Air Jordan has been an invisible Bobcat so far
CHARLOTTE -- Michael Jordan doesn't live here, doesn't work here and is rarely seen or heard here.
If you thought he was going to become the face of the Charlotte Bobcats after purchasing a piece of the team, think again.
Jordan hasn't said a word to the local media in 3½ months, and he couldn't have stayed much further from the spotlight during training camp, sitting high up in the stands for a couple of practices and a scrimmage at the UNC-Wilmington gymnasium, speaking to a few players individually but never once addressing the team as a group.
You'd expect his image to be plastered on billboards across town. You'd expect him to at least make a cameo in the witty "Get Closer to the Bobcats" television ads being shown on local television. But none of that is happening.
For now, he's the invisible man, but still The Man -- the guy who has final say on all personnel decisions, the guy Bernie Bickerstaff now has to run things past, the guy who ultimately might become the face of this heretofore faceless franchise. But only on his terms.
For now, he lurks in the shadows when he's not peeking in on television from his home in Chicago or getting an intelligence report over the phone from Bickerstaff, the coach and general manager shepherding the NBA's newest franchise into its third season of existence.
Jordan has made it clear to majority owner Bob Johnson that he wants the focus to be on the product, not on himself -- especially after he said he felt "used" by the Washington Wizards when he took his first stab at being an NBA executive.
"I'm not going to be in a dog-and-pony show where you throw me out there and people buy tickets because I'm part of the franchise. That's not what I'm all about," Jordan told the Sports Business Journal last month, his only public comments since draft night last June. "I don't want to be out there like a used-car salesman."
Jordan bought a piece of Johnson's businesses, which include a Bobcats franchise that has stuck to its guns on the three- and four-year roster building plan that it entered the league with, while stumbling through the business side of the equation over its first two years of existence.
An ill-conceived regional television network crashed and burned in the Bobcats' first season, cutting heavily into the bottom line of a business that Johnson believes should already be profitable -- or at least break-even.
Season Two was defined, at least locally, by the fan backlash over steep ticket price increases when the Bobcats moved from the old Charlotte Coliseum to the new uptown arena built with taxpayer funds. With many seats doubling in price, the 'Cats season-ticket base dropped from about 9,000 to 5,800, and the continuing absence of Bobcats games from over-the-air television -- a remnant of the TV deal they signed with Time Warner Cable -- has kept the local populace more apathetic than enthusiastic.
Johnson still doesn't have a naming rights deal for the new arena, though Jordan said he'll do whatever it takes -- playing golf with a CEO, for instance -- to help secure a naming rights deal that will bring in some badly needed cash flow. The Bobcats, who lost between $10 million to $20 million last season, have thus far been unsuccessful in securing a long-term sponsor willing to pay the $3 million to $3.5 million annually that it'll cost to affix a new name to a building that for now is still known as "Charlotte Bobcats Arena."
Charlotte currently has the league's lowest payroll and still must spend another $1.1 million to meet the league-mandated minimum of 75 percent of the cap. If the Bobcats don't spent it on a player, collective bargaining rules require them to send a check for the unused portion of the minimum to the NBA Players Association.
Johnson is developing somewhat of a tightwad reputation, but the true test will come next summer when the Bobcats will have between $20 million and $25 million in cap space. Will Johnson be willing to spend the type of money that will bring in a free agent such as Vince Carter or Rashard Lewis who can take the franchise to the next level? There's that potential cost, along with the contract extensions that are eventually going to have to be negotiated with the team's young core, at least the ones that Jordan thinks are keepers among young building blocks: Emeka Okafor, Adam Morrison, Ray Felton and Sean May, and veterans Gerald Wallace and Primoz Brezec.
Jordan is certain he'll be able to convince Johnson to spend that money, but to do so he'll have to get Johnson to abandon his insistence that the team turn a profit, a product of Johnson's lifetime record of having never operated a money-losing business.
"We have not changed our long-term plan, and Michael and I have talked about this," said Bickerstaff, who said he speaks to Jordan every day via telephone. "We have to see what we really have with our young players, make sure we re-sign our key players, the Wallaces, Brezecs, Emeka, that's the most important thing. If we don't re-sign the people we've built around, it doesn't matter who you get as a free agent because there's nobody out there that can carry you to the promised land if we don't have the other ingredients."
The Bobcats improved from 18 to 26 victories from Season One to Season Two, and they're setting their sights on making the playoffs this season in an Eastern Conference that levels off considerably after you get past Detroit, Chicago, New Jersey and Miami.
Felton has gone so far as to say the Bobcats could finish as high as a sixth seed.
"They really remind me a lot of Chicago as far as competing on a nightly basis," said Othella Harrington, who left the Bulls as a free agent and signed with the Bobcats over the summer.
Okafor claims his right ankle is fully healed after an injury -- and then a reinjury -- sidelined him for all but 26 games last season, and May is said to also be fully recovered from a right knee injury that ended his season last December.
Felton finished last season particularly strong, and Morrison gave an early glimpse of what he's capable of by knocking down three of his first four shots coming off the bench in the first quarter of the Bobcats' exhibition opener Tuesday night against Orlando. Included in that trifecta was a shot at the end of the quarter in which Morrison took a three-quarters of the court inbounds pass, quickly turned and buried a 23-footer with a defender draped all over him. I'll get some grief for this, but I swear he looked like a young Larry Bird.
"Collectively, this is a very confident basketball team. They all come from winning programs, they know how to win and that's what they want to do," Bickerstaff said.
Only a couple thousand fans were scattered around the arena Tuesday night for the city's first look at Morrison, a sign of how far the Bobcats still must go to rev up interest in NBA basketball in a place where the breakup between the once-fervent fan base and the long-departed Hornets was particularly bitter.
But Jordan obviously thinks it can work. He just won't be out there in public telling anyone or selling anyone on the Bobcats. That's the way he wants to do it, and Johnson has already made it clear that whichever way Jordan wants to proceed is perfectly fine by him. Next summer, Jordan may just be the behind-the-scenes pitchman making the big push to whichever big-ticket free agent he plans to target -- but only if Johnson opens his wallet.
"That'll all come in time, and that'll be his deal -- how he feels he's needed here, how much he needs to be around," said veteran guard Brevin Knight, who has been with the Bobcats since they first started playing. "His deal is in the front office, not [on] the court. But we see him enough. We saw him in camp, he imparted his wisdom on some of the guys, and we know as the season progresses, we'll see more of him. But just having his aura and his name around has picked up our team."
Said Bickerstaff, who has two seasons remaining on his contract and insists he will not discuss his coaching future until after this season: "Michael has been very professional, very respectful. The bottom line is we've done a pretty good job here in terms of dealing with salary caps and all those things. Michael is intelligent, very well-versed in basketball, and there have been no problems.
"Everywhere I've been there has been somebody that you've got to get an answer from. The owners are the guys who spend the bucks, so they make the decisions," said Bickerstaff, who has seen just about every ownership and management structure possible over his three decades in the NBA, keeping himself employed by staying adaptable. "What you do is make recommendations. And in my conversations with Michael, it's been 'you've got your expertise and I've got mine,' so it's a marriage."
But will it remain a marriage of convenience, or will there be a long-lasting commitment between Bickerstaff, Jordan and Johnson? That'll be the question they'll be asking when this season concludes, and Jordan -- said to have become quite a bit of a poker player -- is not tipping his hand. Don't count on Michael showing his cards anytime soon, either.
He's clearly making a concerted effort to stay as far behind the scenes as possible, though maybe he'll have more to say publicly between now and April. Just don't hold your breath waiting.
For now, he wants to be Silent Mike, and that's what the Bobcats are letting him be.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.
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