Jordan said in a February 1990 ESPN interview that there were initial concerns regarding "maybe the betting that's gonna be involved. But that happens anyway, and that's still going on now. And from their standpoint, they don't wanna promote it, which we understand."
He said, though, that the league and the union "should not prevent two individuals from making a business proposition."
Despite his television teases, Jordan's interests were narrowing in private. He was as serious a businessman as a basketball player and would not risk tarnishing his image, not even for a quick, million-dollar payday, recalls Sam Smith, the Chicago Tribune's Bulls reporter at the time.
"This was in the mid-'80s when he was making a million a year," Smith says. "There was someone in Japan who wanted to pay him a million dollars to go over there and play some sort of exhibition, and he wouldn't do it."
With Jordan Brand, championships and worldwide acclaim still years away, Jordan was signed to ProServ, one of the first major management firms focused on athletes. The company had been co-founded by Donald Dell, a former pro tennis player and U.S. Davis Cup captain who counted Arthur Ashe as one of his initial clients.
"If I win, people will say, 'So, what do you expect? That's what Michael is—he's a one-on-one player.' And if I lose, then I don't have the rings or the title. So what's the point of doing it?"
—MICHAEL JORDAN, ACCORDING TO AGENT DAVID FALK
David Falk, Jordan's longtime agent, worked under Dell at the firm—"Donald was a tennis guy, and he thought it would be a good made-for-TV special," Falk says—so he pitched the idea to his client. But Jordan, battling perceptions that he was just a scoring machine without a championship, "had zero interest in doing it," Falk says. And with Jordan's potential opponent viewed as the consummate team player, his agent had no interest in convincing him otherwise, despite the outsiders swirling with fevered interest by early 1990.
Falk recalls Jordan saying: "If I win, people will say, 'So, what do you expect? That's what Michael is—he's a one-on-one player.' And if I lose, then I don't have the rings or the title. So what's the point of doing it?"
The agent told his boss that Jordan did not feel comfortable with the King of the Court showdown. Dell grew agitated, according to Falk, insisting that the game would be monumental for their firm: "I'll never forget. He said, 'Who are you working for? You working for Michael or ProServ?' And I said, 'If Michael Jordan doesn't think I'm working for Michael Jordan, he won't be a client of ProServ.'"
Not long afterward, in 1992, Falk split off and formed his own management firm. Jordan followed.
Still, Jordan did not appreciate the players' union stepping in to block two men from playing what amounted to a game of expensive pickup basketball—even if he had decided not to participate.
"I wonder what Isiah's position would be if he were playing Magic," Jordan told the San Francisco Chronicle. "But, of course, if he were playing Magic, no one would want to see it."
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The same year Falk left the agency with his star client, ProServ and Independent Entertainment Group Inc., the company hired to promote King of the Court, filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NBA and its teams in the U.S. District Court of Los Angeles.
The lawsuit alleged that ProServ asked the NBA to support a game between Jordan and Johnson in early 1988. But, the agency alleged, in a "quickly negotiated" side deal between the league and players' union the next year, the union banked "over $1 million in exchange for a promise not to sponsor or promote any off-season basketball event involving NBA players."
"Not surprisingly, Magic Johnson, one of the league's most prominent players, was upset at the Players Association for entering into this agreement," the brief stated.
The agency and the promoter claimed that such a payoff would "not coincidentally" more than quadruple the salary of the union's director, Charles Grantham. (In an interview, Grantham said he did not recall the lawsuit and only vaguely remembered discussions of the game. "We were against the game?" Grantham said. "I don't recall that at all. I don't know if that was ever reported, that we were against the game.")
Mark Baute, a lawyer for Independent Entertainment Group, says the NBA eventually settled the case.