Jordan saves face in joining Olympics

MIKE LITTWIN

March 20, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

LANDOVER -- Michael Jordan says he's going to play on the Olympic team.

I know you're as relieved as I am.

You were already upset about this recession and the check kiting and then the Fergy-Prince Andrew news hit, but, now, be-like-Mike Jordan has made it OK.

That's because what's good for Jordan is good for America.

It was a near thing, though. He almost had to pull out of the Barcelona Olympics, as a matter of principle. Apparently, from what I understand, somebody other than Jordan was going to make money from his appearance on the Olympic team, and how could that be right?

He's Michael Jordan, after all -- His Highness, the Prince of Midair, the guy who thinks all the ATM's ought to be 10 feet high.

It was Jordan, remember, who told the NBA that it could no longer use his likeness because Nike owned the rights to him. And I swore I saw him last night, scissors in hand, looking for T-shirts with his face on them. Maybe he was just cutting tape from his ankles. I'm not sure.

What I'm pretty sure is, however the uniform reads, Jordan works for Nike.

He works for Nike, and he works for Jordan. I stopped by last night just to see if Nike would let him play.

Oh, he played all right. He was routinely brilliant, leading the Bulls from 12 points down at the half to beat the poor, poor Bullets. All he scored was 51, the record for a player whose likeness belongs exclusively to a shoe company.

As usual, there was a sellout crowd to see Jordan. You watch him, and you can't help but be captivated.

Afterward, Jordan talked about freedom.

When he was asked, "Are you concerned that, with this Nike business, you're being perceived as . . ."

"Greedy?" Jordan wondered.

Yeah.

"I don't think so," Jordan said. "I have certain rights. You have freedom of speech. You have freedom to write what you want. I have the freedom of my own likeness. I have the right to control my likeness.

"The NBA has made a lot of money from using that likeness. Don't call me greedy. It's mine."

So, Jordan says he's not greedy. And, hey, the story's out that he allegedly wrote checks worth $108,000 to cover gambling debts. Maybe he's very generous, at least at the poker table.

What Jordan says is that he just wants to do what's right. You decide:

NBA Properties is almost as hot as Jordan. In fact, the NBA grosses more money licensing products than it does at the gate, and that includes the $300 courtside seats at the Fabulous Forum. I know I've always dreamed of owning a Ledell Eackles key chain.

A few years back, before the NBA merchandise explosion, the players negotiated a not-very-wonderful deal for themselves on licensing, but there was a loophole. A player, if he could make more money somewhere else, could opt out.

Magic Johnson didn't opt out, and Larry Bird didn't opt out -- maybe because they understood that the players and the league were getting rich together. Jordan opted out. Maybe he wanted to get rich by himself. It is his likeness, as he points out, and the licensing agreement is in place until 1997.

And then along came the Olympic Games to complicate matters. The secret is that Jordan doesn't want to play in the Olympics. Don't tell anyone. Jordan doesn't.

But Jordan has to play. He has to play because he's got this image to protect. How would it be if 250 million flag-waving Americans were watching the USA team play, say, the Trinidad team in a tense matchup while Jordan was home playing golf? The next thing Jordan knows, he's either up before the House Un-American Activities Committee or Gatorade is asking people to be Clyde Drexler. Or both.

The problem is that the NBA is involved in the packaging of the Olympic team. The league will probably sell Olympic key chains, flashlights, warm-up suits, etc. In the deal made with the Olympics, the 10 to 12 NBA players share a third of the profits from the licensing. Jordan has said he will give his part to USA Basketball -- but that there can be no apparel with his face on it. And that's that.

But there's more.

There was the best-selling book, "The Jordan Rules," which basically said that there was one set of rules for Jordan and another for his teammates, whom he generously calls his supporting cast. He blew off the president in what amounted to a photo-op after the Bulls won the title. He blew off the NBA, in favor of Nike. And now we have the gambling allegation.

How many more hits can Jordan's image take? Are you kidding? He's Michael Jordan. He's too big for a few minor problems to take him down. He's going to the Olympics, and all America breathes a sigh of relief.

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