Let Him Walk!!!

THE LASTING IMAGE OF MICHAEL Jordan's fourth championship is of basketball's best player ever stretched out on the court, blubbering over the game ball. Poignant, for sure. But if you really want poignant, suppose that was Jordan's last game with the Chicago Bulls. Suppose that next Monday, when he becomes a free agent for the first time in his career, Jordan starts shopping himself around to another team. Suppose that his owners (gasp!) tell him to walk.

Fuhgeddaboutit, you say? Who of sane mind would let him walk? lie's Michael Jordan, for jiminy's sake. This year's Most Valuable Player, an icon of fame and marketability. All he wants is a measly $18 million, or maybe just a bit more. Who cares? Surely Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls' charismatically challenged owner, known to fans as "innocent till proven cheap," would do anything to keep His Airness.

Well, maybe--or not. This may not thrill Michael's millions of besmitten admireres, but we're here to tell Jerry he can hang tough. Granted: we're playing devil's advocate. But thinking like a green-shaded M.B.A., ever attentive to the bottom line, it clearly makes little if any financial sense for the Bulls to re-sign Jordan. The reason: Jordan, at 33, has entered what an economist might call a period of diminishing returns. We're not talking scoring here. We're talking about his ability to produce much if anything in the way of extra revenue for the Bulls. After all, season tickets are sold out for years. Television contracts are locked in. Sales of team merchandise are split among all the NBA teams antway, so who needs Jordan to flog more--especially if he'll be around only another couple of years? In short, eveery new dollar to Jordan cuts into the Bull's profits. So yes, Jerry. Go ahead and let him walk!

OK, OK there are afew other things to consider, not least that Reinsdorf wants another championship-and probaly does not want to be lynched from Sears Tower by rabid fans. That alone makes it likely that Jordan will play for the Bulls next year. Still, just for the heck of it, let's look at the numbers behind this deal.

The case for Jordan's big payday can be summed up in three words: Reinsdorf owes him. The star has been woefully underpaid, basically forever. His rookie contract in 1984, $6.3 million over seven years, proved a cheap investment for the Bulls--and set Jordan's pattern of locking in long-term but relatively low-pay deals that were soon outpaced by the market. This most recent season--the last in an eight-year contract--he was paid $3.8 million, ranking a laughable 27th in the league. Consider, also, his, contribution to the Bulls' corporate wealth. Over the year's he's been the team's biggest draw, snagging in everything from tickets to T shirts to TV rights. Ultimately, Reinsdorf can thank Jordan for much of his franchise--worth an estimated $178 million, up from $17.5 million in Jordan's 1985 rookie year.

But does that mean Reinsdorf should pony up now? Seting aside gauzy sentimentalist notions of fair play or gratitude, let's answer that question by posing another. Is an employee's salary a reward for past performance or an investment in future growth? "You walk a tightrope between paying Jordan what he's worth and investing in the future of the team," says Paul Much, an investment banker in Chicago. By this criterion, Reinsdorf has almost zero incentive to make Jordan happy. Here's why.

All this means Reinsdorf is sitting pretty. He knows where his money is coming from over the next few years. (Amounting to some $70 million annually.) He's in control. Does he really care about the extra $8 million or so the team gets for going through the playoffs too the finals? Sure. But while Jordan's presence undeniably helps the Bulls win championships, they've proved they can also win him. The team had a .603 winning percentage during the prebaseball Jordan years, for instance, but a .670 percentage the year he sat out. Losing Jordan would also hurt only for a fairly short time. Remember: he has indicated he plans to retire after playing the next two or three seasons. Meanwhile. Reinsdorf has other stars, not least among them Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. For Reinsdorf, there's yet, another consideration. The Bulls, man for man, are now one of the oldest teams in the NBA. It may well be that he's ultimately better off investing Jordan's salary in younger players, the kids who will succeed him and carry the Bulls into an even brighter future.

A last point. Jordan's bargaining position may not be as strong as people think. For one thing, Reinsdorf could turn the negotiations around and make the argument: "Hey, Michael, you owe me" By this reasoning, Jordan landed his $40 million in commercial endorsements thanks to playing in a large, sports-crazy media market and being surrounded by talented players. Put him on a bad team in, say, Minnesota, and let's see how many McDonald's endorsements he gets. Jordan's also hemmed in by the league's salary-cap rule--which means another team would have to fit his salary and the rest of its players' under the 1996-97 limit of $24.3 million. But the Bulls can spend as much as they want, because the cap doesn't apply to teams re-signing their own players.

So, Jerry, you gonna let him walk? Of course not. Last week you solved one problem by signing coach Phil Jackson to a reported $2.5 million contract. Jordan had said he might not play for another coach. But the real issue is that the would never fans would never forget how you lost a national icon. You, like many sports-team have a soft side. Emotion is part of the bottom-line equation. "I'd rather break even and win," you said earlier this year, "than not win and make money." In the end, a long-term contract may make the most economic sense. Keep Jordan in the organization beyond his playing days. Raise ticket prices and ad fees to help pay for his fat contract. Triump in Michael's triumps. Jerry, write the check.

CURRENT EXPECTED SALARY RANGE PLAYER TEAM PER SEASON (IN MILLIONS) Michael Jordan Chicago $15-25 Shaquille O'Neal Orlando $13-20 Alonzo Mourning Miami $13-16 Dikembe Mutombo Denver $10-12 Juwan Howard Washington $10-12 Gary Payton Seattle $ 8-9 Reggie Miller Indiania $ 7-9 Dennis Rodman Chicago $ 5-7 John Stockton Utah $ 5-7 Kenny Anderson Charlotte $ 4-5