CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Yes, LeBron James shot a stone-faced glance at Michael Jordan sitting at the end of the Charlotte bench the other night as the Miami Heat star was streaking in for a highlight dunk.
After initially denying his role in the competitive staredown after the Heat took a commanding 3-0 series lead on the Bobcats on Saturday, James admitted as much following Sunday’s practice in saying he frequently looked at his childhood idol "throughout the course of the game."
But as the Heat look to complete a first-round sweep of the Bobcats on Monday, there's another reason James may have his sights set on Jordan and the example the Hall of Fame former guard has set as the league's lone African-American majority NBA owner.
As the league grapples with the fallout from racist comments allegedly made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, James and some of his high-profile Heat teammates believe the ordeal raises awareness of the lack of diversity at the top levels of the NBA’s 30 ownership groups.
A day after taking the lead among superstar players to strongly condemn Sterling by saying “there is no place in our league” for a racist owner, James suggested Sunday he may explore following Jordan and running his own NBA team someday as top executive or owner.
“At that level, it would be great,” James said. “Obviously, you’d have to be, financially, very, very wealthy, which I’m not. I’m doing all right. It would be great, obviously, but it’s a lot of pressure on you to put together a team. It would be great to be around the game. I don’t know what shape or form, but I have a lot of knowledge that I would love to pass on. I believe I have a great eye for talent as well.”
James, a four-time MVP and two-time champion, has been the league’s pre-eminent star for several seasons. But he’s also become one of the NBA’s most outspoken and polarizing forces since his controversial decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers to sign with Miami as a free agent in 2010.
At age 29 and already having expanded his marketing, ownership and endorsement portfolio to include one of Europe’s more popular professional soccer franchises, James is well on course to push his career earnings and overall net worth well beyond $500 million by the time he retires from the NBA.
Jordan was the head of a team of investors that purchased the Bobcats for a reported $275 million in 2010 from former owner Bob Johnson, who was the league’s first African-American majority owner. Among former star players who have risen to the level of top executives or small ownership stakes have been Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Joe Dumars, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Shaquille O’Neal.
But when it comes to the numbers of ethnic minorities who have held controlling stakes in NBA franchises, the results are miniscule in a league where roughly 80 percent of the players are African-American. Jordan and Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, who descends from India, are believed to be the only persons of color among the 30 owners who ultimately hold the most influence along with new commissioner Adam Silver in what potential sanctions are taken against Sterling.
That’s likely among the reasons Sacramento mayor and former NBA player Kevin Johnson, also serving as a special adviser to the National Basketball Players Association, said the players have demanded to have a role and a voice in the investigation and eventual punitive options Sterling may face.
Although superstars such as Clippers guard and players union president Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and James are considered the faces of the NBA, the real power and influence to effect change rests at the ownership and Board of Governors level of the league.
The Sterling ordeal serves as a reminder of just how much more progress the players need to make. Like James, Heat center Chris Bosh said he’s encouraged to see a few former greats explore ownership opportunities. As max deals have guaranteed more players contracts exceeding $100 million -- even amid some overall salary rollbacks in the most recent collective bargaining agreement -- there are more opportunities to think long term, expand capital investments, invest and ultimately influence the game.
“As guys have made more money and guys take better care of their money, you’re seeing more guys stepping into ownership and just kind of exploring that world,” Bosh said. “Once one guy breaks that mold, breaks that ice, you see other guys follow suit. All you have to do is see it. And once you see it happen, you know it’s attainable, then hopefully more players kind of get involved.”
Bosh didn’t shy away from pointing out how the Sterling dilemma, the ownership group and league bylaws that might ultimately decide his fate, warrant more diversity at the decision-making table.
Especially on matters of race and inclusion. The reality is that the NBA’s boardroom will likely never reflect the level of diversity of the team rosters, despite the tremendous global growth of the game under the leadership of former commissioner David Stern.
Silver faces a different challenge to ensure there’s a range of voices and perspectives at the highest reaches of the game. It was Silver, then deputy commissioner, who spoke on the league’s behalf in a statement that welcomed Jordan to the club of majority owners four years ago.
“The game of basketball is diverse, and we’re trying to move this game all over the world,” Bosh said. “And as we move it all over the world, we’re going to have more guys from India now step into ownership, guys from China. It’s a worldly, international market. And you have to take that into account when you’re running your business.”
Dwyane Wade thinks more players are willing to make it part of their business beyond the contributions on the court. But he’s also aware of the challenges that exist in grasping the business side of the game.
“I assume that more players will like to be a part,” Wade said. “Once you start thinking that far into it, you realize that there’s a lot more to running a team than us as players even realize. If you just think about the arena, and what it takes to run an arena and different elements, you don’t even think about all of that. You just think about running a game you loved your whole life and it’s cool. You don’t really think about what it takes to own a team and all of the sacrifices and everything.”
There’s also a moral obligation that comes with the job.
Jordan has often faced criticism for his relative public silence on social issues over the course of his playing career. And since he’s become an owner, he’s never used his platform to draw attention to his race. On many levels, he’s always felt it wasn’t necessary. It’s about doing the job the right way.
But Sunday, Jordan joined the outcry against Sterling’s alleged comments.
“As an owner, I'm obviously disgusted that a fellow team owner could hold such sickening and offensive views," Jordan said in a statement released by the Bobcats. "I'm confident that Adam Silver will make a full investigation and take appropriate action quickly. As a former player, I'm completely outraged.”
There’s one thing James and Jordan can agree on from their respective vantage points. They both want Sterling to be dealt with swiftly and the focus of an otherwise thrilling first round of the NBA playoffs to return back to basketball.
Then one day, James might join Jordan at the NBA ownership table.
First, James joked he’d have to find him a version of Pat Riley to run his prospective team.
From there, the biggest challenge of being an owner for James is to have a seat so close to the action but no longer possessing the skill to check into the game and save the team on the court.
That reality set in when James was in mid-air during Game 3 glancing at a seated and stoic Jordan.
“When my day is up, there’s nothing I could do,” James said. “Obviously, you would love to put the sneakers on and the uniform on, but there’s nothing you can do. All you can do is try to put the right guys in position, both in the front office and on the floor to help the team win. Once your time is up and you decide to throw your shoes over the top of the wires, there’s nothing you can do.”
For now, James and the Heat’s stars have a strong impact on the game.
In times like these, it’s never too soon to think about having the ultimate influence on it as an owner.