Player-turned-owner Michael Jordan lauded by both sides for role in labor talks

After tough negotiations in 2011, Jordan pivots to help bridge gap between players and ownership

Eighteen years ago, Michael Jordan spoke loudly and carried a big name, all of it leveraged on behalf of the NBA players in a labor fight with NBA owners that barely salvaged a season delayed until February.

In 2011, the tables had turned – or rather, Jordan had moved to the other side of this particular table. Arguably the game’s greatest player ever, he had morphed into one of the owners’ hard-liners, pushing in self-interest as majority owner of the Charlotte franchise to slash the players’ share of revenue below even the 50/50 split the league was offering.

And yet now in 2016, with the two sides tentatively reaching an amicable new collective-bargaining agreement well in advance of any serious rancor, rhetoric or actual repercussions, Jordan emerged as one of the most important voices in the room. Members of both the owners’ and players’ negotiating committees lauded Jordan’s contributions in exclusive interviews with NBA.com.

“It’s an emotional endeavor on both sides,” said Cleveland Cavaliers forward James Jones, secretary-treasurer of the National Basketball Players Association. “So you have to speak on the same frequency. Mike is able to do that, because he understands the opposition.”

Union president Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers said: “I think he speaks from a great place, because he’s been on both sides of the table as a player and as an owner. It’s always good conversation, good to hear him give his opinion on things. Just like with anything, you disagree on some things, agree on some.”

The ongoing talks to head off any potential lockout next summer ramped up in frequency and intensity in recent months as Thursday’s opt-out deadline approached. Either side had until Dec. 15 to set aside the current 10-year agreement (CBA) that has four years remaining; conventional wisdom said that one or both would do so, if they failed to negotiate a new version in time. If the opt-out clause were invoked, the existing deal would end on June 30, 2017 and (barring an alternative deal in the interim) a lockout invariably would begin on July 1.

The tone and tenor of this year’s negotiations, by all reports, had improved from the pricklier ones in 1998 and 2011 that resulted in 50- and 66-game schedules, respectively, and cost all involved hundreds of millions of dollars. At today’s prices, a similar shutdown would have flushed billions.

Tone and rhetoric is a huge part of that. Mike is able to defuse that. He understands the passion that players have. He understands that language and he’s able to digest it and relay it to the owners.


 NBPA secretary-treasurer James Jones

That fiscal reality laid a foundation for bargaining sobriety, according to many who participated in these CBA talks. So too did the styles and priorities of NBA commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA executive director Michele Roberts, each overseeing negotiations for the first time in their current positions. They differed from their predecessors, basketball boss David Stern and union chief Billy Hunter, both in personality and in agenda.

Mostly, Silver and Roberts seemed to keep in the forefront the understanding that, with the league’s “pie” grown so extra-extra-large, any squabbling now between the proverbial billionaires and millionaires not only would have been costly, it might have grievously damaged the NBA’s popularity and growth.

Owner provides assist during negotiations

Within that framework for a deal, though, Silver twice went out of his way to commend Jordan for his role as the process chugged on.

“Let me just single out one owner in particular, Michael Jordan,” Silver said after the league’s Board of Governors meetings in October. “[For] the unique perspective he brings to the bargaining table because of his playing career, having been, of course, a superstar player. Now for players to see him in [this] position, it doesn’t mean that if Michael says it, it necessarily means that they accept that as the position they should take. But I think that’s really added a special element unique to this league, to have a superstar player like that owning a team now and being part of these discussions.”

Four nights later in Cleveland, when Silver and Roberts sat in with TNT’s “Inside the NBA” crew on Opening Night, the commissioner again mentioned Jordan as vital to the trust built between what had been natural adversaries.

“He can say, ‘Look, I understand it from your perspective too. In fact, I used to be on the negotiating team for the players,’ ” Silver said. “And the players are looking across the table and saying, ‘I want to be an owner one day myself. Maybe of a team, maybe of a business. And I understand that, as an owner, I want to invest and I want to make a return from that investment.’ ”

Whether the leaders of the union – Paul, executive VP LeBron James, VP Carmelo Anthony or others – still want to “Be Like Mike” on the court or off, they at least saw a face on the other side of the table to whom they could relate. Just as so many of them are playing in his sneakers, they knew he had walked in theirs.

“The imagery of negotiations between players and owners,” Jones said, “is where you envision players on one side, owners on the other, both jockeying for position, both not wanting to flinch, both wanting to put their strongest face forward. Tone and rhetoric is a huge part of that. Mike is able to defuse that. He understands the passion that players have. He understands that language and he’s able to digest it and relay it to the owners. And he’s also able to relay the owners’ sentiments and viewpoints.

“That makes a very trying and taxing situation a lot more manageable and bearable.”

Lessons learned from 2011 negotiations….

That wasn’t so in 1998, when the owners-player’s relationship was at its most fractious. At an October session in New York that grew increasingly tense, Jordan was one of more than 100 players who listened as venerable Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin talked of his financial woes in keeping that franchise afloat.

In front of Stern, the players, team executives and staff from both sides, Jordan interrupted the league’s senior owner. “If you can’t make a profit, you should sell your team,” the Chicago Bulls’ legend said.

Five years ago, having recently taken over in Charlotte, Jordan aligned himself with businessmen such as Phoenix’s Robert Sarver, Cleveland’s Dan Gilbert and Portland’s Paul Allen in squeezing the players hard. Defending his turf as owner of a smaller-revenue team, Jordan said after a deal was struck, delaying the start of the season until Christmas: “I’m not anti-player. As a businessman, I want everybody to be happy.”

Well, everybody wasn’t, notably players who suddenly considered Jordan to be a turncoat. NBA social media was in its relative infancy back then, but it didn’t stop some from criticizing Jordan via Twitter:

— Nick Young, then with Washington: “I’m not wearing Jordans no more. Can’t believe what I just seen and heard from MJ. Elvis Done Left The Building.”

— Paul George, Indiana: “Damn MJ. That’s how you feel?”

— Klay Thompson, Golden State: “You think the 1996 MJ would pull this? Straight hypocrite bro.”

…. applied to this round of bargaining

Compare that to some of the comments coming from both sides of the table this time, from those willing to be quoted as well as some requesting anonymity.

“We each have our own way of communicating in negotiations. But Michael is a little different,” said Glen Taylor, Minnesota Timberwolves owner and chairman of the Board of Governors. “He can talk to the players in particular from both sides of an issue. He’ll say, ‘I know as a player I looked at it this way. Now as an owner, I look at it this way. And this is why …’ I think it’s very helpful.

“I see the players – not that they say so much, but I can read their expressions and their faces – do really tune in and listen to him and what he has to say. He also speaks in a manner, not emotional, not loud, but in a very comforting voice that I think comes across as very honest. It’s important that he doesn’t gloat or anything like that. That as an owner you say, ‘This is the type of investment it is’ and how it would affect your club in the future.”

Atlanta Hawks wing Kyle Korver, a member of the union’s committee, said of Jordan: “He’s helped create and generate conversations that in previous [negotiations] were really hard to come by. There was, at times, a lot of frustration, a lot of anger, on both sides, and everybody trying to hold onto what is ours. One of the reasons why this negotiation has gone so much better is because there has been so much more communication. And to be able to do that you’ve got to have people who know both sides. And Michael’s been really involved, he’s really added to the process.”

We learned so much from him on how to handle ourselves off the court. We take that same knowledge into the negotiations.

NBPA vice president Andre Iguodala

Gilbert, the Cavs owner and entrepreneur, said he noticed how diligent Jordan was in doing his homework and cutting through verbiage. He termed the atmosphere of the just-concluded negotiations as “night and day” better than in 2011.

“He is as up to speed on the details as anybody,” Gilbert told NBA.com. “He knows what’s going on, he studies it, he’s insightful, he’s smart. … Let’s just say if Michael Jordan jumped into somebody else’s body – where it was him but it wasn’t him – I’d respect him as a very astute businessman. You’d never know, you’d just think this guy is a 30-year business veteran who understands things.”

Added Golden State owner Joe Lacob: “When there is sort of a heated exchange or issue, he can speak for what it was like as a player at some point in the past.”

One player who attended some sessions said there was more conversation, both during and after the formal bargaining.

“And after our sessions, Jordan didn’t hesitate to come up to us and say, ‘Hey, I understand where you guys are coming from on this. But here’s where we’re coming from as owners.’ That’s been really cool and a different way of going about this compared to the past.”

No shouting, the player said. No pounding on the table. No acidic remarks or withering stares. More of a calm, reassuring presence – for both sides.

As an example, Wes Edens of the Milwaukee Bucks, participating on the owners’ side for the first time, mentioned haggling over the fine points of free agency.

“There was a lot of pressure from the players to try to reduce restrictions and increase their mobility,” Edens said. “Michael certainly had that perspective as a player. But now as an owner, he realizes how important it is to have parity in the league and for your team to have the best chance to keep its players for a long time.”

It wasn’t happenstance that Jordan became such an asset in facilitating this agreement. Silver apparently drew him out, playing the “MJ card” often.

“Adam is smart,” a player said. “He understood what it would mean to have Michael in that room and to use him as a resource, someone that would resonate with the players. So whenever he spoke, he always turned to [Jordan] and asked, ‘What do you think, Michael?’ ”

Trust was a word used constantly, for the negotiations overall and for the impact Jordan had. The owners could have seen him as a player-sympathizer in their midst, at least when he first got active in 2011 on the labor relations committee. The players still might have viewed him as the alleged hypocrite he was five years ago.

Neither wound up being an issue this time.

“In any negotiation,” Minnesota’s Taylor said, “there’s people who represent the union – lawyers, this and that – and they always have their antennae up. There are plenty of people around the table who were willing to challenge Michael.”

Asked if the owners were able to leverage some “hero worship” players had for Jordan, Taylor said no.

“I wouldn’t use the term ‘hero worship,’” he said. “These guys are so strong and independent themselves, they look at themselves as [immune to that]. But it shows them what, potentially, is out there.”

Players use Jordan’s road map to help form deal

Golden State forward Andre Iguodala, another NBPA vice president, thought any pressure might have been on Jordan, facing a new breed of player that was raised on the crossover corporate appeal and opportunities. Much of it, of course, courtesy of him.

“We’re businessmen first and I think we try to brand ourselves as that,” Iguodala said. “When we go in there, guys aren’t intimidated. We learned so much from him on how to handle ourselves off the court. We take that same knowledge into the negotiations.”

So a final question in Jordan’s ability – even willingness – to bridge gaps and aid appreciation of both sides’ wants and needs in the CBA talks is: What happened to the ultimate ruthless competitor, the guy who had to win at any cost and would spill blood to avoid losing, anywhere, at anything?

Had decades of raking in $100 million annually in endorsement and sponsorship income softened Jordan? Has he, at age 53, mellowed in middle age? Would he have been up to the challenge if, while laying out the financial details of the Hornets, some younger version of himself had interrupted to tell him to sell?

It sounds as if even Jordan understands the golden goose of the NBA these days – with $1 billion franchise valuations, a salary cap pushing toward $100 million, a broadcast contract worth $24 billion over nine years and ongoing global explosion – is too darn valuable to throttle over a few percentage points in BRI (basketball-related income) split. Or a “win.”

So maybe the situation has changed more than Jordan has changed.

“The greater this league becomes, the more both sides realize that it’s not a zero-sum game,” the Cavs’ Jones said. “It’s not all-or-nothing. We have to put something on the table for the other side to make this relationship work.”

In Jordan’s lifetime at least, players routinely would seek offseason employment to subsidize their basketball paychecks. Now, while few ever will buy and run an NBA franchise, they do own and operate fast-food and other retail franchises, and run businesses that employ more people than an NBA team has roster spots.

Ultimately, Michael Jordan paved the way for a lot of that with his “Air Jordan” Nike affiliation and all that followed (his five-year, $2.5 million initial contract with Nike has resulted in a brand with sales of approximately $3 billion annually). Other players such as Shaquille O’Neal and Grant Hill have invested in minority stakes of NBA teams, with more players to come.

Any suspicion, distrust or disappointment with Jordan from the 2011 CBA sessions seems to have gotten dwarfed this time by the appreciation today’s players have for Jordan’s dual success. With so many veterans on the NBPA committee, and a sense of what’s next beyond their playing days, there was an eagerness in the room to learn from Jordan.

“There’s respect,” Jones said “In order to accomplish what he has as a player and as an owner, it takes hard work. It takes tremendous motivation and focus. We understand – it’s clear – that Michael is an ex-player and a current owner. But that doesn’t lessen his impact or respect from us as players in regards to his business acumen and his accomplishments.”

Jordan as a pivotal player again – of a certain sort – at the height of the NBA’s riches and popularity makes sense, if you think about it.

Or as Jones said: “It’s only fitting. Basketball is like any other industry – you have pioneers, you have people that drive it, you have people that define it. Mike’s the face of the NBA, the greatest player to ever play the game. So you know he’s had a hand in building what the NBA has become and what it will be.”

NBA.com’s Scott Howard-Cooper and Sekou Smith and TNT’s David Aldridge contributed to this report.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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