- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2003

After a promising start negotiating the treacherous transition from superstar player to national basketball team executive, His Airness, Michael Jordan, lost altitude and finally landed with a thud heard round the Beltway and far beyond.

Not long after the legendary player’s unceremonious dismissal as the Washington Wizards’ president of basketball operations, tenor Placido Domingo, as much an icon in his field as Mr. Jordan in his, was simultaneously promoted from artistic director to general director of two, count ‘em, big-city opera companies — the Los Angeles Opera and the Washington Opera.

So, why is the greatest basketball player of all time struggling with Business 101, while Mr. Domingo is so much in demand as an executive that major opera houses on opposite coasts have to settle for sharing him?

The answers are complex, but they do offer some object lessons for other greats hoping to adapt once the skills that made them legend begin to fade:

Play nice with others

Contrasting personalities played a significant role in each’s divergent results.

Mr. Domingo is blessed with a sunny, open Mediterranean temperament, a kind and approachable air that facilitates the managerial challenge. Mr. Jordan — as even his loyalists would concede — is aloof, inaccessible to all but an elite group of confidantes.

Mr. Domingo enjoys people, and it shows. He is, for example, an enthusiastic — and successful — fund-raiser. Mr. Jordan, said to grumble about being a “show pony,” chafed under his obligation to meet and greet season-ticket holders in the MCI Center’s pricey suites.

To be fair, part of that distance is a natural byproduct of his position in our popular culture. It’s easy to envision Mr. Domingo slipping on a hat and pair of sunglasses to enjoy a night out with few interruptions, but Mr. Jordan remains one of the most recognizable personalities on Earth. If you had to be wrapped up like a mummy to avoid attracting gawking hordes or stopping traffic, you might be a little people-shy, too.

Treat others with respect

Mr. Jordan’s handling of his employees in the past few years also differed sharply from Mr. Domingo’s modus operandi. Sports writers figured young, talented players such as Kwame Brown would be eager to soak up any lesson Mr. Jordan deigned to impart. Instead, the Nike spokesmachine alienated his younger players, perhaps forgetting that not all b-ballers are blessed with his innate gifts.

Mr. Jordan also ripped the effort and dedication of his teammates in the press.

It’s hard to imagine Mr. Domingo openly reprimanding his peers before the media. He might dress down an underperforming soprano behind the scenes, but that, probably, is where such a scolding would stay.

The great tenor also has regularly mentored young singers, hoping to foster a new generation of opera talents.

Keep superstar ego in check

Had anyone told Mr. Jordan “no” in the past 20 years, before Wizards owner Abe Pollin told him, “go”? Surrounding oneself with yes men might make one feel good, but it does little to filter out the bad ideas that, fallible as we are, we all generate in profusion.

Mr. Domingo, despite his fame, radiates a genuine sense of humility. It’s impossible to divine his inner thoughts, but those who have interviewed him describe a kind and humble man.

Understand greatness isn’t necessarily fungible

Administrative and managerial duties require completely different skill sets from those needed on the stage or basketball court.

Perhaps the transition into the business world is easier for artists than for athletes of Mr. Jordan’s stature. Some of baseball’s best managers today were good, not great, players — the New York Yankees’ Joe Torre and the Chicago Cubs’ Dusty Baker come to mind.

By comparison, dance great Mikhail Baryshnikov forged a luminous postperformance career both with the American Ballet Theater and his White Oak Project, a daring troupe constantly probing, pushing out his art form’s limits.

Perhaps the biggest advantage Mr. Domingo enjoyed over Mr. Jordan is having grown up in a theatrical setting. Mr. Domingo’s parents ran a theatrical company that performed zarzuela, which is a form of Spanish operetta. The young tenor worked with props and professionals alike back then, gaining a backstage view of how a theater works.

From that vantage point, Mr. Domingo also watched opera ingenues fight through their artistic growing pains to achieve fame, the memories of which surely help when counseling young talents today.

Look for Mr. Jordan to make a quantum improvement in his next managerial post. He is too smart, too savvy not to learn from his mistakes in the Wizards’ front office. It took far more than God-given gifts for Mr. Jordan to become a basketball legend — he consistently proved to be a shrewd player who could adapt his game, as needed, to thrive at each stage of his career — including what were, after all, a remarkable two seasons on the floor as a Wizard.

Unfortunately for Wizards fans, they’ll have to watch him reap the rewards of his hard-won new skills for some other franchise.

Of course, if you’re a Wizards’ fan, you’re used to that by now.

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