Basketball legend Michael Jordan is Charlotte’s biggest celebrity – and perhaps the hardest one to spot around town.
But that may be changing thanks to a Jordan mandate that his NBA team, the Bobcats, become more involved in the community’s social fabric.
Jordan led by example Thursday by making appearances at three high schools in three hours, announcing a series of surprises for participants in the YMCA’s Y Achievers mentoring program.
The big news: a $200,000 gift to the program from the team and its broadcast partner, FOX Sports Carolinas/Sports South.
But that was just the start.
Jordan surprised one aspiring student at each school with news that they’d earned a $5,000 scholarship, and then he unveiled a new program that will have six students from Y Achievers doing paid summer internships with the team. Meanwhile, all of the Bobcats players and the organization’s staff fanned out for a day of service at six Charlotte-Mecklenburg elementary and middle schools.
The effort placed the team’s promotional muscle behind a little-publicized program that puts at-risk teens on a path to college.
However, it was also part of a new push to improve the Bobcats’ reputation for anemic community involvement efforts, something that has bothered Jordan since he took over as majority owner from Bob Johnson.
“It would be easy to send people to the schools to do this for me, but it means more to the community when they see you taking the lead in the charge,” Jordan said. “I think this is about leadership. It’s about showing that my words are not hollow. It’s true to the heart that this is how I feel about giving back.”
The Bobcats have been trying to regain ground on their community service since Jordan became majority owner. It hasn’t been easy. The team launched Cats Care last year with a big splash that included donating a refrigerated truck to Second Harvest Food Bank.
Yet the team hasn’t managed to endear itself to the community like the Carolina Panthers, whose players have reputations for helping outside the spotlight. In fact, some nonprofit leaders complain privately that the Bobcat charitable acts in years past seemed staged more for publicity than for impact.
Jordan acknowledged that he said the same things he’s saying now last spring. But he says that was before the team had a plan in place. Jordan has since hired an executive, Kim Henderson, to rebuild the Bobcats’ community affairs department, which was gutted in 2008 due to lay-offs. And he says he’s given Henderson a license to be creative.
Jordan didn’t say so, but the effort might also help his struggling franchise build more of a following locally. Crowds have been sparse in recent years for the team, which has just 16 wins and the NBA’s worst record.
“Yes, community service doesn’t help you win,” Jordan said, “but win or lose, it gives you that heartbeat that comes from being a part of the community.”
Andy Calhoun, president of the YMCA of Greater Charlotte, met Jordan for the first time Thursday and thanked him for investing in kids.
“That’s really what he’s doing here,” Calhoun said. “And it was their idea. They came to us about it.”
The $200,000 gift will pay the $1,200 cost for 166 kids to be enrolled in Y Achievers for a year. Currently, 165 students participate at three schools: West Charlotte, West Mecklenburg and Vance high schools — those were the schools Jordan had visited. The team has already committed to offering more $5,000 scholarships to Y Achiever students at the three schools next year, officials said.
Henderson says her once-nonexistent community affairs department now has a staff of four.
“Community involvement is now a mandate,” says Henderson, who was previously director of corporate relations at Presbyterian Hospital/Novant Health.
“And we’re being very thoughtful about how we can make a meaningful impact. If folks don’t know about a program, we can be a champion for its cause.”
Her ambitions are great, she admits, and that’s what led to a Wednesday night affair that brought community relations executives from 130 corporations and nonprofits together for a discussion of what the team can provide in the way of community support. This includes offers to partner with other companies on projects. It’s the first time the team has sponsored such an event, she said.
“I’ve also been meeting with players one-on-one to talk with them about what they’re passionate about and how I can marry them to the right cause,” Henderson said.
Another big community service announcement is set for April, she added.