Jordan humbled by biggest challenge

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Approximately 12 steps and a slight right turn.

That's the distance.

That's all that separates Michael Jordan's seat at the end of the Charlotte Hornets bench from the official scorer's table during home games amid his team's woeful start to the season. Best believe there are still times, even at age 51, when it may seem easier for Jordan to end a Charlotte losing streak that now stands at nine games by rising from his seat and walking toward the scorer's table.

Then checking in.

"Do I ever have thoughts of wishing I could still play? Yeah, I mean that's human nature," Jordan admits of his ongoing challenge to channel his competitive drive. "But those are short thoughts until I pick up a ball or my knees start to hurt. But I'm in a different place right now. I'm right where I need to be."

Jordan is more than a decade removed from the last time he made a similar move from Washington's executive suite to the Wizards starting lineup for two seasons. Add a dozen years with probably a couple dozen pounds, and those visions flee quickly now.

There's a paradox within that place.

Psychologically, Jordan insists he's learned to keep a proper distance. He runs his team with a big-picture perspective he hopes will one day bring him success via another top free agent or two, the development of a couple of recent draft picks and, ultimately, a seventh championship ring. That ring, he says would be more rewarding than any of the previous six he won as a superstar with the Chicago Bulls.

But for that big picture perspective, on many game nights, he's closer to the action than any other owner in sports -- so close that Al Jefferson's sweat drenches Jordan's designer jeans when the Hornets center comes off the court for a breather.

Last week, it was close enough for Jordan to glance one seat over and directly into Kemba Walker's wincing eyes to gauge the extent of pain immediately after the guard limped over with a leg injury.

Should he make it to that seat Wednesday, that proximity could be close enough for Jordan to see two stages of his career flash before his eyes when the Bulls visit the reeling Hornets. The same iconic figure who never needed a Game 7 en route to going 6-0 in the Finals during the 1990s is now an anxious top executive trying to help the team he owns overcome a disappointing 4-14 start.

Just a month into the season, Charlotte's early struggles have doused much of the enthusiasm, hype -- and, as locals would say, buzz -- generated by the Hornets $4.5 million rebranding and makeover that saw the team ditch its Bobcats nickname to return to its original identity. Jordan, who took over as majority owner in 2010, has been at the forefront of that process and has had a hand in every decision from carpet patterns in the locker rooms to the lighting of logos in the rafters.

Jordan's associates say he's been more visible over the last 12 months in the community and around the arena to help the franchise capitalize on the transition. According to team officials, the makeover has included more than 30 new sponsorship deals and the second-highest rate of new season-ticket sales (behind Cleveland). The 10,000 season-ticket holders are the most in 10 years for the Hornets.

The team hasn't changed its on-court brand, however. They were hoping to build on a 43-win season that resulted in their first playoff appearance in four years. But injuries that have sidelined two starters, a loaded November schedule and chemistry issues with top free-agent acquisition Lance Stephenson, who was benched in the fourth quarter of recent games, has led to a turbulent start.

"The Michael I knew -- there's not a more competitive guy -- I'm sure it's bothering him," said Bulls vice president John Paxson, Jordan's teammate during Chicago's first three-peat championship run in the early 1990s. "Inside, I'm sure it has to be, because he's so competitive. But in this seat ... we're forced to look at things differently now. The hardest part is to try to keep your emotions even and not let them get the best of you. You don't lose that. You channel it in these roles."

Paxson is one of several former teammates from that Bulls dynasty who has transitioned into management. A top basketball operations executive under owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Paxson has kept the Bulls in contention despite injuries to Derrick Rose.

Phil Jackson, who coached Jordan to the six titles in Chicago and then won five more with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, is now in his first executive role as president of basketball operations with the New York Knicks. Last week, Jordan emerged from the Hornets locker room after a loss just in time to run into former Bulls teammate Steve Kerr, who has coached Golden State to its best start in franchise history.

Both Paxson and Kerr said it was hard to imagine the Jordan they played with having the temperament to channel his competitive drive into a job as an NBA coach or general manager. But they said Jordan's combination of business and branding experience with Nike, along with his iconic image and credibility with players has him in an ideal role.

"I was pretty sure he had enough money and could afford it," Kerr joked of Jordan's ascension to NBA ownership. "Each role in this league is so different. I was an executive with the Suns, now I'm a coach. This is the one I'm cut out for. I love being at practice every day. I didn't particularly enjoy the general manager role. I don't think Michael would enjoy the GM role or the coaching. So to be an owner, run an organization and hire people who can do a good job and work with them is a perfect role for him."

It's also been a painful role at times.

"I've always considered myself a very successful owner that tries to make sound decisions," Jordan said. "And when you make bad decisions, you learn from that and move forward. I think I'm better in that sense. I've experienced all of the different valleys and lows of ownership and successful business. If that constitutes me being a better owner, then I guess I am."

Entering the season, Jordan spoke at length about some early mistakes he made and lessons learned as an NBA executive. One move stained his reputation from the outset with the Wizards in 2001, when Jordan made Kwame Brown the first high school player to be selected No. 1 overall in the draft.

Brown bounced around the league for 12 seasons and averaged 6.6 points and 5.5 rebounds. He's considered one of the biggest busts in NBA draft history as a top pick.

"He made a decision that Kwame was going to be like a Dwight Howard," said Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing, a long-time Jordan friend and Charlotte's associate head coach. "And unfortunately, it didn't work out. But just like in every aspect of life, you learn from mistakes. I think he's done a pretty good job understanding that he doesn't get it right all the time, just like no one else does. He's Michael Jordan. But he's a person who goes through learning and growing."

Jordan now has something in Charlotte he never had in those early years in Washington or when he first became a minority owner under Bob Johnson initially in Charlotte: Total control.

His imprint and influence are now everywhere with the Hornets, although he splits his time between a home in South Florida and a penthouse suite overlooking the arena in Charlotte. Jordan has his two older brothers working for him, one in basketball operations and another in arena management. His oldest daughter is also with the Hornets corporate communications office.

After two years of futility on the court, questionable lottery picks and turnover on the staff, Jordan now oversees a stable front office run by long-time associate Fred Whitfield and general manager Rich Cho. Second-year head coach Steve Clifford built a reputation as one of the NBA's most respected assistants.

"We collaborate," Jordan said of his staff's inner workings. "But it all starts with me. The criticism starts with me. And if things go well, everybody always looks a bunch of different ways. But if things go bad, they always look to the top. And I understand that, which makes me get more involved. I understand all the decision making that has to be done, and get a grip on all the things that have to be done."

The last direction Jordan wants the Hornets headed in is reverse, which is why the rough start has been frustrating. He's seen the franchise grow from a 28-120 stretch soon after he took over, a time when "guys were moping around and wondering what their jobs were going to be next week."

There was a starkly different vibe entering this season.

"This is the fun part," Jordan said before the regular season. "Walking around this building and seeing all these people, seeing the enjoyment and fun that's coming to this building now based on the success this team is [having]. I'm not really worried about how I got here. I want to maintain it and be consistent about it, because I've seen the other side of it and that's not fun."

Neither is this current reality as December opens against the Bulls. And it hasn't been a pleasant view so far from Jordan's seat at the end of Charlotte's bench. Clifford says he doesn't feel any additional pressure during games with Jordan sitting just a few seats away during many home games.

But there is instant accountability to help turn around a team that ranks 25th in the league in defensive efficiency and 27th in offensive efficiency.

"Like for instance, he gives me a lot of good advice and knowledge about our team because he watches so closely," Clifford said of Jordan. "Those are things that help me as a coach. Other owners know basketball, too. But not at the level he does. He's a great resource. This league is about winning. So anybody that can help you and help our staff better prepare to win, that's what you want."

But players say Jordan stops well short of meddling during games.

"He doesn't say much, actually, when he's on the bench," Walker said. "He talks to the referees for us. The things we would like to say but can't, he can say it. The first time I saw him on the bench, though, was when I was rookie. I was nervous. I couldn't catch the basketball. And when you come out of the game, it's the longest walk back to the bench in the world sometimes, because you see the greatest player to ever play the game sitting right there looking at you. As time goes on, you get used to it."

As the Hornets work through their slump, Jordan is right there sorting through the kinks, too. It's been hard to figure out a team that's made a habit of playing to drastic extremes. The Hornets trailed by 24 points in the season opener and rallied to beat Milwaukee, but squandered a 23-point lead in a loss at Portland.

"M.J. and those guys have done their jobs, we just have to get better," said Jefferson, who was asked when the Hornets might regain their chemistry from last season. "I'm not a psychic, my man. I'm not in panic mode. I'm not the type of guy who sits back and makes excuses for things going bad. We have the talent. We just have to get it together. Once we do, we'll be having a totally different conversation."

Jordan wants the focus of that dialogue to return to goals that were set entering the season. And with the Bulls coming in, there's no better time to relay one of his stories about Chicago's early struggles to establish themselves on the way to becoming a perennial contender.

"I would like to be better than we were last year -- we built a base of 43 wins," Jordan said. "When I first got to Chicago, we were not a great team. We worked our way to the top. Once we got to the top, we didn't want to lose. We didn't want to go back the other way. I want [that] feeling with [this] team. They made a statement. They've been to the bottom. Let's work our way to the top and get that feeling."

No matter how close he sits to the action, Air Jordan is well beyond impacting teams with his play.

In Charlotte, his success now requires being grounded in patience.