Long before Gabe Plotkin met Michael Jordan at the negotiating table, the Portland native idolized His Airness. A “die-hard” fan of Jordan who “thought he could do no wrong,” according to a Deering High School basketball teammate who watched Jordan’s famous “flu game” with a group including Plotkin.
Plotkin just wanted to “Be Like Mike,” as the Gatorade commercial says. What basketball-crazed kid didn’t? Some 25 years after serving as the Rams’ starting point guard, the 44-year-old Plotkin is finally like Mike, taking over for the basketball legend as principal governor (aka owner) of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets after co-leading the purchase of Jordan’s majority stake in the team over the summer for $3 billion. Jordan retained a minority share of the franchise.
“I think for Michael to move forward in this kind of partnership, he had to feel comfortable with me and it’s been great,” Plotkin told me during a one-on-one video call. “There was definitely a moment where you walked into the room to meet Michael Jordan for the first time and you’re like, ‘What’s going on in my life? This is pretty special.”
Though owning an NBA team wasn’t Plotkin’s childhood dream, the opportunity attracted the wildly successful financial professional for a variety of reasons. Born and raised in Portland, Plotkin graduated from Deering in 1997 and from Northwestern four years later with an economics degree. He began his career as a private equity analyst at Henry Crown and Co., climbing the professional ladder before founding Melvin Capital Management, a multibillion dollar equity long short fund. He later founded and continues to manage Tallwoods Capital, a family office based in Miami.
In 2019, Plotkin purchased a minority stake in the Hornets. This past June, he and business partner Rick Schnall led a group that purchased Jordan’s majority stake.
Plotkin’s professional rise came in part under the watch of prominent investor Steve Cohen at the former S.A.C. Capital Advisors, now Point72 Asset Management. Cohen, who made his own foray into sports ownership in September 2020 when he purchased the majority stake of the New York Mets Major League Baseball team for $2.4 billion, eventually cut Plotkin a $200 million check to start Melvin Capital Management.
Cohen, who keeps in touch with Plotkin regularly, described him as “extraordinarily bright” and While professional sports ownership never made it into their discussions during Plotkin’s half-dozen years at the firm, he did show his interest in basketball — sometimes requesting Cohen’s New York Knicks tickets when the Boston Celtics came to town.
Does Plotkin’s former boss have any advice on his new venture for him?
“Try to find ways to connect with the fans,” Cohen told me. “The fans want to know that you care and that you’re not just in it to make money or maximize income. They want to know you’re thinking about winning.”
Two of Plotkin’s Deering classmates and basketball teammates remember him as a table-setting guard known for his pinpoint passing and crisp ball handling with an unwavering affinity for Michael Jordan and the vaunted 1990s Bulls teams.
“Now that he’s in business with him is kind of like every kid’s dream,” said Ryan Jordan, the basketball teammate who remembers watching Michael Jordan’s famous flu game with Plotkin. Ryan Jordan is not related to Michael Jordan.
“I knew he was successful but not how successful until his name came up in the news,” said Tommy Doyle, a retired military veteran now located just outside of Sacramento, California. “It’s absolutely insane I went to high school with someone as successful as he has become.”
Why not just purchase a handful of Miami Heat courtside season tickets for him, his wife Yaara Bank-Plotkin and their four school-aged children? Why the Hornets? Like any sports fan, Plotkin opined about the moves his favorite teams made. As his finance career flourished, Plotkin realized he built the connections and had the means to make a case for NBA team ownership.
He found a “compelling opportunity” with the Hornets. Growing city. Dormant fan base ready to explode. Plotkin remembers the team selling out a 20-plus thousand seat arena regularly during the 1990s, but the franchise fell out of favor because of a temporary move to New Orleans and a lack of on-court success.
A sports version of the most common refrain associated with investing – buy low, sell high.
“We really viewed Charlotte as a top-15 plus NBA city but the perception was much worse,” Plotkin said. “It’s North Carolina. They love basketball. There’s a real opportunity with a fanbase that loves basketball that hasn’t seen a lot of success on the court in a city that’s growing with great demographics and a lot of corporate sponsorship.”
Cohen, the New York Mets owner, said a few lessons Plotkin learned from his finance career translate to professional sports ownership.
“He’s very thoughtful, forward thinking and not afraid to take risks,” Cohen said. “That’ll be good for the franchise.”
Plotkin first met Jordan early in his minority ownership tenure, catching a few games and sharing dinner. Plotkin met plenty of CEOs and other powerful figures during his finance career, but meeting Jordan was on a “different level.” Four years later, Plotkin and his team bought Jordan’s ownership stake. When we talked, Plotkin had already attended a handful of Hornets preseason home games. He hopes to take in between 15-20 Hornets home games this year.
“It’s a lot to digest in a really exciting way,” Plotkin said. “It’s not like I grew up and my dream was to run a basketball team. My dream, probably like yours, was to play basketball. I think the reality is that genetics and how hard it really is to do that come into play. It’s pretty awesome, exciting, and sometimes hard to believe.”
Mainers in NBA circles number few, but Plotkin maintains connections with them all, the easiest of which is with Hornets coach Steve Clifford, an Island Falls native and University of Maine at Farmington alum. Plotkin befriended fellow Portland native and Portland High School alum Josh Longstaff, an assistant coach for the Chicago Bulls. And although he didn’t play in the NBA, Deering alum Nik Caner-Medley enjoyed a highly successful 16-year professional career. He and Plotkin became friendly as adults and sometimes grab lunch in south Florida.
Longstaff, now in his fourth year with the Bulls and 14th overall as an NBA assistant coach, first met Plotkin roughly a half-decade ago through a mutual connection. Over coffee in Miami, they discussed Maine high school sports, Plotkin’s philosophy on business culture and how it relates to the NBA. Longstaff applauded Plotkin for his accessibility. An aspiring NBA head coach, Longstaff found parallels between Plotkin’s leadership experience as a CEO and coaching at the highest level.
“For someone who’s been so wildly successful, he kind of flies under the radar,” Longstaff said. “He’s a prototypical Maine guy. Somebody who’s humble, hard working and stays out of the spotlight.”
What about Newport’s Cooper Flagg? Does Plotkin want the potential top pick in the 2025 NBA draft on the Hornets someday.
“If we’re in a position— I hope we’re not because that means we haven’t gotten better at that point — but if we get lucky, win the lottery, something happens, it’d be an awesome thing,” he said. “We’ll see how that plays out.”