You have to show the consumers something they haven't seen before, someone about whom they can say, "Hey, that guy is pretty cool." Magic, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, myself—we didn't start out as the league's partners. We evolved, then the league made us its partners. That's what the league has to do now—find guys who can grow up to be partners. Don't take guys and force them into our mold.
One thing to learn from me is that everything I've ever done has been me, not something that someone calculated me to be. It goes to my upbringing, my parents. I didn't grow up in the inner city. I grew up in a rural area, where values were magnified. You were taught how to operate in society, to be articulate, honest. Kids growing up in the city, they're more materialistic. My kids are going through that now.
I can wear a suit today and jeans with holes tomorrow, and yet people know they are seeing the real me in either outfit. I had cornrows when I was a kid, but it was before anyone knew who I was; would the public or corporate America accept me if I had them today? If I was willing to say, "This is who I am, I'm not trying to be so-and-so," maybe, but even then I'm not sure. When you see Michael Jordan today, you see Michael Jordan as a totally honest person, and when I say honest I mean real, genuine. I am who I am, and that's comprehensible to the masses and in many languages.
It's a tough task for the league to create a similar image for itself. It has to find the right mix between corporate and street, believe in what it's doing and live with whatever the response may be. Too many of the league's decisions are made based on the bottom line. People pick up on that. You can't be afraid to fail. The stars you have now might not live up to the icon of a Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson, but maybe they will create an image that delivers an impact for you 10, 15 years from now.
All I know is—for the league and its players—don't try to duplicate something that has been done before. Do it your own way, and see where it goes. It might not hit the way you want it to. You may not make as much money as you want to. But there's value in remaining true to yourself.