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Vince Thomas

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Michael Jordan reportedly assumed some $150 million in debt to take over the Bobcats.
Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

From player to owner: How MJ reshapes the landscape


Posted Mar 23 2010 1:44PM

Last year, I saw this clip of Scottie Pippen, in F-list "Midgets vs. Mascots," getting gaffled by a group of little people, including Gary Coleman. Don't get it twisted. This wasn't a well-received, wink-wink cameo like Mike Tyson's in The Hangover. This was one of the 25 to 30 greatest players in NBA history, just recently retired, making a cringe-worthy appearance in a crap movie even by straight-to-DVD standards.

Why had Pippen stooped to this level? Only he really knows. But one wonders if it's because Pippen -- although earning well over $100 million in salary and endorsements during his career -- was looking to make some dough after well publicized and regretful financial woes.

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I bring up this depressing story as his old running mate is pulling a landmark power move. Last week, in case you didn't know, the NBA approved Michael Jordan's bid to buy the Charlotte Bobcats. He is the first athlete to go on to majority ownership of a major professional sports franchise. (Technically, it's Mario Lemieux, but Lemieux used deferred salaries to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins.)

Is this the start of a trend? Might we see a new dynamic in the next 20 to 30 years? You'd hope. But with stories like Pippen's or Antoine Walker's (a recent Outside The Lines segment reported Walker's startling demise from filthy rich to dirty broke), you never know. Reading Pablo S. Torre's piece in Sports Illustrated last year, I almost choked when I read this: Within five years of retirement, an estimated 60 percent of former NBA players are broke. It's no better in the NFL where, by the time they have been retired for two years, a reported 78 percent of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress.

This is a not a, "Why can't you reckless athletes keep your millions?" piece. I recognize and can even understand how stuff happens. Bad business, child support, alimony, seedy handlers, entourages and, of course, ballin' outta control can add up. Tyson, Pippen, Latrell Sprewell, Evander Holyfield -- those are just some big names. Athletes go broke. That's not going to change. But the smarter ones -- I'm hoping they're looking at Jordan and thinking, "I wanna make that kind of power move, too."

Not all athletes are going to make MJ cheddar during their careers. Although Jordan made only about $90 million in NBA salary (I say "only" because I can probably rattle off about 50 current players that will have made more by the end of their careers), he cashed in much more from Nike, Gatorade and all his other endorsement deals. Before his Bobcats acquisition, MJ's net worth was said to be about $500 million. But it's not like MJ hasn't weathered a costly divorce and doesn't enjoy the occasional game of high stakes poker.

Kevin Garnett, Grant Hill, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade -- these cats will have made a boatload of money by the time they call it quits. Why can't one or all of them organize individual investment groups the way MJ gathered up the money through MJ Basketball Holdings? Fifteen years from now, why can't native Seattle sons Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, Jamal Crawford, Martell Webster, Marvin Williams, Aaron Brooks and whomever else get an ownership group together and resurrect the Sonics in Emerald City (if someone doesn't beat them to it)?

Pro franchises are exactly cash cows. Vanity toys for some owners, many teams are reported to be losing money recently. And most of these owners are far richer than these athletes. But making money in owning a sports team can be done. The statement/symbolism of former athletes becoming owners is nothing if not social/commercial progress.

Actors don't own movie studios. Musicians don't go on to own major labels. And former athletes don't own teams. Until now. Think about the different dynamic there would be between players and owners, if, in a few decades, a third of the teams were owned by former athletes. The owners' ranks would benefit from the perspective of men not too far removed from competition. Players would be working for men with whom they share a kinship. It would change, if nothing else, the nature -- maybe even process or outcome -- of collective bargaining negotiations. And with a contracted cultural and generational gap, some of the "us vs. them" that colors every league/players relationship would inevitably ease. The impact would be palpable.

That's how MJ's power move resonates with me. Once again, he's providing a paradigm. Former athletes cutting checks. A pipe dream? We'll see.

Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. You can e-mail him here or follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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