Michael Jordan Their season opened in Boston, against a young Celtics team that had listened to 80-year-old Red Auerbach. David Stern’s name is on the basketball, Auerbach had said. Not Michael Jordan’s. That evening, Celtics TV analyst Tom Heinsohn made sure his audience knew who Jordan is not. He’s not God, Heinsohn said.
Everybody treats him like a messiah or something. He isn’t. If it seems odd, at this point, for so many to be confused about Michael Jordan’s identity, it’s only because Jordan makes it confusing. He does not own the Bulls, and he isn’t general manager, but as sure as they lost their opener to the Celtics and as sure as they drifted through the first two months of the season, he is the guy who built this team, for better or worse. Shortly after the Bulls defeated the Jazz in the NBA Finals last spring, Jordan said, We deserve a chance (to win a sixth title).
Much of what has followed is a consequence of Jordan’s desire, ambition and power. Phil Jackson is coach, Scottie Pippen is still a part of the team, albeit disgruntled, and Dennis Rodman is back in Chicago, thanks to Jordan. The power to shape a basketball team, not just any team, but the defending NBA champions, winners of five titles in seven years, is impressive power, indeed. This is one reason Jordan, 34, is The Sporting News’ Most Powerful Person in Sports for 1997. Here’s another: Jim Jannard, chairman and president of Oakley, Inc., welcomed a new director, Bill Schmidt, onto his board this week.
California-based Oakley manufactures high-tech sunglasses at a state-of-the-art Orange County factory. Schmidt is executive vice president of Quaker Oats-Gatorade, creator of the successful Be Like Mike” ad campaign in which Gatorade and the basketball superstar beckon thirsty consumers. Jannard and Schmidt were introduced by Jordan, an Oakley director who is developing an inside game-soaring high above boardrooms-to complement his outside shot as a marketing superstar. The cross-pollination of Oakley and Gatorade, Jannard and Schmidt, is a reflection of Jordan’s power outside the game, just as his shaping of the Bulls reflects it within. He becomes the first No.
1 who started as an athlete before veering into business and media. Previous No. 1s-Laurence Tisch (1990), David Stern (1991), Phil Knight (1992), Ted Turner (1993), Rupert Murdoch (1994 and 1995) and Dick Ebersol (1996)-started in business, law and media before veering into sports. In 1997 we learned that Turner wouldn’t mind veering into a boxing ring with Murdoch, Knight leads with his chin on labor issues and Stern and Ebersol are running a three-legged race deep in clover. All No.
1s (save Tisch, who is retired) levitate ubiquitously over the high-flying entertainment-media-sports industry. Among No. 1s, Knight, Turner and Murdoch are billionaires (and Stern and Ebersol make billion-dollar deals). Jordan is not No. 1 because he has a chance to become the world’s first athlete-billionaire, but because he has the requisite drive and brains.
It has been a breathtaking ride up for Jordan, the grandson of a sharecropper who couldn’t afford a bicycle until he was 16. Signs are promising he can book hang time in the nether world of moguls. His place in popular culture continues to ascend. Two global celebrities-Princess Diana and Mother Teresa-died in 1997. That leaves Fidel, Mandela, Ali and Michael on a short list of those who need only one name for instant recognition.
When Jordan accompanied the Bulls to the McDonald’s Championship in Paris in October, his full-length photo ran on the front page of the newspaper France-Soir with a headline: The Idol of Young People Is in Paris.” The story began: Michael Jordan is in Paris. That’s better than the Pope. It’s God in person.” At the same time, a Paris department store displayed a white Michael Jordan mannequin, indicative of a basic truth: Jordan hype is as phenomenal as the reality. He agrees. I don’t feel powerful,” Jordan says. I never view myself as powerful enough to make decisions or influence business.
It’s just that, for whatever reason, the public and corporate America have accepted my personality.” What’s the point of being TSN’s Most Powerful Person if not to feel powerful, Jordan is asked. He chuckles. Every time I step on the court I consider myself powerful,” he says. People are watching every little move I make. I am in control ..
from a skills standpoint.” No argument on that. Jordan’s power starts with his decisive and spectacular hoop supremacy. In his last five full NBA seasons he has brought five championships to Chicago. No active athlete in any team sport remotely approaches Jordan’s dominance. Michael’s mind-set, skill, intelligence, athletic courage, grace .. the way he sees the big picture, his genius in the athletic terrain ..
all of this sets him apart,” NBC broadcaster Bob Costas says. Other reasons underlie his No. 1 ranking, having to do with sex appeal, expanding business network and force of personality. In the case of the Bulls, Jordan threatened to retire if Jackson were not rehired and Pippen not retained. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Jerry Krause did not risk calling his hand.
I expressed my opinion-I wouldn’t call it an ultimatum,” Jordan says. If this happens, this is what I do. If it doesn’t, this is what I do. They chose. Some people may view that as power.
But I hold true to what I believe and what lies in my heart. I was willing to go that route (retirement). I didn’t say it as an idle threat, because I believed it. It’s up to them to believe me. If they do, that’s maybe powerful.” Jackson got a $5.8 million deal.
Pippen is on the last year of a contract that will pay him $2.2 million, woefully low by NBA talent standards. The Bulls could not offer him more in part because they had no room under the salary cap. Nonetheless, Jordan persuaded Pippen to stay on, while compelling Reinsdorf and Krause not to trade him, though they expected his unhappiness. Once they kept Pippen, they had to take the next step and sign Rodman, despite sensing his decline, because Jordan and Jackson valued his toughness. A key big man from the ’97 playoffs, Brian Williams, was lost because of the cap.
As the Bulls limp toward January, Pippen still is sidelined because of foot surgery, and he demands to be traded. Rodman plays lethargically. Jackson’s zen is on the blink. Only Jordan, averaging a league-leading 26.8 points, stands between the club and humiliation. In business, as with the Bulls, he has the power to be who he is, to call his shots, to control his image.
A bold display of Jordan’s power occurred this year when two companies he represents, Nike and Oakley, collided over use of his image. Jordan has been with Nike since 1984; he earns $15 million to $20 million a year from the $9 billion behemoth. He has been with Oakley since 1995; he earns about $500,000 a year plus stock equity from the $220 million upstart. An Oakley print ad featured Jordan wearing Oakley sunglasses as well as an Oakley beret. Nike sued Oakley, claiming its contract with Jordan requires he wear Nike apparel in all of his ads.
Jordan says he wore the Oakley beret because he believed at the time his deal with Nike encompassed only athletic equipment Economics.