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What Was It Like Having Michael Jordan As a Boss?

SportWhat Was It Like Having Michael Jordan As a Boss?

On Wednesday, for the first time in 4,970 days, the Charlotte Hornets will play a game without Michael Jordan as their majority owner. It will be the end of an era for the franchise, one in which the most famous basketball player ever was not only associated with it but also ran the team. When the NBA Board of Governors approved the sale of the Hornets this summer to a group led by Rick Schnall and Gabe Plotkin, the transaction ended Jordan’s 13-year run at the Hornets’ forefront and under his control, though he will remain a minority owner.

It was not exactly a prosperous era for the Hornets, though they won their first game with Jordan as owner and their last. Charlotte won 41.7 percent of its games under Jordan’s stewardship and made the playoffs just three times, including the season in which Jordan assumed control. The Hornets underwent a name change — the franchise was still known as the Charlotte Bobcats when Jordan bought them in 2010 — and five coaching changes.

Jordan, however, was the constant. He had been the face of the NBA at one point as a star player, and he was nearly the face of the Hornets in his time there, too.

I know the wins and losses weren’t what everybody wanted but he touched a lot of people. I think it goes beyond the wins and losses…” said Ramon Sessions, who played for the Bobcats from 2012-14 and Hornets from 2016-17. “We had so many different events, different stuff we was doing in the community. Opening up the facility for a big turkey drive for all the families in Charlotte, like different events that we was doing, but it was all stuff that was just like touching the community. It wasn’t like he was partnering with a big company going to do this. There was a lot of stuff that was just really embedded in the community, which I thought was pretty cool. And he would be there passing that stuff out… He was there. That’s Michael Jordan, he didn’t have to do that.”

As the Hornets prepare for their first season without him at the helm in more than a decade, The Athletic spoke to 12 former players to get an idea of what it was like to play for the Bobcats and Hornets under Jordan, and to have one of the most famous people in the world as one’s boss.

Jordan had been a minority investor in the franchise under Bob Johnson, the team’s original majority owner, since 2006. But he was not just involved; he also held the final say on basketball decisions. On March 17, 2010, the franchise became his, and the Jordan era officially began.

“I plan to be very hands-on with this business,” Jordan told Bobcats.com that day. “For me there’s a personal dimension to owning this team. I’m doing this because Carolina is, and always has been, home for me, and basketball is my main business. I’m also the first player to become the principal owner of a team, and that gives me a different perspective on ownership than anyone else in the league.”

Everyone who played for the organization under Jordan seemed to remember their first time meeting Jordan. His mere presence was notable and players’ attention floated his way when he was around.

Sessions: Growing up in the ’90s, I was the biggest Bulls fan there could be. He was someone who made the game look so fun. When I was 8, 9, 10 I wanted to be in the NBA because of Michael Jordan. Then being able to play for him and as an adult, getting to meet him, you almost have to pinch yourself.

Cody Zeller (Bobcats/Hornets center, 2013-21): Everyone calls him Michael. I asked that question just to clarify. What are we supposed to call him? Everyone calls him Michael.

Gerald Henderson (Bobcats/Hornets guard, 2009-15): When that happened, Bob Johnson was the majority owner; to that point we never saw him. I knew him because we lived in the same condo building. He wasn’t around. We knew that Michael was around. That was the only owner that we cared about in terms of basketball. He was around the most. He was the majority owner in our minds.

Nicolas Batum (Hornets forward, 2015-20): When I got traded, I got the call, it was “Hi, this is MJ.” (Silence as he pretends to look at this phone) What? I was shocked. I talked to MJ. I’m on my phone. He called me. I grew up as a Bulls fan. A ’90s kid. So I grew up — Scottie was my idol but MJ, of course, he’s MJ. Just to be in the same organization and to see him pretty much on a daily basis and get to know him was pretty impressive.

Caleb Martin (Hornets forward, 2019-21): My favorite memory was probably the first time I got off my Exhibit 10 deal and I signed my three-year deal, and as I was coming back downstairs, because we had like a gala or something like that, and I think I was coming back downstairs and I ran into him coming back downstairs with Mitch (Kupchak). That was the first time I ever met him. And, I just signed my contract and I just met MJ, it was crazy. I’m on a high right now. It was pretty dope. Then I went to go get tipsy on some wine. So I was like having a great night, you know what I mean. I was good.

Terry Rozier (Hornets guard, 2019-present): My first time talking to him was obviously when I got traded over, but my first time meeting with him we was in Vegas. Went to Aria, had lunch. It was dope. Great experience. I ordered the same exact thing he did. Just a salad. I didn’t want to order nothing else.

Willy Hernangómez (Hornets center, 2018-20): I was with a towel going to the cold tub. I was just with my headphones. I saw somebody big on the left looking to me. So I was just like walking and then I walk back. I was like “Oh, snap.” I don’t know what to do. So he comes to me speaking Spanish at the beginning. We just have a little chat. It was really amazing. When he left, I just called my mom, like “I met MJ.”

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Bobcats/Hornets forward, 2012-20): The moment I got drafted he made it really seamless that he was one call away, and I really honored that and I really respected that.

Cody Martin (Hornets forward, 2019-present): He came to one of our practices my rookie year. He sat in on one of our practices. That was my first time meeting him and it was just weird because it’s different when you see somebody and you see this person. Like I said, he’s iconic. And then to see him and meet him in person, he’s a really cool dude. Talked to him, and give you pointers. And then another time was when he wasn’t happy with how we were performing as a team. So it’s also kind of cool to see that side of it too. You know what I mean? We just weren’t playing the way we should have as a team, at least for that game, and he just had some words with us, but it’s what we needed. Kind of like he was just giving us a spark.

Caleb Martin: I had a good game one time and I just got a random text. And I’m reading it — I didn’t have the number saved because I never had the number — and it’s a message saying like “Good game,” blah blah, and it’s like “MJ” at the bottom. I’m like ‘”Oh s–t.’ I’m thinking it’s somebody else texting for him. I text him right back and he texts me right back. It’s really him, too.

Zeller: Everyone kind of knew when he was in the building, whether it was practice or a game. It was never normal. It was never like just another guy. I don’t feel like I get starstruck by many people but everyone wants to put their best foot forward when he’s in the building. Practices or games were probably a little more intense or guys are playing just a little touch harder trying to impress MJ while he’s in the building.

(Jacob Kupferman / Getty Images)

Sessions: In Charlotte, they used to sit on top. So every time at practice everybody would always look up to see if he was in there or not. To see if he was watching.

Caleb Martin: You’d be practicing and not know he’s there, and then you hear the whispers, “Oh, MJ here, MJ here today, MJ.” You look up, he is just sitting there watching practice. And then sometimes you might find that he might be on the court and talk to him for a little bit. He’s really a cool dude.

Devonte’ Graham (Hornets guard, 2018-21): When you see his car in the parking garage, you know he’s there. So even if not upstairs watching, he’s always in tune with what’s going on.

Hernangómez: He was talking some time when he see us, like we should do something better, he was yelling at us. He was really into the team and even when you think he’s not there, or he doesn’t watch you, he’s got somebody to see you.

Batum: He’s very close to the players. People ask him stuff. When you see MJ, you see the greatest of all time, MJ, like he’s untouchable, but when you spend some time with him in the locker room or behind closed doors, he’s a regular man. I mean he is. He just happens to be maybe the greatest athlete who ever lived.

Jordan, especially early on his tenure as owner, was hands-on. He would make himself accessible to players. Occasionally, he even reminded them of why he’s, arguably, the greatest player of all time.

Henderson: We were getting our ass kicked for about a week. I show up to the training room the next morning. I was a rookie so I had to get my stuff out of the way first and he’s already in there stretching and he’s got practice gear on. I said “What are you about to do, man?” He said “I’m gonna come up there and kick y’all ass.” He’s in there talking s–t for however long.

He comes up there and he gets into our scrimmages. He jumped on our second team. Our first team had like Stephen Jackson, Gerald Wallace, Ray Felton, and — who else started that year? — Boris Diaw. On our second team it was me, Derrick Brown, D.J. Augustin, maybe Tyrus (Thomas) and somebody else. He looked like prime Michael Jordan, without the quickness and the jumping ability. But it was just all MJ work. Talking smack the whole time.

He kept going back and forth with Stephen Jackson. Jack at that time was like a borderline All-Star. He had a really good season the season before and I think in the media he was talking about how he should have been an All-Star. I guess Jack went to the basket and throws up a shot and the coaches didn’t call a foul. Jack yells out, “Yo, that’s a foul,” this and that.

MJ comes down and hits the game-winner. Game’s over and Jack is still talking, “that’s a foul.” Jordan goes “The MFer ain’t never been an All-Star but wants all the All-Star calls.” We was like “Oh, s–t. Damn that was a little harsh.”

Stephen Jackson is one of the best dudes you’re going to find. He gets kind of a bad rap from things that have happened in his career. Like one of the most solid dudes you’re going to run up against and one of the funniest dudes you’re going to run up against. So after MJ said that, there was like a silent moment, Jack goes “Yeah yeah, I’ve never been an All-Star but I bust a lot of All-Star ass.”

Sessions: When I was there the first time, he was around a lot. He would come into practices. After coach talked, he would come in and he would talk basketball with us. He would try to joke around and you know play with one-on-one, two-on-two, different things like that with the team. So it was always just good having him around man.

Garrett Temple (Hornets guard, 2011): I remember he came to the games a decent amount of times, but also, when we were on a skid and players weren’t really playing to their potential — Stephen Jackson was out, he wasn’t able to play — and he came in at the end of a film session and we talked. He talked to us about what he expects from the team. Even though we got guys that are injured and we just made some trades, we still need to go out and compete. You know? No matter who’s on the court. So that really stood with me. He had a look in his eye like, come on, fellas, no matter who’s playing we got to play to build a type of culture here.

Henderson: We got our ass kicked by the Celtics one time. This is when they had their Big 3 and their championship team. They came in on a Friday and just whooped us. The whole arena was filled with Boston fans. I’m not sure I played that much that night — you can add that too. I was the first one back in the locker room and he was standing there in the middle of the locker room. You could tell he was pissed off and rightfully so.

On the board was, I think it said “(expletives) scared as f—.” From my assessment that was very much how the game looked. They came out, a big atmosphere game, and we looked soft. We let them push us around. KG was out there cussing everybody out, cussing at our fans. Kendrick Perkins just bullying us. That’s what happened. He saw that and was pissed off. He comes in there and cussed everybody out. Then we brought it in. I think Larry Brown was the coach at the time and he didn’t even have to say anything.

Sessions: Him and MKG, obviously Mike would always say “Listen, man, it ain’t that much moving around. We’re gonna stay right here in these one or two spots.” He always would just say, “I bet I’ll play you — obviously him not running around, that ain’t fair — So I bet I can outplay you with one or two dribbles.” He’s competitive.

Kidd-Gilchrist: What people seem to think I played 1-on-1 with him, it wasn’t an actual game. We wasn’t really playing. Did he teach me some things? For sure, for sure.

(Jacob Kupferman / Getty Images)

Hernangómez: Sometimes he was even doing shootarounds with us. Sometimes he will do, like, shooting competitions. He was shooting with the team and it was actually funny because they were talking s–t with a team. I remember Malik Monk talking with MJ like, “You cannot make shots now.” And he was still getting buckets.

Malik Monk (Hornets guard, 2017-2021): Him just telling me he can shoot better than me still. Which is not true. Not true at all. Definitely told him that at that time.

Zeller: He was good about not inserting himself but whether it’s a football game on TV or talking about someone else around the league, you can tell everything that comes out of his mouth is competitive, it’s got an edge to it. It’s everything that you hear about. That’s definitely who he is.

Caleb Martin: He’d text me and my brother after the game and stuff sometimes, and he would get back to you so quick. I’m sitting here thinking he’s one of the busiest people in the world and he gets right back to you.

Graham: We were at like a little dinner where season-ticket holders come and stuff like that. And we were all just talking, telling like Dwayne Bacon and them that they need to post-up more and do more post-up moves. And I was like, “Yeah, I need to post-up more, too.’”He was like, “Nah, you keep your little ass behind the 3-point line.”

Hernangómez: He comes to me before the game actually, “Willy, I want you to grab more than 12 rebounds today. If not, I will be disappointed.” So he was challenging me. But it was amazing.

Henderson: I do think because I played his same position, once I got into a starting role with the team, he was still very hands on and showed up at practice and stuff and we would text a bunch. I remember doing a film session or two with him, and very much connecting with him about his expectations. He would send me text messages after games. He was watching the games and very much paying attention and paying attention to my output. He was attentive. He cared.

Monk: My experience with the Hornets was just up and down because we were trying to figure out what we’re gonna do, which way we were going to go. But the times that I was around Mike, it was fun. He talks a lot. Talks a lot of s–t. I like that, though. Super competitive. And he’s easy to talk to, too. Especially if you’re on the team you can come up and say something to him. He won’t look down, say something crazy to you, not answer you. He’ll always answer.

Cody Martin: He’d helped me during the summer get gyms to work out in. He’s helpful if you reach out.

Hernangómez: He was sitting next to the bench and I was on the free throw line, starting to focus. “Willy, how many rebounds you got?” I turn around. “I told you 10.” Like maybe to be more ready in motivation.

Henderson: He asked me what’s my game plan when I’m going against another really good defender or another really good scorer. And I gave all these probably very ordinary good player answers and he just shot me down. He was like, “Look, when you’re playing against a good defender, the first thing you should be thinking about is putting him on the bench because they can’t defend you from the bench and a good scorer can’t score from the bench. So get them in foul trouble. You can go out there and compete and all that stuff but you should be thinking about getting them on the bench as quickly as possible and getting to the free-throw line as quickly as possible.”

He’s like “You’re an 80 percent-plus free-throw shooter. Those are easy points.” He’s like if you think you can average 16 points a game then that’s only four points a quarter. It’s like you know, you do all the things you do, well just go do those things and get you four points a quarter and make it very easy.

Zeller: Sometimes he sits in the suite; sometimes he sits down down on the bench close to the players. I think sometimes he comes down there just to yell at the refs. I think he really could have an influence on them, too. It’s not just that he’s yelling at them, but they’re responding to him and he’s telling them what changes they need to make or what calls they miss.

Monk: It hurts you. They don’t care. Whatever he said, they call the opposite.

Caleb Martin: He talks nonstop.

Henderson: He was around a lot. A lot more around than my departure team and now even years after that, based on conversations with guys around the team. He was a lot more hands-on earlier on in my career, showing up to practices, sitting down next to the bench during games. I think over time he digressed off of that. I’m not sure exactly why.

Sessions: It’s funny though because my second (stint), he would go into the suites and he didn’t come down there that much. My first year, oh yeah, he was right there on the end of the bench. It wasn’t on the bench, but it was like Golden State, they got those seats beside the bench, just like that. He would be sitting there. If you were sitting at the end, oh yeah you were sitting by Mike. I never sat on the end. I always sat by the coaches. Did not go on that end.

Batum: He was a player and he’s still a player inside. Some things don’t change.

It became common in Charlotte for players to wear not only Nike sneakers but also Jordan Brand shoes. That makes sense since its namesake owned the team. Several players got deals with Jordan Brand, they believe, solely because they played for Jordan. It was also an example of what made Jordan popular with players, who appreciated the humanity of someone who so often seemed larger than life.

Zeller: I think that it’s because I got drafted by Charlotte. They usually draft the first-round picks but I was really excited when they asked. They’ve taken great care of me. MJ loves the Jordan shoes. I’ve seen him a couple times, you know a guy will get hurt or be out with an injury, and he’ll say “That’s because you’re wearing Under Armour shoes. That’s because you’re wearing other shoes.”

Graham: A lot of guys be Nike. But that does help. Obviously, you playing for the team. It’s definitely why I got it.

Caleb Martin: A lot of people when they get there they have any idea of who they’re signing with and stuff, but I think typically, they try to keep as many people on the team in Jordan Brand.

Henderson: I had a pending deal. I was going to re-sign with Nike and honestly I just texted him and I said something like, “I’m looking to get this deal. I’m a free agent, basically. I got this deal at hand. Would Jordan want to match this?” He texted me back something like, “Yeah it’s done.”

Temple: My first game I got when I signed a 10-day, I didn’t have any shoes there. And he’s like, “What size shoe you wear?” I told him 13. He said, “Well, I wear 13-and-a-half. Wear my shoes. I got a pair for you.” So I put them on. I was sliding in the shoes. I can’t say no to that. And then I say, “Dang, Mike, they might be too big, man. I’m a 13.” He said, “Boy, they the same size. You all right.”

Caleb Martin: We used to be Jordan Brand. He used to send us some of his old stuff that he used to not wear anymore. It’d be like big baggy stuff.

Cody Martin: He sent us boxes of like, his old clothes and stuff. He just is a cool dude, and like I said, but he’s also just a regular dude at the same time, too. He does what everybody else does. He might do it a little bit more lavish than we do.

Caleb Martin: It was like old streetwear. It wasn’t like playing clothes or nothing like that. It wasn’t like memorabilia. It was just like the stuff that he probably didn’t wear any more. I don’t care. I’ll take it.

Batum: One time, we were in Monaco. We got a Jordan Brand convention. One night, we’re just talking about life. We are outside the casino. We’re just talking about different stuff and I’m like, I just spent a couple minutes with MJ, just me and him. I couldn’t expect that when I grew up. Just how close he is to the guys, so that’s good.

Zeller: One of the times that he texted me, actually the first time I think that he texted me, was when my grandpa passed away. My grandpa was 95 and I had to miss a game to go to his funeral and that was the first time that I saw a number pop up on my phone, and it was MJ and he was just saying, sorry for your loss. That’s who he is. A lot of people see the competitive side of things, but he really cares about his players, his team. And if you’re one of his guys, he’ll do anything for you. So there’s definitely a caring side to him for sure.

Kidd-Gilchrist: It was a blur. In a good way. Definitely, MJ, but when you’re competing and stuff like that, you’re not thinking “Oh my gosh, I’m playing for Michael Jordan’s team.” Of course it hits you, like when I see him in the hallway or on the sidelines at the games and stuff like that. But he encourages people. All the moments on the sideline when he was sitting there he was our No. 1 fan.

Caleb Martin: It’s definitely weird. It’s a weird feeling when it kind of clicks for you. I see what people mean that he’s got this kind of aura about him, this energy about him. And maybe that a lot of that is because of how good he was at hooping or his demeanor or whatever in general, but he’s got like a presence about him that’s real. That was pretty cool to see that because you always hear about it. So it’s different when he comes in the room and you’re talking to him. You’re shaking his hand.

Rozier: I think I can speak for all of us, just growing up knowing who MJ is, knowing how much he meant to this game, the things he’s done, so just our names would be called on draft night or some of us being traded for, things like that, is huge. We always think about that, Like damn, MJ wanted us. That’s dope.

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(Top photo: Brock Williams-Smith / NBAE via Getty Images)


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