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Original Issue

Return of The Native

He's coming back to the NBA after striking a sweet deal with Charlotte, but has Michael Jordan, at 43, finally found his destiny?

The king is notdead, but he may be suffering a fate worse than a faltering pulse: fadingmarketability. According to a recent Harris Poll, Tiger Woods has replacedMichael Jordan as the nation's favorite athlete, ending His Airness's 13-yearreign at the top. The news that Jordan had dropped to second place didn'texactly stop traffic on Main Street, but you can bet it drew notice on MadisonAvenue. Is an era finally over? Has the shoe finally dropped?

For years Jordanthe man was indistinguishable from Jordan the brand. But since his tenure as aWashington Wizards player-executive ended ugly in 2003, being like Mike hasentailed a lot of golf, a fair amount of casino gambling--and, as far as thepublic was concerned, little else. Jordan's did not seem to be a life fullylived. Except for an occasional Hanes commercial or a trip to Vegas, the NBA'sgreatest player was largely invisible and drifting toward irrelevance in hisretirement.

That all may havechanged last week with the announcement that Jordan was buying back into theNBA as co-owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. Media magnate Bob Johnson, 60, stillmaintains a majority share of the team--the BET network founder, who is worthan estimated $1 billion, paid $300 million for the expansion franchise in 2002.But Jordan, 43, who reportedly invested between $10 million and $20 million inthe franchise, assumes the verbose, and perhaps life-changing, title of"managing member of basketball operations." He will essentially serveas team president, with full authority over basketball decisions. And he will,in all likelihood, be playing a lot less golf.

For the past threeyears, Jordan has been eager to get back into the league in an ownership role,a cause that commissioner David Stern championed. At first glance the lowlyBobcats might seem an odd object for his affections. There is little glamour orpoetry in the marriage: The Bobcats are not the Lakers, the Knicks or theBulls. Charlotte went 44--120 in its first two seasons and has been a financialdisappointment in what once was an NBA-friendly market. (The Hornets'scorched-earth defection to New Orleans in 2000 changed that.) The Bobcatsranked 22nd in the league in attendance last season, and, according to twoleague sources, the franchise lost money despite having the NBA's lowestpayroll and newest arena.

Johnson, who triedto recruit Jordan as an original member of his ownership team, is clearlybanking on Jordan's status as a hoops god and Carolina folk hero to turn thingsaround. But the Bobcats can do as much for Jordan as he can do for them.

Jordan and Johnsonare close friends--they met at a Chicago Bulls game 17 years ago--and Jordantrusts that Johnson will not exploit him as his last NBA partner did. Aftersuffering the humiliation of being dismissed by Wizards owner Abe Pollin aftera three-year run as a player and a team president in 2003, Jordan wanted hisnext involvement in the NBA to be as something more than an employee. ButJordan, who came close to buying into the Milwaukee Bucks in 2003, didn't wantto invest huge sums of his own money, preferring to serve as front man for aninvestment group. That's exactly what he's doing with the Bobcats, who agreedto cede him a lot of influence for a relatively small sum of money. Space wasfreed up for Jordan in their front office when team president Ed Tapscott andhis top two lieutenants resigned.

Still it remainsto be seen if Jordan has addressed his weakness as a talent evaluator andexecutive. In three years with the Wizards--he unofficially maintainedfront-office control during his two seasons as a player--the team was 110--179.He hired coach Leonard Hamilton, who went 19--63 in his only season in chargebefore Jordan replaced him with Doug Collins, and Jordan used the No. 1 pick inthe 2001 draft on high school center Kwame Brown, a bust who was ultimatelydealt to the Lakers last summer.

Jordan is not thetype to take advice, but he may have looked around and learned a few things inthe interim. He'll need every bit of his basketball smarts in Charlotte, whereit seems there can be no quick fixes. The Bobcats have the No. 3 pick, but thisyear's draft is short on big-name talent. The team has $20 million in capspace, but the free-agent market is weak. As Jordan discovered in Washington,his reputation as a player won't help him assemble a winning team. And as happyas his fellow Carolinians will be to have him back home, he's not America'smost beloved athlete, not the Golden Child anymore. The fans will still cheerfor Michael Jordan, but only after he gives them something to cheer for.

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''After returning to practice, Winslow said he'll neverride a motorcycle again.''  --BACK IN BROWN, PAGE 28