Chamber honors Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan appeared on the basketball court Thursday night at Time Warner Cable Arena, but the Charlotte Bobcats were nowhere to be found.

Instead, the NBA legend and Wilmington native strode to the stage and was honored by the Charlotte Chamber with its 2008 Citizen of the Carolinas Award.

Last year's winner was Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and previous recipients include Billy Graham, Dean Smith and former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl.

“Any chance I get to come back to North Carolina, it's a great joy, because this is where it all started,” Jordan said, behind a lectern, sporting a coat and tie.

Before a crowd of about 2,000, he spoke fondly of his upbringing, his parents and Smith, his coach at UNC Chapel Hill. With their support, he said, he'd aimed high in sports and academics.

Though Jordan primarily lives in Chicago, where he starred for most of his career, he said the Carolinas remain home, and he's enjoyed experiencing Charlotte in his role as Bobcats part-owner and managing partner of basketball operations.

“A lot of you guys think I'm not here because you don't see me,” he joked. “But I'm here. I don't go to the grocery store, or a lot of places you guys go. But if you go to most any golf course, you'll find me.” He later said he did plan to go to the grocery store, and urged people not to be afraid to say hello if they saw him there.

After some good-natured ribbing of Bobcats owner Bob Johnson, who was also on hand, Jordan pledged to bring “entertainment, joy and winning ways” to the city's NBA franchise, saying he hated how Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn had left the city earlier this decade.

“We're going to try and do it this time much better than the first,” he said. “I want to put something on the basketball court you can feel proud about.”

The business group's annual meeting, held for the first time at the downtown arena, also drew Gov.-elect Bev Perdue. In her first public appearance since winning election Tuesday, she asked attendees for their help in reviving the state's economy. She also presented Allen Tate Realtors founder Allen Tate with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the state's highest civilian honor.

Outgoing Chamber chairman Pat Riley, the president of Allen Tate Realtors, highlighted what he described as some of the Chamber's successes in the past year, including work on infrastructure improvements and bringing baseball to uptown.

But incoming chairman and Belk department stores CEO Tim Belk, who began his duties at Thursday's ceremony, noted that the region faces considerable challenges amid the economic downturn. Among them: The sale of Wachovia and controversy at the United Way.

However, he said, Charlotte is resilient and offers an attractive labor force, cost of living and leadership. In the coming year, the Chamber plans to focus on economic development, diversity, transportation and education to help the city thrive, he said.