CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan admits his team has an image problem, and he's not referring to their 4-26 record.
It's something worse, in his opinion. Somehow, after eight seasons as a franchise, the Bobcats still are not considered a part of the fabric of the community.
This is partly the team's own doing, he said, due to some regrettable moves, including a 2008 decision by former owner Robert Johnson to lay off the entire community relations staff. They were the ones responsible for coordinating team donations, community service projects and other acts of kindness.
"The former owner let things slip," said Jordan, and opportunities were lost in the process. The sports icon's frustration is obvious, particularly when he brings up how Charlotte's first NBA franchise, the Hornets, ranked No. 1 in league attendance.
"Number one for 10 years!" Jordan said, his voice rising. "The community supported it and at that time, the Hornets supported the city. I want to duplicate that. I want us to be No. 1 in attendance and No. 1 in the community.
"If we ask people to invest in us, we must invest in them."
When asked for a response, Robert Johnson said in an email that he's confident in Jordan's leadership.
Helping the hungry
Experts say it could take years to fix the damage, but Jordan is already being lauded for his first step, the formal launching Monday of a charity initiative called Cats Care.
Throughout the day, the Bobcats' staff - including players, coaches and Jordan himself - will go from one charity to the next, feeding the homeless and poor families.
A highlight will be the presentation of a refrigerated truck to Second Harvest Food Bank.
Second Harvest Executive Director Kay Carter said she was "blown away" when the team revealed its plan at a surprise meeting in November. The truck, valued at $125,000, will be a mobile pantry for the poor in largely rural areas.
"They came to me and said they wanted to make a much larger impact in the area of fighting hunger," said Carter.
"We're estimating with this truck we can distribute an additional 1.2 million pounds of food and at least 100,000 people will benefit in the first year."
Better still, she said, the Bobcats are giving the agency an additional $125,000 to buy food. "To put that into perspective, if you stacked every can of that one on top of another, it would be taller than Mount Everest."
Bobcats' officials say the presentation marks the start of what they plan to be annual charity events that focus money, service and publicity on pressing community needs.
The money comes from both the team and Jordan, who earned an estimated $60 million the past two years, according to Forbes magazine. Team officials didn't give a specific amount for what it will give out annually to charity, but each year's giveaway will be at least $250,000.
Cats Care has been nearly two years in the making, Jordan said, starting the day he bought the team in 2010 and ordered the rehiring of community relations staffers.
Since then, his employees have worked behind the scenes to find ways to help more people, including completing a survey of fans and community leaders on the county's top charity needs.
3 special causes
The results: Education, wellness and fighting hunger.
Cats Care intends to highlight one of those causes each year, in addition to lower profile efforts like donating books to libraries or sending players to mentor school kids.
Jordan said he is driven by a desire to make a difference in the state where he was raised.
"My mom got me working with Special Olympics when I was 16 or 17, doing events around Wilmington, so it's part of my upbringing to give back," he said.
"I'm in a position now to use my actions, my team's name, my name and all my relationships to have an impact."
Charities like the sound of that, but skepticism is warranted, said Greg Johnson, director of The Sports Philanthropy Project, which helps sports leagues improve their charitable efforts.
The NBA encourages charity involvement but doesn't require it. That means the motives of teams and athletes can run the gamut, from sincere idealism to shallow self-promotion, said Johnson.
"It's critically important for a team to engage in local community philanthropy and important that folks hold their hands to the fire over what they're doing," says the philanthropy director.
"It can be flashy and meaningless, or profound and life changing. The devil is in the details, and you have to look at what they're proposing and how they use their assets."
The key in this case, he said, is whether Cats Care intends to follow through beyond Monday with a strategic plan that brings together not just players, but community partners and even the team's sponsors. The Bobcats have already moved in that direction, enlisting sponsor SportSouth as a partner in the truck presentation on Monday.
Greg Johnson added that the Bobcats' plan will benefit from tough lessons Jordan learned with his Michael Jordan Foundation, created while he was with the Chicago Bulls.
It provided mentoring and anti-drug programs for children, but Jordan himself grew disenchanted with how "growing administrative burdens" limited the charity's work. He shuttered it in 1996 and focused instead on agencies like the Boys & Girls Clubs. "Every dollar we give will go directly to help others, undiluted by administrative costs that come with running a foundation," he was quoted saying at the time.
Jordan hopes to see his gifts inspire others to step up. He admits it didn't escape his attention that his 2010 gift of $250,000 to save CMS middle school sports programs was followed a year later by a similar gift from Hendrick Automotive Group.
After the layoffs
Team President and CEO Fred Whitfield points out that the Bobcats never completely stopped doing community service after all the layoffs in 2008. However, those acts of community kindness were reduced to a level most people didn't notice, and there was no definitive strategy.
Coincidentally, he's the one who laid off community relations staff (and 35 other people) back in 2008, on the recommendation of a management consultant. He agrees it "crippled" the team's image.
"Michael was a minority owner at the time who spent a lot of time in the community and he heard feedback from fans and community leaders that we weren't involved. It was high on his radar when he took over," said Whitfield.
Coincidentally, Robert Johnson remains a minority owner. When asked about the impact of laying off the community relations staff, he responded via email on Friday that he was "highly confident that under the current leadership, the Bobcats will be a successful NBA franchise and a continual contributor to the betterment of the Charlotte regional community."
Jordan said that's the plan.
"I'd like to be remembered as someone who wasn't just about the prize," he said. "When I'm gone, hopefully people will say: 'He did a lot, not just for basketball, but for the community. He touched people through his career.'"