Michael Jordan defends Bobcats execs, rebuilding plan, himself

Owner stands by rebuilding process as criticism reaches national stage

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.com April 26, 2012 

Michael Jordan was the ultimate winner as an NBA player, leading the Chicago Bulls to six titles. Now he’s associated with what could be the worst season in NBA history.

The Charlotte Bobcats, bought by Jordan in March 2010, are 7-58 after Wednesday night’s loss to the Orlando Magic. A loss in Thursday night’s season finale against the New York Knicks would leave them with the worst winning percentage in league history (.106).

Last is not a place where Jordan is comfortable, in business or basketball. The world’s premier pitch man, his Jordan Brand is the biggest name in basketball shoes and apparel.

Jordan, in an exclusive interview with the Charlotte Observer, said Wednesday that his fame and success make criticism of this Bobcats season, and of the job he has done as the team’s owner, more harsh.

“My success will be judged differently,” Jordan said. “I’ve come to accept I’ll be scrutinized more than any other owner.

“I know now that I have to have a tough skin about these things.”

“These things” include critics ranging from NBA television commentator and Jordan friend Charles Barkley, to a columnist in the Chicago Sun-Times who asked why Jordan was at hockey playoff games instead of home tending to his Bobcats, to frustrated fans.

The harshest comments to date came Wednesday morning from ex-Bobcats coach (and Hall of Famer) Larry Brown.

Brown said on Dan Patrick’s nationally syndicated radio show that Jordan’s top advisers didn’t challenge his opinions and “don’t have a clue.” Brown even suggested Jordan placed “spies” in the basketball operation to check up on him and his assistants.

Jordan, in a telephone interview, defended the franchise’s staff, some of whom were brought in after Brown’s dismissal.

“It’s absolutely wrong that I don’t want guys to challenge me,” he said. “And the people who say that aren’t in the room.

“The idea that people can’t do that is just wrong. Curtis (Polk, team vice chairman) has worked with me for over 20 years and he’s never had a problem telling me, ‘no.’ Rod (Higgins, president of basketball operations) has no problem telling me ‘no.’ Fred (Whitfield, team president) has no problem telling me ‘no.’ And Rich (Cho, the team’s general manager) is about as direct and candid a person as you’ll ever meet.”

Higgins and Whitfield, both with the Bobcats when Brown worked here, declined comment. Brown, recently hired as coach at Southern Methodist University, did not return a message left on his cell phone.

Losing this much not in plan

Jordan also said that while the Bobcats are in a rebuilding mode, he never anticipated a season where the team would finish last in the league, much less with what could be the worst winning percentage in NBA history.

His team has lost 22 games in a row, but he insisted this season’s results won’t dissuade him from the rebuilding plan that started with the trades of veterans Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson last season.

Jordan and the front office concluded then that the veteran team they assembled had no long-term prospect of pursuing a title. The trades brought draft picks that helped them acquire rookies Bismack Biyombo and Kemba Walker.

“This was going to be a trying year – we knew that,” Jordan said. “But did we want to chase the most Ping-Pong balls (in the May 30 draft lottery)? No way.”

“Ever since I’ve owned the team (buying control from founder Bob Johnson), I think we’ve made some very positive moves on the business side. We had to make a difficult decision to turn over the (basketball) talent. This year the talent we had didn’t respond, but that doesn’t cause me to turn my back on the plan.”

Not surprised by Brown

Jordan said he didn’t expect such harsh criticism from Brown, like Jordan a former North Carolina player, but it also didn’t “surprise” him after Jordan let Brown go in December 2010.

“I imagine he was pretty upset we chose to change directions,” Jordan said of Brown, who has a reputation for being high-maintenance for ownership.

Brown suggested on the Dan Patrick show that Jordan placed spies in the basketball operation “wondering what we were doing and getting back to him.”

“I’m pretty sure he’s talking about Rod and (head athletic trainer) Steve Stricker, and I don’t think that’s an accurate description of either one of them,” Jordan said.

Brown went on to say “a coach, a general manager and a president all have to be attached at the hip.”

Jordan’s response: “He had a lot of input on whatever we did. I never sidestepped him in making a decision. I gave my advice as a former player. I thought we developed a trust where everyone could share his opinion. I gave my input, but I wasn’t the only one whose opinion counted.

“I didn’t always agree with what he recommended, but I thought that was healthy. The owner, the coach and the general manager should be able to all disagree. I’d like to think that’s the healthiest approach.”

Jordan suspects Brown is still wounded by losing his job with the Bobcats. Jordan said that parting was the result of a discussion between himself and Brown in which each one expressed dissatisfaction with the situation.

“We came to an understanding; I said, ‘You don’t look happy, and I don’t look happy.’ … I made the decision that neither one of us was happy.”

Bonnell: 704-358-5129

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