The isolation play always brought Michael Jordan closer to us. Waving his arm as if parting tall weeds—the signal for his teammates to clear out or, in truth, get lost—Jordan was at his most awe-inspiring to the masses when seen all alone. In this spot shadow he controlled the next move, a diabolical voodoo artist with an opponent to prick. Would he torture his defender with a crossover or a fadeaway or a spin move?
Ruthlessness was never so rewarded with adoration. MJ felt love everywhere he traveled (or pushed off) because of one remarkable trick in his swoosh-marked duffel: He had the ability to package the dark side of his competitiveness on the court with the lighter side of Mike off it. He was engaging in postgame interviews, embraceable with sidekick Mars Blackmon and accessible in his Be Like Mike glory.
He was the warmest of cold-blooded players as a Bull. But after Chicago ... just cold. Over the last decade Jordan's transition to icon afterlife has been mottled by a succession of crabby get-off-my-lawn moments. In Washington, as an executive in a jersey, Jordan failed to gain closure with one last lap around the league, failed to find a player in his own likeness on the team he put together. He played with urgency, as if a dungeon awaited the loser. His teammates played for the final buzzer as if it signaled an escape from their keeper. Wizards owner Abe Pollin put a jarring end to the Jordan experiment, firing him on May 7, 2003.
For several years Jordan went Garbo, spotted only from afar on the links with a cigar that sent out a clear smoke signal: Leave me alone. Even in his ubiquitous Hanes commercial, Jordan is shot driving away from a fawning Charlie Sheen. Even when Bobcats owner Bob Johnson coaxed him into a minority ownership in 2006, Jordan remained aloof. He surfaced briefly last September with a graceless Hall of Fame speech, bent on settling scores with old foils like Jeff Van Gundy, Bryon Russell and Bulls architect Jerry Krause. "Jerry said organizations win championships," Jordan recounted. "I said, 'I don't see an organization playing with the flu in Utah.'"
Why so bitter? Maybe Jordan has been simply lousy at living off the radar—he's not a bench player—while aching to call his own iso once again. He did it last week. He grabbed control of the basketball when he was approved as Charlotte's majority owner, the first retired player to buy an NBA team. The floor is all his again. And you know what? In his first press conference as owner, he looked as happy as he used to. "This gives him an outlet for his competitive drive," said Jordan's longtime friend Buzz Peterson, a former North Carolina teammate. "Competing fulfills him." Jordan stood at a podium, polished in a suit and tie, and had joy in his voice. These were the new adventures of the old MJ, now the willing face of the franchise. As Jordan said, he won't be "a show pony" but will work to connect with the "public to provide an entertainment value they can feel good about."
Will he shake hands with ticket holders? Check. Will he finally buy a home in Charlotte? Check. Will he be a successful owner? This is a complicated one, but I'll check this box because the same man who created a player we had never seen before is skilled enough to become an owner like no other. "He's learned from his mistakes," Peterson said. He seems determined not to repeat the sins of his Wizards stint. "I've got to live vicariously through the players I put on the basketball court," Jordan told reporters. "[But] I don't expect Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson to be Michael Jordan." Both played with a lot of energy last Friday in Atlanta, where the Bobcats lost in overtime. In a black sport coat and dark jeans, Jordan sat a row behind the bench. Also at the game were friends Charles Oakley and Dominique Wilkins, who dismissed fears that Jordan would be too demanding for players to tolerate. "Ask this question: Is it wrong to establish high expectations?" Wilkins said. Oakley went even further, saying, "There are great players in this league, but a lot of them are anointed this or that or whatever when they're in high school. All Michael asks is that you earn everything you get. We should want more of that."
Jordan didn't arrive in the NBA as a Chosen One. And when he took off as a rookie, he endured the legendary freeze-out in the All-Star Game by veterans. It fueled him. But as an owner, Jordan has to be careful with hazing. He has been spare in complimenting LeBron James. No matter how often LeBron seeks Jordan's validation—retire number 23, James has campaigned—he barely receives a nod from MJ. In Jordan's world it's title first, props second. But Jordan the owner has to make room in his heart for the work in progress. One day he'll have to pay a superstar and trust him to become the winner of his design.
Already, it's heartening to see Jordan enjoying his band of Bobcats—a collection of hardworking misfits and upstarts under Larry Brown's professorial guidance—put themselves in position for the playoffs. Jordan is in their ears, and their response isn't that anthem of youthful alienation: Yeah, whatever. "He wants to make you better," Jackson says. Jordan knows how to communicate, build a brand and engage the audience. For an entire playing career he was as charismatic as he was merciless. That's the Mike we're starting to see again. That's the Mike to be like.
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The man who created a player we had never seen before is skilled enough to become an owner like no other. Jordan has joy in his voice again.