The NBA doesn't have an image problem.
It has young guys who have young ideas. Maturity comes later, and sometimes too late to realize you should've done this or you should've done that. Kids shouldn't come out of school as early as they do. A year in college isn't enough. They shouldn't be allowed to come out until they are adults—21 years old.
Now, why shouldn't a black kid who isn't wealthy have a chance to provide for his family? That is an issue; I'm not walking away from that. The problem is some kids are mature and ready to deal with the whole NBA atmosphere, but many more kids are not.
I was a mature guy coming out of North Carolina, so when a negative thing happened—someone misinterprets what gambling means to me—it didn't stick. I stepped forward and said, "This is what I did, this is not jeopardizing anything, this is not an addiction," and the public listened. But I was a lot more mature when it happened. If I'd been in that position and had been asked that question at 18 or 19, I may have had a very different way of handling it.
When I turned pro, the league was looking for a change. I had the personality and the game and a style of play, and all that came together at the same time. All the stars lined up and catapulted everything that came after—23 different shoes, Jordan Brand, everything. It's a phenomenon. How do you explain a phenomenon? You can't. The only advice I can give to someone in the league now is to be original. The consumer isn't dumb. He or she can sense things being knocked off. Originality is what lasts.
David Stern hates when I say this, but in some ways he created his own problem. Look at the way the league markets its players. When I came in, they marketed the athletes themselves, how they performed, what they accomplished. To reinvent someone is very difficult. When you say a player is today's Michael Jordan or today's Magic Johnson, the first thing the public will do is compare him to the real Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson. When the public doesn't see the same degree of success, you've just dug yourself a deeper hole.
You have to show the consumers something they haven't seen before, someone about whom they can say, "Hey, that guy is pretty cool." Magic, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, myself—we didn't start out as the league's partners. We evolved, then the league made us its partners. That's what the league has to do now—find guys who can grow up to be partners. Don't take guys and force them into our mold.
One thing to learn from me is that everything I've ever done has been me, not something that someone calculated me to be. It goes to my upbringing, my parents. I didn't grow up in the inner city. I grew up in a rural area, where values were magnified. You were taught how to operate in society, to be articulate, honest. Kids growing up in the city, they're more materialistic. My kids are going through that now.
I can wear a suit today and jeans with holes tomorrow, and yet people know they are seeing the real me in either outfit. I had cornrows when I was a kid, but it was before anyone knew who I was; would the public or corporate America accept me if I had them today? If I was willing to say, "This is who I am, I'm not trying to be so-and-so," maybe, but even then I'm not sure. When you see Michael Jordan today, you see Michael Jordan as a totally honest person, and when I say honest I mean real, genuine. I am who I am, and that's comprehensible to the masses and in many languages.
It's a tough task for the league to create a similar image for itself. It has to find the right mix between corporate and street, believe in what it's doing and live with whatever the response may be. Too many of the league's decisions are made based on the bottom line. People pick up on that. You can't be afraid to fail. The stars you have now might not live up to the icon of a Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson, but maybe they will create an image that delivers an impact for you 10, 15 years from now.
All I know is—for the league and its players—don't try to duplicate something that has been done before. Do it your own way, and see where it goes. It might not hit the way you want it to. You may not make as much money as you want to. But there's value in remaining true to yourself.