The crowd roared as Michael Jordan walked onto the court during Sunday’s All-Star Game. Jordan had made this stroll 14 times as a player, but this time, he wasn’t wearing a jersey. Instead, he was dressed in a black blazer, gray jeans and a giant watch that sparkled with the power of the sun.
The announcer’s growly voice blared from the Spectrum Center speakers.
“From North Carolina, the 6-6 guard and chairman of the Charlotte Hornets, Michaelllllll Jordannnn.”
Jordan was ceremoniously handing the All-Star Game ball to Michael Reinsdorf, the president of Jordan’s former team, the Chicago Bulls, and the son of Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. The city of Chicago will be hosting the 2020 All-Star Game.
Looking on from the sidelines during the timeout, LeBron James and 25 other uniformed All-Stars watched the two shake hands. It was a symbolic gesture with historical weight. In 2010, Jordan became the first former NBA player to become a majority owner of a franchise. He is currently the only African-American majority owner in the NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB.
These handshakes are almost always done with white hands.
That fact wasn’t lost on the All-Stars that surrounded Jordan on Sunday, the majority of whom were black. Jordan broke through a wall, opening a door that many of those same players hope to one day walk through.
Only days before he stood in front of Jordan in Charlotte, James, the most prominent All-Star of them all, announced to the world his intention to follow in Jordan’s footsteps.
Last week, through The Athletic, James boldly declared that he was going to own an NBA team one day, just like Jordan.
“Ain’t no maybe about it,” James told The Athletic. “I’m going to do that s***.”
That’s always been the plan.
“That’s what he’s gonna do,” Dwyane Wade said of James this past weekend. “He’s going to own a team. He’s been talking about this since we were rookies. I think all of us want to be a part of ownership,” Wade said. “It’s a goal of mine, it’s a goal of (Chris Paul), (Carmelo Anthony) and our whole crew.”
Jordan’s power has gone all the way to the top. And today’s players are flexing their muscle.
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Kevin Durant grew up outside Washington, D.C., in Prince George’s County, MD, and was four days away from his 13th birthday when, on Sept. 25, 2001, Jordan announced he would return to play for the local Washington Wizards. Six years later, by the time Durant was drafted No. 2 overall in 2007, Jordan had purchased a minority stake in the then-Charlotte Bobcats, the first stepping stone to buying the team outright in 2010.
As a kid in PGC, Durant never even considered that he could one day be an owner of any NBA team. But Jordan changed all that. Nowadays, Durant is thinking bigger. While Jordan played host at All-Star Weekend, Durant was asked whether he ever dreamed he could possibly own a franchise.
“I never thought about it as a kid,” Durant said. “You don’t even think about the business until halfway in [after] you accomplish everything you want as a player. Only thing I [previously] thought about is stepping into this oasis, this freedom as a man, to just do everything I wanted every day -- play basketball, play video games, watch TV, eat junk food. I’ve been doing that for the last 12 years.
“Now, I’ve started to think about what’s next.”
Durant, who is almost four years younger than James, followed a similar path to James off the court. James built a business empire through agent Rich Paul, manager Maverick Carter and others in his inner circle. So far, James has opened a public school in his hometown of Akron, launched an athlete-owned media company in Uninterrupted, and had at least some role in founding a sports agency, Klutch Sports Management, with his longtime friend Paul. There’s also SpringHill Entertainment, a production company started by James and Carter, which produced James-centric shows on HBO and ESPN and will shepherd James’ starring turn in Space Jam 2 in the role once held by Jordan.
Last week, Durant debuted his own show, “The Boardroom” on ESPN+, in which he and his business partner Rich Kleiman will have starring roles alongside ESPN analyst and former No. 2 overall pick Jay Williams. The original series, in a similar vein as James’ “The Shop,” will feature in-depth discussions from icons inside and outside basketball about the sports business. It’s just one of several projects hosted within Thirty Five Ventures, a company Durant co-owns with Kleiman. Durant has also pledged a $10 million donation to open The Durant Center, a new facility seeking to increase the number of low-income and first-generation college students in the Prince George’s County public school system.
Durant, like James, also has interest in adding an NBA team -- or a slice of one -- to his investment portfolio. The Golden State Warriors forward is just 30 years old and has made $160 million in salary. He knows it’s going to take a lot more than that to get into the ownership business.
“If I make enough money, I would for sure think about it,” Durant said. “I would love to. It’s much easier said than done.”
In 2010, Jordan successfully made a $275 million bid, plopping down $30 million in upfront cash, according to the Charlotte Observer, to purchase the team from Bob Johnson, the co-founder of BET and the first African-American majority club owner of a major American sports league. Jordan’s investment was a shrewd business move. This month, Forbes valued the Charlotte franchise at $1.25 billion.
The money is one thing, but Durant stressed how significant it is that Jordan, as an African-American, was able to smash through that glass ceiling that, for so long, had been colored white.
“I don’t want to understate that when it comes to Michael Jordan, it’s so hard to break into that club of being an owner,” Durant said. “Because that’s what it is -- it’s a boy’s club. It’s a bunch of friends that make those deals together. So when you see a black man from North Carolina, that started off as a basketball player, rise up and own a basketball team, it’s very inspiring.”
Count Portland Trail Blazers star guard Damian Lillard among those who drew inspiration from Jordan and his business pursuits that empowered him to own a team.
“I think he’s definitely opened the doors for it, just letting you know it’s possible,” Lillard said. “For him, the great Michael Jordan as a player, but on the business side he was the first guy to really, really, really do it. Especially as an African-American man. For him to do that, now you see so many guys try to establish that business away from basketball.”
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For so long, the business of basketball has been disproportionately white. In 2015, Dr. Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, found that the NBA was a leader in the sports industry for racial and gender hiring practices, receiving top scores in men’s pro sports.
However, a survey of the league’s org charts showed that, despite those strong marks, the higher and higher one looks, the fewer and fewer African-Americans appeared. According to the UCF study, 74.4 percent of all NBA players identified themselves as African-Americans or black compared to just 33.3 percent of their head coaches, 19.4 percent of GMs and 3.3 percent of owners (with Jordan the sole majority owner). In 2019, after Tyronn Lue was fired by Cleveland earlier this season, the coaching percentage fell to 23.3 percent, or seven of the 30 jobs. For any player looking at positions of power in their sport, that’s not an encouraging sign.
Just last week, James spoke out against what he sees as racial bias against his African-American representatives.
Following a trip to take in a Duke-Virginia game, James and Paul were chided for what many saw as a “recruiting trip” of projected 2019 No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson.
In talking to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, James fired back.
“A recruiting trip? I didn't talk to anybody,” James said. "They're only saying that because it's Rich … Now, Rich is a threat to everybody, and they look at it and they want to keep trying to jab my agent and jab my friend. And what is he doing that's wrong? They don't say that about no other agent when other guys go see [players]. They don't say that about no other agent, but my guy because he's a threat.”
James went on.
"And he's African-American, too. Throw that in there.”
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Not every star sees themselves as a future NBA owner. Kemba Walker, who plays for Jordan’s Hornets, wasn’t about that life, telling NBC Sports, “no sir, just not my thing.” After praising Jordan’s business efforts, Lillard just shook his head when asked if he’d like to be an owner or run an NBA team. Golden State Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson said owning a team “would be fun, but it takes a lot of capital to do that. I’ll just stick to owning a fantasy team one day.”
But just about every player that spoke with NBC Sports praised James and Jordan for empowering the younger generation to think big. James and Jordan have not just asserted their own power, but have also elevated people of color to powerful positions. In 2006, Jordan hired Charlotte Hornets (then-Bobcats) president of business operations Fred Whitfield as the NBA’s only African-American chief operating officer. Whitfield has worked closely with Jordan for decades, initially as an attorney under Jordan’s longtime agent David Falk. (On Saturday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver name-checked Whitfield during his opening remarks at his annual All-Star press conference).
In 2012, while with the Miami Heat, James hired Paul, who had been working under Leon Rose at CAA, to be his agent. Paul left CAA to start up Klutch Sports and in short time has become one of the league’s top power brokers.
Since leaving CAA, Paul has added stars such as Davis, John Wall and Ben Simmons to his clientele. According to HoopsHype tracking, Paul currently represents 16 players with total salaries amounting to $194 million, the fifth-highest total among all agents.
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, just 22 years old and a participant in the All-Star 3-point shootout for a second time, admired James and Jordan’s business acumen but also noted their support staffs.
“They’re opening doors,” said Booker, who is not one of Paul’s clients. “It’s never enough for those type of guys, and I’d like to think of myself the same. Expanding their business, expanding their life. And they put the right people around them in the right positions to take care of them. Big shout out to them for changing the game and being an inspiration to us, the younger generation.”
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It’s not hard to envision how a franchise owned by James might look. Could there one day be a Banana Boat Inc., investment group featuring James, Wade, Paul and Anthony? Wade hinted at it over the All-Star Weekend, and others in the league are connecting the dots.
Just as Jordan anointed his longtime associate Whitfield to be the Hornets president, some in league circles foresee a possible two-pronged brain trust featuring Carter at the head of business operations and Paul spearheading the basketball side.
Paul is following a similar path as the current general managers for both James and Durant’s teams. Before taking over as the Lakers’ general manager, Rob Pelinka was a high-powered agent for over a decade, representing names like Kobe Bryant, James Harden and for a short time, Durant. Warriors GM Bob Myers did the same, spending 14 years as a big-time agent with SFX Sports and Wasserman.
Both Pelinka and Myers played college hoops and earned a law degree before entering the agent business. Paul did neither but has amassed an impressive client list and is flexing comparable power just the same.
Not everyone likes it, especially those in top managerial levels. Pelicans owner Gayle Benson fired the team’s general manager the morning after Paul walked out mid-game with Anthony Davis on national television, reportedly vowing to “take back control from outside forces,” according to ESPN. As the president of the Knicks, Phil Jackson once referred to James’ business partners as a “posse,” a term that James and Carter interpreted as offensive racially-coded language meant to minimize their business credibility.
"We see the success that we have, but then there is always someone that lets you know still how far we still have to go as African-Americans," James said following Jackson’s comments.
The All-Star Weekend was a homecoming for the Curry family, but it also represented something more than that. With Jordan owning a franchise and LeBron making noise about doing the same, it was a statement that black athletes are wielding more power within the game than ever before and opening doors for others to follow. Perhaps one day we’ll see James shake hands with Jordan at halfcourt of an All-Star game -- not as players, but owners.