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In the 1970’s, Dr. J brought excitement to the NBA. In the 1980’s, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird added fuel to that smoldering fire with their skill and rivalry. But in the late 80’s and early 90’s, Michael Jordan turned that fire in an inferno. And with him, came an economic boom unlike anything the NBA had ever seen.
For Michael Jordan wasn’t just an NBA superstar. He was the NBA. It was estimated at one time that 70% of all basketball fans considered themselves Chicago Bulls fans –meaning Michael Jordan fans. Almost single-handedly, Jordan made the NBA into a commercial powerhouse. Ticket sales increased league wide (Jordan almost always played to sell-outs, both home and away). Merchandise (mainly Bulls jerseys with the number 23 emblazoned on them) flew off shelves. And most importantly to the NBA, the money taken in from TV revenues went through the roof. In 1985 (Jordan’s rookie year), CBS paid the NBA $188 million for a 4-year TV contract. In 1989, NBC was willing to shell out $600 million for that same amount of time. Who do you think the #1 attraction was?
However in the fall of 1991, a series of events began that threatened not only the image of Michael Jordan, but the millions of dollars his name meant.
Money on the Line
Michael Jordan craved competition. It was this passion that led to his compulsive gambling. He gambled on just about anything. While at North Carolina, he used to bet fellow players sodas or small amounts of money on free throws or games of “Horse.” Although not necessarily sanctioned by the team, it went largely ignored.
These activities carried on into the pros, and with the huge influx of money, the stakes steadily increased. He played poker with his teammates on road trips and was known to be quite the shark. Bulls coaches would warn the younger players not to play poker with him – he was that good. He even gambled on the outcome of video games.(1)
But it was golf, his second passion, which proved to be his downfall.
He began betting small, maybe $100 on a hole or a putt. But as his confidence on the golf course grew, so did the amounts of the bets. And why not? Jordan had plenty of money and he was a good golfer. Just not good enough to avoid losing to the wrong people.
In 1991, Jordan and a group of friends went on a week long gambling spree at his Hilton Head home in North Carolina, golfing all day and playing poker all night. By the time it ended, Jordan was into James “Slim” Bouler for $57,000 and Eddie Dow for $108,000. This in and of itself wouldn’t be such a big deal except for the fact that Bouler was a convicted cocaine dealer and had two probation violations for carrying semiautomatic weapons.
This was just the beginning for Jordan. On October 21, 1991, Jordan paid the $57,000 to Bouler who turned around and placed the money in an account for the “Golf-Tech Driving Range.” The IRS quickly seized it, believing the funds may have been ill gotten since Bouler was again under investigation for dealing cocaine.
Now the shit hit the fan for Jordan. In the wake of these dealings coming to light, Jordan told the press that the $57,000 was merely a loan to a friend to start a golf range. That lie carried a lot of weight. So much so that U.S. District Court Judge Graham C. Mullen ruled that the IRS violated Bouler’s rights in seizing the $57,000 check. Judge Mullen admitted that he based his ruling on Jordan’s claims that the money was a loan – even though he never actually questioned Jordan.(2)
That seemed to suffice. For a while. Then in February of 1992, Jordan’s gambling associate Eddie Dow was robbed of $20,000 and murdered just outside his home. In Dow’s belongings they found photocopies of three checks that totaled $108,000 – the exact amount Jordan had lost to him months earlier. Two of the checks were from Jordan’s personal account. The third was a cashier’s check made out by Jordan.
Then, almost one year to the day after originally paying Bouler the $57,000, Michael Jordan was in court at Bouler’s trial for drug and money-laundering charges. Under oath, during a nine minute testimony, Michael Jordan admitted that the $57,000 was not a loan but indeed a gambling debt.
Tip of the Iceberg?
In June of 1993, another Michael Jordan gambling story broke. This one hovered around the book Michael & Me: Our Gambling Addiction…My Cry for Help! written by San Diego businessman Richard Esquinas. Esquinas claimed that during a ten-day period in 1991, Jordan had lost $1.25 million to him gambling on golf. No one initially believed his story, until Esquinas produced the correspondences with Jordan and the canceled checks to back it.
At the beginning of 1992, Esquinas contacted Jordan several times asking Jordan to pay off the bet. After a few token payments (some sent to Esquinas by Jordan’s wife Juanita) and many broken promises, Esquinas offered Jordan an out. Jordan agreed to settle the matter at $300,000. In March of 1993 Jordan had Chicago attorney Wayne A. McCoy send Esquinas $100,000. Then in May of that same year, McCoy sent Esquinas another $100,000. But by then, Esquinas had lost his patience waiting for his money and he published the book.
Jordan didn’t lie this time. Instead, he issued a statement. “I have played golf with Richard Esquinas with wagers made between us. Because I did not keep records, I cannot verify how much I won or lost. I can assure you the level of our wagers was substantially less than the preposterous amounts that have been reported.” (3)
Even with that admission of guilt, Jordan managed to deny any sort of problem. He told player friendly NBC reporter Ahmad Rashad “If I had a [gambling] problem, I’d be starving. I’d be hocking this watch, my championship rings, I would sell my house. My kids would be starving. I do not have a problem. I enjoy gambling.” (4)
For a man that made hundreds of millions of dollars to claim that “if” he had a gambling problem, he’d be “starving” is quite laughable. He went on to say to Rashad, “My wife, if I had a problem, would have left me or certainly would have come and said seek help…my wife never said anything, and she’s the chief of finances in our household.” It’s obvious she must’ve known something since she’s the one who originally paid Esquinas.
During the time this story broke, Jordan decided to make an ill-advised trip to Atlantic City – right in the middle of the 1993 playoff series against the New York Knicks. Jordan claimed to the media that he was gone well before midnight the night before Game 2 in New York; however, he was seen in the casino well past midnight and into the wee hours of the morning. That was the last time Jordan would do that – during the playoffs. It has been reported on more that one occasion that when Jordan played in New York or New Jersey he’d venture down to Atlantic City, or if he were in Los Angeles or Utah he’d likely make a pit stop in Las Vegas.
The day after this new gambling story broke about Jordan and Atlantic City; NBC announcer Bob Costas had a halftime interview with NBA Commissioner David Stern. During that interview, Costas badgered Stern about the story – much to the disdain of NBA Sports President Dick Ebersol who was screaming in Costas’s earpiece to lay off and switch subjects.(5) Costas, much to his credit, did not back down and asked the tough questions that should have been asked. But to little avail.
NBC laid off the story from that point onward. Jordan became quite tight lipped as well. He stopped talking to the media. Even though such silence – especially during the playoffs – is a fineable offense in the NBA, Jordan never received a single fine. For Stern and the NBA, Jordan’s silence might have been a blessing in disguise.
By now, the NBA had had enough. They had been through this once before in 1992 with the Bouler ordeal. That two-week “investigation” ended with Commissioner David Stern announcing, “This situation has been investigated with complete cooperation of Michael and his attorneys and [the head of the NBA investigation] Judge Lacey has assured us that there appears to be no reason for the NBA to take action against Michael.” (6) But in reality, the “two week investigation” consisted of a 2½-hour meeting between Jordan, his attorneys, and top NBA officials. The NBA never questioned either Bouler or any of the local or Federal investigating officers in the case, and never asked to see the records from Bouler’s trial. No wonder there appeared to be no reason to take action against Jordan.
Jordan was merely given a slap on the wrist and told to watch who he associates with. He himself claimed to Chicago Tribune writer Bob Greene, “Was I gambling with goons who had bad reputations? Yeah, I was. Should I not gamble with goons anymore? Yeah, I shouldn’t gamble with goons.”
But now, in 1993, Jordan was on strike two and a half. During this second, and much more thorough investigation, the league was to discover that not only were the amounts involved larger, but also that the accusations were much more damning. According to the book Money Players: Days and Nights Inside the New NBA, in July 1993 the NBA interviewed Esquinas in its New York offices. During that interview, Esquinas told the investigators that in March of 1992, he had overheard a telephone conversation Jordan was having with an unknown person. During that phone call, Jordan talked about a betting line; saying “So you say the line is seven points.”(7) Of what game, it is unknown. But this was a serious accusation. If Jordan was indeed gambling on sports, then he had broken that sacred, unwritten rule for professional athletes.
The question is, how credible did the NBA think this allegation was? I think they took it as quite credible. They most definitely did not want Jordan to become the NBA’s version of Pete Rose, who was a certain Hall of Famer in baseball until he was suspended for life over gambling. Rose, the all-time hits leader in the MLB, never made it into the Hall of Fame despite all of his on the field accomplishments because off the field, he was a sports gambler.
Baseball was more than Pete Rose. But Jordan was more than basketball. He was Nike. He was McDonalds. He was Chevrolet. He was even considered a national hero by winning a gold medal for Team USA (the “Dream Team”) in the 1992 Olympics. Jordan meant a lot of money to a lot of people. $40 million dollars a year in endorsement deals alone. And here it seemed that he was spinning out of control. Inching closer and closer to a revelation that would not only bring down a man, but what seemed like an American institution.
What was potentially even more threatening to the league than MJ’s gambling was the fact that he was consistently associating with seeming criminals. He was putting himself in a position where he could easily be blackmailed. Perhaps blackmailed into doing something on the court like shaving points or worse – throwing games. I think at this point the NBA and Commissioner David Stern stepped in and talked to Michael Jordan about “retirement.”
I don’t believe that the news conference called on October 6, 1993 was what it purported itself to be. There were no tears in Michael Jordan’s eyes. There was no sadness, no cracking voices. Merely a statement followed by some quick, easy to answer questions, and then “retirement.”
According to his own statement, why did Jordan decide to retire? First, he stated, “I just feel that at this particular time in my career, I’ve reached the pinnacle…that I don’t have anything else to prove to myself.” Quite hypocritical considering 17 months later he was back playing for the Bulls. I guess even after being named Rookie of the Year, leading the league in scoring for 7 years in a row, being named MVP twice, winning the NBA Championship three times, and being hailed as the greatest player to ever play the game, Jordan found something else he needed to prove.
Then came, “The biggest gratification, the biggest positive thing that I can take out of my father not being here with me today is that he saw my last basketball game, and that means a lot.” Having occurred in July of 1993, the murder of James Jordan surely weighed heavily on Michael’s mind at the time.
Although some have speculated that his father’s death had something to do with Jordan’s gambling, I don’t believe that to be the case.
James Jordan wasn’t a saint, truth be told. He was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison (which were suspended) for being a cog in a larger embezzlement scheme in 1985, and at the time of his death, he was the subject of several lawsuits concerning the unpaid bills of his clothing company, JVL Enterprises, Inc.(8)
Even though there are some odd facts surrounding his murder (like the fact that a man like Michael Jordan’s father decided to sleep in his car on the side of a rural highway rather than find a hotel or stay overnight at a friend’s home), there is no real evidence to support a conspiracy. However, the pride Michael felt in his father seeing his last game seemed to be rather fleeting.
Finally he stated, “Now that I’m here, it’s time to be a little bit unselfish in terms of spending more time with my family, my wife, my kids, and just get back to a normal life, as close to it as I can.” When asked, what will he do now, Jordan replied, “In retirement, you do whatever comes to mind. Relax. Enjoy the time you’ve been deprived of for many years.” I guess what came to Michael’s mind was playing baseball. Not spending time with the wife and kids, unless of course they were on the bus with him and the rest of the Birmingham Barons while traveling from small town to smaller town across the Southern US.
Which brings up an interesting point. The only reason Jordan was even given an opportunity to play baseball was because Chicago Bulls’ owner Jerry Reinsdorf also owned the Chicago White Sox. The Barons were an affiliate of the White Sox, so MJ could easily pass through the filters that would’ve normally kept him off the team. Reinsdorf stood to lose as much as anyone with MJ’s retirement (just compare Bulls tickets sales today compared to when MJ played). Yet he was one of the first people Jordan contacted regarding a potential “retirement.” How did Reinsdorf respond? By paying Jordan $4 million and leaving a contractual window open for him to return (9) – even though after being ask would he ever return, Jordan replied, “No – if so, I’d still be playing.”
Let’s face the facts; Jordan was a horrible baseball player. In his one full season in Birmingham, he hit .202 – even with opposing teams’ catchers telling him which pitch was coming next. White Sox General Manager Ron Schueler was quoted at the time as saying that Jordan’s chance of making the majors was “a million-to-one shot.” So was he truly living a childhood dream of his to play baseball, or was it something more?
I believe there was more to his minor league career than waving at curve balls. I believe the NBA came to Jordan and laid it out for him. They didn’t want to see him go down for gambling, but at the same time, they couldn’t seem to control him. So they asked him to “retire” and seek some help. Allow the media investigations (if there even were any) to cool down and soon the public will forget all about it. Go play baseball so you can keep in shape and remain at least somewhat in the spotlight. Then, when the time is right, Jordan would be allowed to return to the NBA as the mighty king he once was.
At a certain point in time, Michael Jordan stopped playing by the NBA’s rules and began playing by his own. The NBA, not wanting to upset its cash cow, bent as far as it could to accommodate him. Be it with the lack of foul calls, or limited media access, or getting away with a crime, the NBA was always willing to do it for Michael.
He made a very interesting comment during his retirement press conference. When asked, “will you miss the sport?” he replied: “I’m pretty sure I’ll miss the sport. To come back is a different thought – I can’t answer that. I’m not making this a ‘never’ issue. I’m saying right now I don’t have the mental drive to come out and push myself to play with a certain focus. Five years down the line, if the urge comes back, if the Bulls will have me, if David Stern lets me back in the league, I may come back.(emphasis added)” No reporter there bothered to ask him, why wouldn’t the Commissioner let you back in, Michael? It’s a very interesting choice of words. One that lends itself to a very different interpretation of the situation.
Even during his second (and more formal) retirement, Jordan had to again tip his cap to Stern. In thanking a few people that came before him, Jordan said, “And Mr. Stern and what he’s done for the league and gave me the opportunity to play the game of basketball.” How, exactly, did Stern give him an opportunity to play basketball? By drafting him? By offering him a contract? By putting him in the starting line-up? No. By, as MJ said at his first retirement press conference, letting him back in the league.
Having seen the financial dip the league took post-Jordan retirement, the league wanted him to return. They needed him to return. There was no replacement for Michael Jordan. And after his two-word press release in the middle of the 1994-95 season, which simply stated, “I’m back,” Jordan was. Presumably having put the gambling behind him (the stories, at least), Jordan played another three full seasons with the Bulls, winning the championship in all three.
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As basketball fans we have to ask ourselves some questions concerning Jordan’s early retirement. He was the best player, and the biggest sports star in the world. For him to leave the game in his prime, after winning his third ring in a row, doesn’t make much sense. His father died around that time also, but I feel like there had to be more than just that for him to retire.