News & Politics

The Woman Behind Michael

Estee Portnoy Is More Than a Foot Shorter Than Michael Jordan, But You Don't Get to the Big Man Without Going Through Her First.

AFTER A FEW HOURS of shooting a Michael Jordan commercial for Gatorade, the director had an idea. "Let's shoot it again," he said. "Only this time, Michael, stick your tongue out."

Jordan has done some 300 commercials in the 17 years since he revolutionized sports marketing with his first Nike ad. The Wizards star is no dumb jock

staring into the camera and reading cue cards. He doesn't suffer fools, and he never plays one on TV. There may be thousands of photos of Jordan in midair, poised to dunk, tongue flying. But he's not about to stick it out on cue.

Jordan didn't have to say a word, says Tom Fox, head of sports marketing for Gatorade. The veto on tongue waggling came from Estee Portnoy, who runs the conglomerate that Jordan has become. An unimposing woman who until a few years ago knew little about Jordan or pro basketball, Portnoy is the gatekeeper to the man and the keeper of the myth. In a sports world filled with "yes" men, she is the woman Jordan counts on to say "no."

"Estee is there to make sure we are treating Michael right," says Fox. "She makes sure we give him his space."

THINK OF PORTNOY AS THE BUFFER BETWEEN JORDAN AND THE world. She sees the storyboards and reads the scripts before he does. She figures out how Jordan fits in the company's marketing strategy, and sponsors rely on her as a sounding board. She knows that Jordan doesn't like dialogue that's too cute or corny. You won't see a Hanes commercial with Jordan in his underwear. "Sometimes ad-agency creatives will come in with these crazy ideas, and you'll say, 'It sounds great. It's very funny. But it's not Michael.'

"Or a director will want him to wear a sweatshirt and sweat pants. That's not Michael. He's always beautifully dressed."

For Jordan, who's besieged with requests for his time, Portnoy is a formidable first line of defense. "I have always told Estee that I don't pay her to be nice," he says. "Her job requires her to deliver news that people don't always want to hear."

IT'S EASY TO UNDERESTIMATE ESTEE PORTNOY. SHE'S SMALL–more than a foot shorter than Jordan. She doesn't manage MJ's money. She has nothing to do with his play for the Wizards. She has an MBA and a marketing background, but she'll be the first to tell you that Jordan makes his own business decisions.

What Portnoy does is run Michael Jordan Inc., arguably the most successful one-man business in sports history.

"Estee handles my day-to-day marketing and business matters and serves as the primary contact for my corporate partners," Jordan says. "She is responsible for managing my schedule, executing my corporate contracts, reviewing all marketing proposals, coordinating many of my charitable efforts, and for making sure that the use of my name and image is consistent with my wishes."

She's the cheerleader who sells Michael on selling Michael when he'd rather be playing golf.

"At times she's a real pain in the ass–I like to live in the present, but she's always making sure that things are set weeks and months in advance," Jordan says.

IN 1984, THREE THINGS HAPPENED THAT CHANGED PROFESSIONAL basketball, according to author David Halberstam. ESPN came of age and pumped 24-hour television coverage of sports into millions of homes. David Stern became commissioner of the National Basketball Association and focused the league on selling its individual stars. And Michael Jordan left the University of North Carolina for the Chicago Bulls.

David Falk, then a protégé of Washington sports agent Donald Dell at Dell's ProServ agency, saw the marketing potential of the young star. He believed that the time was right for a black athlete to cross the color line in sports marketing.

"Falk understood that pure athletic ability was only part of the package, that some players had personal qualities that made them unusually attractive commercial salesmen," writes Halberstam in his book Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made. "He sensed that Michael Jordan was different from most other team athletes, that there was an attractiveness, a charm, a certain grace about him."

Jordan's first endorsement deal set the pattern. In the past, shoe companies had paid star players to endorse their product. Jordan's deal with Nike offered much more. The company would create a new line of shoes for him, build an ad campaign around him, and guarantee him $1 million a year for five years. Falk named the shoes "Air Jordans." The deal was signed before Jordan played an NBA game.

The ad campaign helped make Nike the dominant shoe company in the 1980s and early '90s. Fortune magazine once estimated the value of "the Jordan effect" at $5.2 billion.

Jordan became America's top pitchman. Forbes in 1992 named him one of corporate America's most powerful people. Three times in the early 1990s, he led the magazine's list of top-earning athletes, endorsements pushing his yearly income to $30 million and above.

"The guy was God," Falk says.

Falk, meanwhile, became a superagent. He left ProServ in 1992 to start Falk Associates Management Enterprises, or FAME. As part of the deal, he bought ProServ's basketball division, taking Jordan with him.

In 1998, two years after Falk and partner Curtis Polk hired Portnoy, they sold FAME for $120 million to SFX, a New York concert production and promotion company. Falk, Polk, Portnoy, and the FAME client list moved to SFX, but Falk resigned a few years later, followed shortly by Polk. Both men continue to advise Jordan, but MJ no longer has a registered agent. He still has Estee Portnoy.

IN THE MACHO WORLD OF PRO SPORTS, THE MEN USUALLY MAKE the deals and women make the deals work. Falk blames the paucity of women sports agents on the players. "They have the perception that a woman wouldn't function well in a sports environment," he says. He's even discouraged his daughter's interest in being a sports agent.

Yet women often manage the day-to-day business lives of athletes. "A lot of what they are doing overlaps with personal time," says Curtis Polk. "The players' mothers and wives are more comfortable with women."

For years, jobs like Portnoy's were rewards given to good secretaries. Little more than a scheduler was needed.

But as sports marketing grew, so did the requirements for managing athletes. Portnoy executes Jordan's endorsement and personal-services contracts with Electronic Arts (video games), Gatorade, MCI WorldCom, NBA Videos, Nike/Jordan Brand apparel and shoes, Oakley sunglasses, Sara Lee (Hanes and Ball Park franks), SportsLine Web site, Upper Deck (sports collectibles and memorabilia); and Wilson Sporting Goods (basketballs).

Then there are Jordan's business ventures: Hidden Beach Records, his two car dealerships in North Carolina, and his camps for kids and adults. Jordan's Jump Higher restaurant company has seven restaurants, in New York, Chicago, Chapel Hill, DC, and the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut.

"Estee is very organized and able to juggle multiple projects and priorities," Jordan says.

Jordan is very involved in everything that bears his name, Portnoy says. "Everything that Michael has done is really a factor of who he is–his competitive drive, his intelligence, his genuine caring for people.

"He's on top of everything–his imaging, his brands, his sponsors," she says. He helps to pick the fabrics for the Jordan clothes made by Nike, studying what kids wear. "He designs all of his own clothing with a tailor. He cares how a restaurant looks.

"A lot of people don't realize that Michael is not created," she says. "He's what you see in commercials or in interviews. There's no different Michael when the cameras aren't running."

WHEN PORTNOY WAS HIRED SEVEN YEARS AGO AS FAME'S DIrector of client services, one of her first tasks was to run interference on the press tour for Space Jam, Jordan's movie debut.

"It was trial by fire," she recalls. She had to march reporters before Jordan and send them off quickly, often cutting them off mid-sentence. "After that week, I've never been intimidated by the media," Portnoy says.

Although Wizards staff handle sports media, Portnoy fields scores of interview requests daily as well as inquiries about Jordan's health, personal life, and plans. The appetite for Jordan information is global. Put Portnoy's name into a Google search and it pops up in a dozen languages:

". . . organizacim ktere se snazi pomahat rodinam primo postizenym teroritstyckym utokem pred dvema tydny v New York City, prohlasil Estee Portnoy. . . ."

"Seine Pressesprecherin Estee Portnoy, widersprach jedoch jüngsten Berichten dass Jordan . . ."

Jordan worries less about inaccurate press reports than she does, Portnoy says. "I used to get angry, and Michael would say, 'It's just the media.' "

She handles requests from inventors and entrepreneurs who want Jordan to endorse products. There's a closet at the SFX offices filled with products–remedies for arthritis and hair loss, herbal treatments, shoes, and sports books–submitted for MJ's approval. One young singer sent a tape–he was certain Jordan would want to appear in his music video.

"They're convinced Michael would want to work with them," Portnoy says.

The requests from charities and individuals who need help are the hardest for Portnoy. The best part of her job, she says, is arranging for Jordan to meet with sick children for the Make-a-Wish Foundation. She also runs Jordan's annual charity golf tournament in the Bahamas, which in 2002 raised more than half a million dollars for Ronald McDonald Houses of North Carolina, the James Jordan Boys & Girls Club of Chicago, and the Scouting Association of the Bahamas.

IN THE PAST SIX YEARS, JORDAN HAS BEEN a Chicago Bull, a retired basketball player, a part-owner of the Wizards, and a Wizards player. With each Jordan incarnation, Portnoy's life changes.

The biggest change came after Jordan joined the Wizards management. When his arrival was still a rumor, local groups began planning to get a piece of him. Politicians and several of the town's elite institutions invited His Airness to events and expected him to be honored.

Jordan has proved immune to Potomac fever. Portnoy has declined invitations that much of Washington would die for. With the exception of Bill Bradley, the Princeton and NBA basketball star turned senator and presidential candidate, Jordan has endorsed no politicians and few causes.

With 80 basketball games a season and his business commitments, Jordan's dance card is full, Portnoy says. In his down time he'd rather be with his family in Chicago than breaking bread with the black-tie crowd.

Charity begins at home for Jordan, she says. Most of his philanthropy is focused on North Carolina, where he grew up, and Chicago.

One elite private school in DC asked that Jordan donate a one-on-one court session for its silent auction. When the request was turned down–Jordan prefers to help groups serving children in need–the auction chairman called to protest: Jordan, he said, must not have realized what school he was turning down.

The Washingtonians who have gotten the chance to play basketball with Jordan have paid big bucks. Tech moguls Rick Kay and Raul Fernandez and venture capitalist Mark Ein have gone to Senior Flight School, Jordan's adult fantasy camp in Las Vegas. Participants pay $15,000 for four days of coaching by Jordan, Dean Smith (Jordan's coach at North Carolina), and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.

Jordan doesn't have many "Washington friends." He spends time with people who understand his world–usually fellow athletes, such as Patrick Ewing, the former Georgetown and Knicks player hired this year as a Wizards assistant coach.

Jordan is also close to golfer Tiger Woods, Portnoy says. Jordan understands what Woods is experiencing as an international celebrity and a commercial "brand," she says.

ESTEE MERMELSTEIN GREW UP IN NEW Castle, Pennsylvania, 20 miles from Youngstown, Ohio, in the part of the rust belt where Pittsburgh Steeler football is a religion. Her father, Martin, co-owner of a junkyard, was such a football fan that he'd drag the kitchen TV set into the den so he could watch two games at once. Estee was often right beside him.

"She was a tomboy," her mother, Yaffa, says. Her sister, Marlene Gudelsky, five years older and the girlie girl of the family, says Estee was one of the smartest–and shortest–people in her class.

In high school Estee was a cheerleader and member of the dance team. The senior class voted her "the girl with the most school spirit."

On the surface, she was an all-American small-town girl. But the Mermelsteins weren't like other families on the block. Martin was a Holocaust survivor who had lost most of his family in the concentration camps. He came to Youngstown in 1949 to live with his brother.

Yaffa Weichleder grew up in Israel and met Martin in 1960 when she came to visit relatives. She had planned to stop briefly in Youngstown before heading to Toronto, but a visa snafu extended her stay a month. In that time, Martin convinced her to stay in America and marry him.

The Mermelsteins moved to New Castle when Martin and a partner bought a scrap-metal business there. They were devout Jews in a community with few Jewish families. They wanted their daughters to meet and marry Jewish boys.

Marlene and Estee joined the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization, and their parents took them to BBYO events with families in Ohio, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania.

Estee met her future husband, 15-year-old Elliott Portnoy from Morgantown, West Virginia, at BBYO when she was 13. Elliott was totally oblivious of her. But she told friends she was going to be "Mrs. Elliott Portnoy, the wife of the senator from West Virginia."

By 17, Estee had been elected BBYO regional president. She was organizing events, giving speeches, and going to national meetings.

Like many immigrant families, the Mermelsteins believed that education was the ticket to success. Martin never got past eighth grade–the war intervened in his schooling–but he was determined to get his girls a good education. One proviso–the girls had to go to colleges with plenty of Jewish students.

Estee picked the University of Michigan. It had plenty of Jewish students–and a good football team, a big draw for Estee and her father. But Michigan was expensive. Martin's junkyard business provided a living, but not much more.

"You can go to Michigan for one year and then we'll see," Martin told Estee. She left for Ann Arbor determined to stay for four.

ESTEE STUDIED MARKETING AND PLAN-ned a future in business. She had student loans and needed to work. She waited tables and worked as a bartender. One summer she worked in a cheese factory packing bags of shredded mozzarella and capping bottles of Parmesan.

Many of Estee's friends sailed through college without money worries, Marlene recalls. Estee was the only one who didn't head for sunny beaches on spring break. She didn't get envious; she got busy. "She figured there had to be a campus travel rep organizing those trips," Marlene says. "She said, 'Next year, I'm going to be the rep, and I'm going.' And she did."

Estee also was a campus orientation leader. She was assigned to help freshman football players and was so good that the athletic department offered her a job as a recruiter. She asked for a public-relations internship with the department instead. She got the job, and before long she was hired to write articles and work with the network-TV crews that broadcast Michigan games.

In her senior year, Estee was selected as one of two students on the university's athletic board, where she worked with legendary football coach Bo Schembechler. That year Michigan won the Rose Bowl.

As graduation beckoned, Estee thought about getting a job in sports management–but not for long. "The only job I was offered was working for ABC in a truck making $16,000 a year as a spotter. I was coming out with student loans. That wasn't going to cut it," she says.

She moved to New York as a trainee with Chase Manhattan Bank. Before starting her new job, she talked her sister, Marlene, into meeting her in Europe on a graduation trip. One on the first stops: Oxford, England. Through the years, Estee had kept tabs on her old crush Elliott Portnoy. He was now at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. Romance bloomed during their visit. "It was magical," he says.

When Elliott returned to the States to enroll in Harvard Law School, the two kept up a commuter relationship on weekends. After graduation, Elliott joined the DC law firm Arent Fox. Estee quit her job at Chase and moved to Washington.

Her parents were horrified that she would quit her good job before she had another lined up–even for a romance with a nice Jewish boy like Elliott.

ARENT FOX OFFERED TO HELP ESTEE IN her job hunt. Her dreams of working in sports management blossomed anew. At the time the law firm represented the Capitals hockey team and the Bullets (now Wizards) basketball team. She also had a contact at ProServ, the sports agency. It offered her a secretarial job, which she turned down.

"I thought it wasn't the right time for women in sports," Estee says.

She got a job at Manugistics, a Rockville software company, working in human resources, then marketing. She logged 80- and 90-hour weeks, traveling constantly, and enrolled at Maryland to finish an MBA degree begun in New York at Columbia.

Elliott was working long hours at Arent Fox. With Estee's help, he had started Kids Enjoy Exercise Now, or KEEN, a sports program for children with disabilities.

Curtis Polk, David Falk's partner, volunteered at KEEN. One night when Polk and his wife went out to dinner with the Portnoys, Polk mentioned that he and Falk were looking for someone to manage Michael Jordan's day-to-day affairs. Estee said she wasn't interested.

"My husband was kicking me under the table," Estee says. Afterward, Elliott insisted she call Curtis the next day to learn more about the job. She met him at the Silver Diner on Rockville Pike.

"He told me about the position, and it just sounded horrible," she says. "I listened but it sounded too administrative." Still she agreed to meet Falk.

"We just hit it off," Estee says of her meeting with the agent, again at the Silver Diner. Afterward Falk called Polk from his car and said, "Hire her."

Portnoy wasn't sure. Manugistics had just promoted her. She had stock options. Falk and Polk took her to their offices to meet the women in management positions. The two men told Portnoy that they would mold the job to her talents.

We want you to go to Chicago to meet Michael, Falk said. The night before the interview, Elliott drilled Estee on the Chicago Bulls roster and Jordan's career. Then he asked, "Who's Michael's coach?"

She didn't have a clue. "You'll never get this job," Elliott yelled.

Polk and Estee flew to Chicago and met Jordan in his office. He didn't ask a single sports question. Portnoy came back to Washington, resigned from Manugistics, and went to work for Jordan.

Two weeks later, she was on the press tour for Space Jam. "Overnight I went from the computer world to Oprah Winfrey," she says.

THERE IS A BOND BETWEEN ESTEE Portnoy and Michael Jordan that few outsiders understand.

Part of their closeness comes from shared life experience. Both grew up in families where money was tight–families that put a premium on hard work and achievement.

Portnoy is one of the few people in Jordan's inner circle who doesn't want to talk basketball or bask in his reflected glory. "Michael doesn't need another fan in his life," she says.

The Jordan she admires is the man off the court. "He looks you in the eye. You see his intelligence, his genuine caring for people. There are few people who inspire you, and Michael has the ability to do that."

Portnoy and Jordan both love competition. Before Jordan bought into the Wizards franchise in 2000, everyone close to him warned against getting involved with the losing team. The more he was advised against it, says Portnoy, the more determined he was.

He expects that same spirit from those around him. "I challenge Estee on a regular basis to get things done for me," Jordan says, "but she's usually up to the challenge and pretty resourceful. I believe if you set your mind to something, you can succeed. And the people who work for me know that."

IN 1999, NORTH CAROLINA AND JORDAN'S hometown of Wilmington were hit hard by Hurricane Floyd. Jordan made a big donation to the relief fund. The governor suggested he visit Wilmington, but Jordan worried that the trip would be a media circus.

Portnoy thought Jordan should go. She bet that she could get him in and out of Wilmington quietly. He took the bet.

Portnoy went to Wilmington to scout the trip. Arriving at the local paper one evening after the newsroom had closed, she offered the editor on duty an exclusive–if the paper kept things quiet. She said Jordan would arrive on Wednesday.

Portnoy also went to Burgan Middle School–which today occupies the site of Pender High School, the rival of Jordan's old high school, Laney–and told the principal to expect a visit from someone big. The principal later told Portnoy she wasn't sure whether to expect President Bill Clinton or Jordan.

Jordan arrived in Wilmington on Tuesday morning–a day earlier than Portnoy had told the newspaper to expect him. She called the paper and said their reporter had 20 minutes to meet them. Portnoy and Jordan got into a rental car, Jordan at the wheel, and headed to two Salvation Army centers to deliver clothes and drinks donated by Hanes and Gatorade.

The next stop was the high school. Fifteen students whose families had lost everything were called to the principal's office. Jordan talked to each of them.

Before they left town, Jordan drove Portnoy around and showed her his old house. They were back in Washington before the media realized he had been to North Carolina. They read about the trip in the Wil-mington paper.

ONE DAY ELLIOTT PORTNOY WAS IN A meeting in his DC law office (he's now a partner with Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal) when his phone rang. It was Jordan. "What's the state flower of Pennsylvania?" Jordan asked.

Elliott had no idea. "Can you find out?" Jordan asked.

Estee was sure that the state flower was the rhododendron, but Michael had bet her that it wasn't. Jordan, a big smile on his face, stayed on the line while Elliott hunted for the answer on the Internet. Pennsylvania's state flower, he soon discovered, is the mountain laurel.

"Hah, she's wrong," Jordan proclaimed.