Charlotte Hornets

How Hornets’ Michael Jordan embraces role as buffer between NBA owners, players

I get asked all the time what Michael Jordan brings to the table that can distinguish him from other NBA owners.

The applicable term from the last couple of years is “translator.”

I’d heard snippets of how Jordan uses his history as an iconic player to improve communication between the players association and the league. NBA commissioner Adam Silver singled out Jordan’s value, as chairman of the owners’ labor-relations committee, at a news conference last summer in Las Vegas.

I understand if a Charlotte Hornets fan’s reaction is, “So what? How does that help the team?”

Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, right, and Fred Whitfield, team president and vice chairman, spoke to local media on Tuesday about All-Star Weekend and what it means to Charlotte. John D. Simmons

I don’t know whether that will someday close a free-agent signing or make it easier to retain talent. I do know that when Jordan playfully bopped Malik Monk on the back of the head, after Monk ran onto the court in celebration before a game was decided, Monk defended Jordan’s reaction as a player thing, not an owner overstepping his bounds.

That’s the respect Jordan still has 15 years removed from the last time he played. His credibility is capital in a management-labor dynamic that is alternately collaborative and tense.

I got a chance Tuesday, when Jordan did an interview with Charlotte media attached to All-Star Weekend, to ask about this connector role Silver described. Jordan said it works because both Silver and the leaders of the players association - president Chris Paul and executive director Michele Roberts - are authentically interested in his perspective.

The word “unique” is way overused. It doesn’t mean distinctive or rare, it means “one of a kind.” Jordan, as a former NBA player with controlling ownership of an NBA franchise, is unique.

That’s powerful, and Jordan has embraced this role.

“I pull on both sides to try to communicate to both sides,” said Jordan. “Those are tough conversations to have because emotions get involved sometimes.”

From what Jordan described, he’s as likely to check-up tone in how the owners address the players as he is conveying owners’ positions.

“There’s a certain way to say it (to players) so they understand it,” Jordan said. “And then, on the players’ side (it’s explaining), ‘Hey, this is how the business operates. This is the goal, this is the piece of pie that we need to understand, that we need to show and grow.’”

Inherent tension

There is an innate tension in any labor-management relationship. All that escalates in a situation such as this, where NBA players and owners are such competitive personalities.

The nature of that relationship is evolving. The NBA is as star-driven as any of the four major leagues and the top players are grasping power. For instance, now-Los Angeles Laker LeBron James functions more like a partner with the team he plays for than a subordinate.

Jordan understands that competitive zeal. He can be a buffer zone of sorts, as well as a communicator. As Jordan put it, he’s now both the guy in the suit and the guy remembered in shorts and a tank top.

“It’s not an easy job because you have a lot of egos on both sides, and then you have an egotistical guy in the middle,” Jordan said, speaking of himself.

All-Star solution

Whatever capital Jordan has earned with the other owners came in handy when the league decided to pull the 2017 All-Star Weekend out of Charlotte over North Carolina House Bill 2, and the perception it was discriminatory toward the LGBT community.

Jordan endorsed that decision to pull the game. However, he also made an impassioned speech to the other owners about not letting all the work Charlotte had done go to waste. That essentially moved Charlotte to the front of the line for the next All-Star opening once the political situation in North Carolina was resolved.

Jordan said Tuesday he appreciates Silver installing him as a “voice of reason.” I suspect that was not incidental to why All-Star 2019 visits Charlotte starting Friday.

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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