Will Basketball Great Michael Jordan Fail – Again?

The news out of North Carolina is that Michael Jordan will become owner of the (U.S ) National Basketball Association Charlotte Bobcats. Jordan at his prime was arguably the best basketball player – ever – in the world. But will he succeed as an owner?

History is littered – and deluged is probably a better work – with rich people buying sports teams and thinking they can be successful.

Daniel Snyder, who made his estimated $1.3B in wealth in amusement park operator Six Flags, has been a quasi-bust as the owner of the National Football League Washington Redskins. Revenues and turnover in coaches has been up, performance on the field has been awful. Paul Allen, who made his fortune co-founding Microsoft with Bill Gates, has a track record that it choppy at best with his subsequent business investments, and has had more than one wag suggest that he possessed the Sidam Touch. Larry Ellison, who had poured a boatload (pun intended) of money into his sailing interests only recently gained some semblance of goal achievement by having his team capture the America’s Cup. Jimmy Jones (football), Peter Angelos (baseball), and Mark Cuban (basketeall): all people with great success in one area that have a mixed record of parlaying their wealth into a equivalent success owning sports teams.

Superstar athletes are  also legendary for making poor coaches or front office managers. Isiah Thomas (basketball) and Pete Rose (baseball) are a couple examples of great athletes who had bumpy – perhaps toxic – records in their respective sports.

If you had to take a formula for success it would probably be somebody who worked very hard to be good – though not great – in one area before moving to another. In pro basketball, the current crew of best coaches that were players before moving to coach fit that mold: Doc Rivers (Celtics), Phil Jackson (Lakers), Greg Popovich (Spurs). The players that were really great, such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, or Kevin McHale had mixed success in basketball beyond their playing days.

What has been interesting is to see Magic Johnson’s life outside of basketball.

Johnson has been successful beyond business displaying many of the same attributes he used as a player: infectious enthusiasm, hard work, diligent preparation, and perseverance. In other words, the same gifts that made him a legend on the court have been applied. While he was a great player, his physical gifts were earned (think Carol Dweck and trying, or Anders Ericsson and the 10,000 hour rule) rather than having great natural. Others were faster, jumped higher, had better shots: Johnson just won.

Michael Jordan will play to form if he’s a bust as an owner of the Charlotte franchise.

But as someone who has literally bumped into him (tall man’s saga: Jordan was signing autographs his rookie year in Chicago when I siddled next to him to see if he was indeed 1 inch taller than the 6′ 5″ me – he was), my hunch would be that he’ll take the lessons he’s learned and do reasonably well.

Jordan’s saga is one of hard work and discipline. It’s widely known that Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and it’s also well know that he “retired” from professional basketball to try his hand at baseball – where he was mediocre and failed. He returned to basketball to play, and later to become a part owner and manager of the Washington Wizards – where he also failed and was subsequently fired.

What’s less understood is that Jordan’s MO – like Magic Johnson’s – has been to study, work hard, learn what he doesn’t know, and be curious. While the ego may be healthy, there aren’t obvious signs that it’s “big.”

If there is a prototype of someone who has been successful in one area before moving into sports ownership, it’s Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots.The formula is pretty clear: know what you how, and hire competence and wisdom in areas that you don’t. Stay engaged, but don’t second guess talent where you lack expertise. This is the antithesis of the dot-com marketing dollars debacle where VCs who lacked marketing experience spent millions on laughable ads and other marketing expenditures.

Jordan will likely have opinions in a variety of ways running the basketball franchise as he did in his playing days where his associations with companies like Nike and Gatorade parlayed his on court success to off-court financial accomplishments.

But he’ll be successful: and thousands of people will once again want to “Be like Mike.”



Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive and team coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above.