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Michael Jordan Explains Everything

A theory of the NBA’s meltdown.

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Illustration by Jacob Thomas  

After four-plus months of ultimatum-intensive back-and-forth between owners and players, the NBA still hasn’t solved its labor dispute. As with any such negotiation, this is a complicated affair, but here’s a simple reason why: It’s Michael Jordan’s fault.

Yes, that Michael Jordan. Once emperor of the Chicago Bulls basketball dynasty, Jordan is now a part owner of the lowly Charlotte Bobcats. As a hard-liner on the management side, he’s pursuing system changes that would ensure his small-market team’s profitability (and stymie big-market juggernauts like the one for which he once starred) with the same zeal that he brought to winning NBA championships. No collective-bargaining agreement could turn his current team into contenders, of course; that’s the front office’s job. But the deal Jordan and like-minded owners are seeking would make it much easier for his team to turn a tidy profit. For a man who so intensely hates to lose, be it in business or basketball or not-so-friendly golf bets, that’s worth going to war over.

In simpler times, Jordan’s all-flattening drive was a good thing. During his playing days, his on-court dominance allowed casual fans—and the NBA’s marketing team—to treat the NBA season as a dunk-filled live-action video game. His Airness would clear level after level: a knockout of the glass-jawed Cavaliers, then a scrap with the muscle-bound Knicks, then a showdown with some hulking-but-doomed Final Boss out of the Western Conference before Jordan’s inevitable hoisting of the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy at the kill screen. Predictable? Certainly. But in terms of the league’s ratings and revenues, playing by the Jordan Rules worked brilliantly.

Jordan’s combination of unstinting ambition and vicious virtuosity, both on the floor and as a multi-platform marketing monster, changed the game in other ways. Through his lucrative example, unimagined heights of ubiquity became possible—not for nothing are such superstars as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony signed to marketing deals with Nike’s Jordan Brand. He opened new horizons of grandiosity, too—it’s safe to say that LeBron’s aspiration to “global icon” status wouldn’t exist if Jordan hadn’t made it possible. In using the leverage that comes from their celebrity (and outside income) to insist on more favorable contract terms, today’s stars are just following his lead. As for how Jordan the player could tell Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, during the 1998 lockout, “If you can’t make a profit, you should sell your team,” and then thirteen years later demand new economic rules because he can’t make a profit on his own franchise, that’s no contradiction. He was playing to win then, and is doing so now. He’s never done anything but.

In a league re-created around Jordan’s monomaniacal pursuit of the W, it makes perfect sense that his current side has treated the hashing-out of a new collective-bargaining agreement as a Jordanesque exercise in opponent-vanquishing, and that his former one has refused to yield. With what promised to be a pretty great season now at risk because the owners could not make an offer that wasn’t also an insult, and because ultra-competitive players would not turn the other cheek, the NBA now feels more like Michael Jordan’s league than ever.

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