocaine dealer. Then he was spotted placing bets in an Atlantic City casino in the early morning hours of the same day that he and the Bulls were to meet the Knicks in game two of the 1993 Eastern Conference finals. Some questioned his work ethic, others his common sense.
That’s when Jordan’s father took the media aside and explained, in very simple terms: “My son doesn’t have a gambling problem. He has a competition problem.” And just like that, one of Jordan’s most negative traits was recast as his greatest virtue. He was just competing on an entirely different level than the average human. It’s what set him apart from everyone else. It’s what made him divine.
His father had come to his rescue, just as he always had. James Jordan was his son’s closest friend, confidante and trusted adviser. But there was no rescuing James Jordan when he was shot, point blank, while napping in his car at a North Carolina rest stop on a July day in 1993.
Soon after, an emotional Jordan announced his retirement. Six months later, he packed up his family and moved to Alabama. There, he put on a baseball uniform for the first time since high school, joined a minor league team and announced he was pursuing a career with the Chicago White Sox. It was, as he explained to the media, his father’s dream that he should become a baseball star. That he wasn’t actually good enough to play in the minors didn’t seem to matter because there were enough people out there who either believed that he could or were willing to close their eyes and let him try.
For 11 months he struggled to come to terms with his own mediocrity. There was no artistry to his game. Nothing special. Whatever made him the greatest basketball player ever was non-transferable to the baseball diamond. With the MLB Players Association on strike, Jordan’s .202 batting average and three home runs in the Southern League quickly fell under a spotlight. Sports Illustrated accused him of making a mockery of the game and advised him to seek out employment in something he was actually suited for. But there was no telling Jordan what to do. When he finally did give up on his baseball career, he blamed the strike for having stunted his development. Was it genuine delusion or a thinly veiled way to save face? Perhaps both.
He moved back into the 32,683-sq. ft. mansion he’d had custom-built on the outskirts of Chicago—the one with 15 bathrooms and a regulation-size basketball court. He announced his return to the Bulls with a two-word press release—“I’m back”—and soon followed it up by scoring 55 points on the Knicks. The Bulls unretired his jersey, but left the statue they’d erected in his honour outside the United Center. Everywhere across America, people wanted to see the older, wiser Jordan before he disappeared again. He dominated the court like never before, leading the Bulls to the best regular season record in NBA history and winning his fourth title on an emotional Father’s Day in 1996. He was 33, but still in his prime. He was victorious again in 1997 and once more in 1998, dropping the championship-winning shot on Utah with just 5.2 seconds left in game six. Then, almost as quickly as he had returned, he was gone.
The trouble with hubris is that it blinds us to danger. It led Icarus to fly; then it caused Icarus to fall. Michael Jordan didn’t understand the cost of his hubris even after the Bulls refused to grant him a top front-office job and a piece of ownership when he retired for the second time.
And though the Bulls were done with him, that didn’t mean the NBA was ready to give up on the potential revenue from placing a franchise in Jordan’s hands. Soon, Commissioner David Stern had owners from the Charlotte Hornets, Vancouver Grizzlies, Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards all courting Jordan as an executive. But only the Wizards, owned by 75-year-old Abe Pollin, were prepared to acquiesce to Jordan’s demands for joint ownership and control of basketball operations. He would become the adopted ruler of one of the worst teams in the NBA, although contractually he wouldn’t have to attend more than six Wizards games a season. He could run the team from his home in Chicago or from his cellphone while standing over the 17th hole of whatever golf course he chose. Because he was Michael Jordan and he could do anything.
In his first act as president, he fired the Wizards’ coach. In his second, he watched a game alongside Bill Clinton. Then he put on his old No. 23, got down on the court during practice and tried to show his players how the game was supposed to be played.
When the team only got worse, he set out in search of himself with the first pick in the 2001 draft, but found 19-year-old high schooler Kwame Brown instead. Then he shed 30 lb. of retirement fat, handed back his ownership stake in the Wizards, announced he was un-retiring and joined the team as a player.
But the Michael Jordan who returned in 2001 wasn’t the Michael Jordan who left in 1998. Tendinitis had taken over his right knee. Still, there was no way he was going to let anyone else become the central figure on the Wizards. Rising talents like Rip Hamilton, who challenged him for leadership of the team, quickly found themselves shipped out of town. And when Brown proved to be a dud, Jordan opted to ridicule him in front of his teammates, going so far as to reportedly call the teenaged prospect a “flaming f—-t” during practice.
A month into his second season with the Wizards, Jordan announced it would be his last in the NBA. Thus began what teammate Jerry Stackhouse called “the Michael Jordan farewell tour.” For five months his teammates endured his fits of anger as he played with diminishing skill. By the end of the season, Stackhouse couldn’t wait for him to retire. And when he and the rest of the Wizards were asked to pitch in on a parting gift, they said no. Jordan hung up his shorts, grabbed his tie and got ready to try his hand as an executive again. That’s when Pollin advised him to come up to his office for a morning meeting. “I don’t want you as a partner, Michael,” the old man told him. And just like that, Jordan was fired. He walked out of the building, climbed into his Mercedes convertible and sped out of sight. Hours later, he issued a statement. “I am shocked by this decision, and by the callous refusal to offer me any justification for it.”
Before the day was out, he was on the phone with Bob Johnson, a billionaire media mogul who was about to bring the NBA back to Jordan’s home state. As Johnson later told reporters: “I want him to be involved. He can play any role he wants to play.”
There’s a commemorative plaque on the sidewalk outside Michael Jordan’s $3.15-million Charlotte condo. It marks the place from which, on a September day in 1780, the great Charles Cornwallis directed an inconsequential battle to win and hold the city of Charlotte. And yet it makes no mention of the British general’s most famous quote from the day, which he uttered to a lieutenant as he rode into a crossfire. “You have everything to lose, but nothing to gain.”
It took three years for Johnson to convince Jordan to come to the Bobcats. In the meantime, his life in Chicago had soured. His 17-year marriage was on the brink, the partial result of his admitted infidelity with a former mistress who was trying to sue him for $5 million.
Publicly, he remained Air Jordan and chairman of his own brand, which still netted him an estimated $50 million a year. But his experience in Washington had left him bitter. He said he’d been used by Pollin and showed no sign of atonement for any of what had led to his demise within the organization. The deal that finally brought him back to the game with the Bobcats was similar to the one that first landed him in Washington. He would be given a minority stake and named managing member of basketball operations. But he would not have to move to Charlotte or attend more games than he saw fit.
In his first three years with the team, he acted just as he had in Washington. He appointed old friends and teammates to high-ranking positions, including Rod Higgins, who had been with him in Chicago and Washington. He skipped quarterly owners’ meetings and regularly hung up midway through conference calls. He fired coach after coach and set out, year after year, as his close friend Charles Barkley attests, looking for a future Michael Jordan in the draft pool. And yet he continued to select duds like Adam Morrison, a small forward from Gonzaga University who became more famous for his moustache than his play during the four years he spent in the NBA before being exiled to the basketball courts of Serbia.
When his draft choices failed to pan out, he blamed the players for having let him down. And he struggled to hear the advice of the few friends willing to criticize him. “You have to own that mistake,” Barkley says he told him. “You can’t blame the player because he sucks.”
With the Bobcats floundering under his leadership, he took to the podium of the Basketball Hall of Fame and, in a 23-minute speech short on the customary graciousness, reminded those gathered in his honour of just how great he once was. And when the applause began to slow he informed them that neither age nor failure would ever stop him from being Michael Jordan. “One day you might look up and see me playing the game at 50. Don’t laugh. Never say never because limits, like fears, are often just an illusion.”
Back in Charlotte, he put on sweats, went down to the court and started undermining his coaches’ authority. When the team snuck into the 2009–10 playoffs, he took a seat next to the bench so that he could be close to the action. And when they were swept in the first round, he decided to blow apart the roster and start over from scratch.
At the end of 2010, Bob Johnson decided to put the team up for sale. Jordan was staring at the prospect of a regime change that could have resulted in his ouster, so he reached deep into his own pockets, bought 80 percent of the Bobcats for himself and assumed personal responsibility for an estimated $20 million in annual losses.
His Jumpman symbol, stenciled onto the side of the Bobcats’ arena, was matched in size only by the team’s own logo. Michael and the Jordanaires were back—sort of. There was Jordan behind the team bench, whispering directions into Larry Brown’s ear. Telling the 2001 NBA Coach of the Year how to run his team. For this was Jordan’s house. And it was operated under Jordan’s rules. By mid-season, Brown was gone but the Bobcats still stumbled.
He elevated his old friend Higgins to president of basketball operations and hired Rich Cho as GM. The former Boeing engineer–turned–law student had developed scouting software that helped turn the sad-sack Seattle SuperSonics into the formidable Oklahoma City Thunder of today. But Jordan still trusted his own judgment above all, emerging from the draft with Bismack Biyombo, an unproven Congolese power forward, and Kemba Walker, a Bronx-born point guard who had exploded during March Madness but proved inefficient in his first year with the Bobcats. And he got nowhere when he tried to lure Chris Paul from New Orleans to Charlotte. Suddenly, Jordan was faced with the unfortunate reality that playing for Michael Jordan didn’t garner nearly as much interest as playing with him had back in the day.
Despite the team’s obvious shortcomings, the Bobcats’ 2011–12 season began with an unexpected win over the Milwaukee Bucks. But then the season went to hell quicker than a condemned soul, and Jordan began looking like a man in purgatory. He screamed at players, glared at his new coach, Paul Silas, and walked out on games. As the Bobcats inched closer to the worst single-season winning percentage in NBA history with a loss in Washington in April, Jordan was 1,100 km away in Chicago, surrounded by old friends and admirers, watching a Blackhawks game at the United Center.
The next day’s sports pages captured the sentiments of a world increasingly disillusioned with its former deity. Air Jordan was in public freefall. The only question remaining: What would be left when he crashed?
By the Bobcats’ last game of the season, his courtside seat was noticeably empty. He’d abandoned it weeks earlier, retreating to higher ground like an endangered general leaving his troops to die alone. But there was no escaping this defeat. As the clock ticked toward consecutive loss No. 23 in a game against the Knicks, a cameraman zoomed into the owners’ private suite up in the rafters. There was Jordan, looking down. It didn’t take long for those still left in the half-empty arena to start booing when his face appeared on the Jumbotron. But it took a while for them to stop.
Few things in life are as crushing as public humiliation. A lesser man than Michael Jordan might have piled his cigars and his Cuban fiancée into his private jet, left Charlotte forever and retired to the golf course. Then again, a man with any other name wouldn’t have had a choice. Because failure rarely comes without consequence.
For Jordan, the consequence has become a quest for redemption. An undying need to convince us all that the Michael Jordan we know today is the same Michael Jordan whose words were once stitched into the insole of one of his trademarked shoes. “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
But in order for Jordan to succeed this time, he has been forced to do what he never could on the court. He has stepped back, deferred to his teammates. He has acknowledged the limitations of his being. He has disappeared, no longer out of arrogance or laziness, but out of necessity. His handlers say he’s finished with the spotlight and other than a single 23-minute interview granted to local journalists, you’d have to believe them.
Back on opening night, Cho is the lone executive in the Bobcats dressing room following the game. Surrounded by exhausted men, he congratulates each one individually for having just snuck out a victory against the Pacers (the team will go on to win seven of its first 12, matching its 2011 win total). He looks to Kemba Walker and nods, then he leans on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the 19-year-old he selected second overall in the 2012 draft, and whispers a word of encouragement into the young man’s ear.
Outside Time Warner Cable Arena, an unfamiliar enthusiasm pours into the streets as fans shuffle past a saxophonist wailing into the Carolina night. But still there is no sign of Jordan. His condo is dark. His Ferrari is parked in the garage out back. But his Land Rover, the one he drives when he wants to evade detection, is out. His favourite bars are on standby. The valet at a nearby nightclub has been told to expect his arrival. As has the bouncer at an Irish pub where his regular booth is reserved and waiting. In the kitchen behind the bar the chef stands ready to bake one of the $8 meat lovers’ pizzas that Jordan loves so much. He doesn’t show.
Back on the sidewalk outside his condo, a homeless man rests on a bench under the glow of a streetlight. A copy of the Charlotte Observer is beside him. A headline on the front page tells the sports story of the day: “Bobcats’ Jordan: ‘I’m in it for the long haul.’” And yet, for now, his throne remains empty.
This article originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine.