Basketball: Jordan the famed poacher may turn gamekeeper

Gerard Wright in Denver reports on attempts to lure a giant into ownership
WHO'S THE bald black guy in the glasses next to Jack Nicholson? Alone, for once, in his sumptuous living-room, George Shinn blinked, stared at the television, blinked again. His eyes did not deceive him. There, in a courtside seat for a Los Angeles Lakers match, was a newly bespectacled Michael Jordan. He did look the part.

Back in the banking and biblical heart of North Carolina, an invisible light bulb went on over the troubled head of the owner of the National Basketball Association's Charlotte Hornets. George Shinn picked up the phone and dialled the number of the NBA's commissioner, David Stern.

This was in mid-February, with Michael Jordan's retirement from the game he had graced and recreated barely four weeks old. The league was off to a slow start, many of the games sounded like a blacksmith's forge, such was the clang of bricks off iron as the game's sharpshooters repeatedly missed their mark. Games were being won with force, rather than skill. It was true - you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

Shinn had difficulties of his own. His team were losing. His coach, Dave Cowens, was publicly scathing of his lack of administrative support. Two of the best players were out injured for the season and a third was in the middle of a salary dispute. Most seriously, Shinn had a pending date in court on charges of assault and false imprisonment, brought in a civil case by a married woman Shinn met at a drug rehabilitation centre while visiting someone else. She alleges Shinn took her to his house and forced her to perform oral sex.

The woman's lawyers have unearthed allegations that Shinn harassed Hornets cheerleaders and other female employees. Further, according to the Rocky Mountain News, Shinn had a player traded because he perceived him to be a rival for the affections of a cheerleader.

This is an interesting situation for the NBA, who have the precedent of the punishment of Latrell Sprewell - suspended for the last 68 games of the 1997-98 season for choking his Golden State Warriors coach, PJ Carlesimo - to guide them. So far, the NBA's actions suggest Shinn is getting the benefit of the doubt.

Enter the local boy. Jordan grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, and could easily afford the half-share in the franchise that Shinn is said to be negotiating. Forbes magazine last December valued the Charlotte franchise at $124m. Jordan's income in his final season with the Chicago Bulls was $77m.

There is the small problem of being the father to three young children in one city while running a basketball team in another. On her husband's retirement, Juanita Jordan observed that he would have more time to drive them to school, although her tongue may have been in her cheek.

Jordan's return - albeit in a business suit - would solve a number of problems for the NBA. For reasons of image, as much or more than altruism, they have been trying for some years to introduce black ownership to a league composed predominantly of black players.

Once they shed their uniforms, African-Americans tend to become the fringe group that largely reflects their status in wider American society. Among the 28 teams, there are four black coaches, including Paul Silas, the replacement for the inevitably departed Cowens. An under-funded black ownership consortium floundered during its time at the helm of the hapless Denver Nuggets during the early Eighties. (This was no disgrace. The current ownership, which includes the Australian billionaire Kerry Packer, has fared little better, in the competitive sense.)

Jordan's pending return has been greeted with near universal acclaim. The exception is a man called Bob Johnson, the founder and chief executive officer of Black Entertainment Television, who says he has his money ready, if only someone will invite him to the table.

Chances are he will start next season as he did this, with his nose pressed against the glass. The New York Times reported this week that Jordan would take up a half-share in the team - a first for a former player - at the end of the present season.