MJ would not give up the bones.
That’s one of the many things Pacman Jones would remember about that awful night in Vegas. There Jones was, just weeks after the close of his rookie NFL season, and he was hanging at the craps tables with one of his primo childhood idols during the NBA’s 2007 All-Star Weekend, his Royal Airness himself.
Air Jordan was adamant that not another living soul was going to touch the dice, Jones remembered. Jordan’s fingers only. All night long. Or at least as much of the night that Pacman was there. It was Jordan, the dice, and the house. That was the ultimate match-up for MJ, now that his playing career was long over.
Pacman was merely along for the ride, and what a ride it proved to be.
In an interview earlier this year, Jones said he collected a cool million in winnings, then headed off to a local strip club, where he would break out fifty thousand in one dollar bills to “make it rain” on the dancers shaking their groceries for the crowd. Pacman’s rain, poured down with the aid of rapper Nelly, would go terribly awry that night, devolving first into an argument and fight, then a shooting outside the club, and finally a string of lawsuits and media stories that would mar Jones’ image and threaten his pro football career.
Those are interesting story lines in themselves, but the real takeaway from the fateful encounter was the sheer excess of Jordan’s dance with the bones. Jones says that Jordan lost five million dollars that night. Who knows really how much was lost come sunrise, but the occasion happened at a time when MJ was angling to become majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. And here he was at All-Star Weekend, the NBA’s showcase event, rolling the night away, the hell with everybody else?
If you think about it, it was just the kind of moment to shoot holes in all of the conspiracy theories about his supposed suspension from the NBA in 1993 for gambling. Jordan’s father James had been murdered in a roadside robbery in North Carolina in July of 1993. That fall, MJ abruptly retired from basketball, then later headed south to play minor league baseball in Birmingham, Alabama.
The late Norm Van Lier, a former Chicago Bulls guard and a Windy City radio personality, began espousing the first conspiracy theories on air in the wake of the events, until then Bulls coach Phil Jackson phoned him and told him to stop all the crap, that there was no connection between MJ’s gambling and his father’s death. Van Lier ceased with his harangue, but the idea had been planted.
It doesn’t take much for a seed of nonsense in popular culture to sprout into a forest of misinformation.
Soon the public came to believe that James Jordan had been murdered in retaliation for MJ’s unpaid gambling debts. It was another huge batch of hogwash. Sadly, Jordan’s father was the victim of a random roadside killing by two young dipshits, as the overwhelming evidence in court later clearly showed.
The conspiracy theories are perhaps fun, and they’ve driven lots of Internet traffic for media companies of all stripe, but for years those theories have overlooked one huge element: There has never been evidence or even the slightest accusation that Jordan bet on his own games, or even bet on basketball or any other sporting event, other than his own golf matches.
His nights at the casino? They’re epic and many, but if the NBA had suspended Jordan for that, it would have had to get rid of just about all of its players.
The NBA has been a gambling league since way back in the days when teams rode on trains to get to their games. MJ and an array of modern players have only carried on a long tradition of playing cards, betting on golf rounds, hitting the tables at casinos.
When Jordan came back to basketball in 1995, there wasn’t the slightest iota of sensitivity about his gambling. The Bulls even scheduled a preseason game in Vegas in 1996, so that Jordan and his teammates, including mega gambler Dennis Rodman, could all have plenty of time to hit the tables.
If MJ had been suspended, there’s no way the Bulls and the NBA would have been so casual about his gambling. All of that is allowed. What is forbidden is betting on basketball games in any fashion.
The greatest proof that Jordan never, ever did such a thing?
Already a minority owner of the Bobcats in 2007, he would become the majority owner just a few short years after his bummer night in Vegas.
Somehow overlooked in the process of Jordan becoming an owner is the closest thing the public will probably ever get to an answer about the “conspiracy theory.” NBA commissioner David Stern and Jordan had never been close, but Stern worked very hard behind the scenes to make Jordan’s ownership happen. And once it happened, the commissioner continued to help in the adjustment.
In 2012, writer Jack McCallum had sought to answer the question that so many had asked: Had Jordan been forced from the game in 1993? There’s no question Jordan had long resented that Stern hadn’t stepped up and said more to make the matter clear at the time. In 1993, Stern called the rumors “scurrilous.”
The commissioner knew of Jordan’s great anger, but as McCallum pointed out, Stern was in an awkward position. If he said too much or protested too much, that would only feed the conspiracy buffs. Jordan took the commissioner’s approach as indifference.
Whatever was said between the two men was left with them, and neither discussed it or offered any further details. The evidence at most now was circumstantial, but strong, it seemed. If Jordan had indeed been forced from the game, the commissioner obviously had welcomed him back as a player. But he would never have seen fit to agree to Jordan as an owner. After all, Jordan had hardly repented his ways. The Internet was virtually filled with camera phone evidence of his partying and gaming in the interim since.
“I don’t know that there ever really was a gambling issue,” former Chicago Bulls executive and longtime Jordan nemesis Jerry Krause said in an interview. The infamous “Crumbs” had never hesitated to pounce on any opportunity to criticize Jordan, if it was legitimate. There was nothing to the gambling, he said again and again in interviews in 2011 and 2012.
If there had been, it seemed highly unlikely that Stern would have worked so hard to make Jordan’s ownership a reality. If Jordan had shamed the game, there was no way the NBA would embrace him as an owner.
“I’m no Pete Rose,” Jordan has emphasized several times.
If any of these columnists insinuating that he was banned actually has any evidence, they should step up immediately and throw it on the hump. Otherwise, man up and admit not the slightest shred of evidence exists that Jordan shamed the game.
To suggest otherwise is the real shame, as Krause pointed out, because Jordan showed up every night in every game of his career and laid his heart on the line, the ultimate competitor in the history of the sport.
Short of anything to the contrary, that stood as the best evidence that Jordan’s departure to play minor league baseball was just what the record showed: His grief and sorrow come to fruition in a desire to feel close to his father in baseball. That’s it. It’s not very sexy, but it’s the truth.
In all fairness to the conspiracy theorists, however, Jordan did make quite a splash in the gaming world in the early 1990s, one that clashed sharply with the good-guy image he had worked so hard to develop in the 1980s.
After taking his Bulls to the Promised Land with their first title in 1991, Jordan abruptly veered into the wilderness, even as Gatorade was preparing to release its tour de force ad with that overpowering refrain: “I wanna be like Mike.”
Time would reveal that the limitations to what he could achieve in basketball were largely self-imposed. While he had just claimed his first pro championship and thus had begun to refute criticism about his ability to be a team player, Jordan had already embarked on a path in his off-court life that threatened the good name he had built so carefully.
That summer of ‘91, Jordan and Richard Esquinas, the part owner of the San Diego Sports Arena, engaged in a series of high-stakes golf matches and began keeping a running tab of their wins and losses. “We were always very flexible in payments,” Esquinas would recall later. The gambling hit a new level that September in Pinehurst, North Carolina, when Esquinas lost $98,000 to Jordan in a day of golf. He wanted Jordan to take a double-or-nothing bet, and to emphasize that, he wrote Jordan two checks for $98,000 each. What he didn’t tell Jordan was that he wasn’t sure he had the funds to cover either. He wouldn’t have to, as it turned out. Jordan accepted the bet, and the two gamblers went at each other later that month over an adrenaline-fed, 10-day spree at the Aviara Golf Club in San Diego. Jordan not only lost the $98,000, but ended up down an additional $626,000. Jordan, too, wanted a double or nothing. Esquinas, who was on a hot streak, said he pleaded with Jordan not to go double or nothing but finally agreed to it.
“Once again, he went into a long story about his wealth,” Esquinas would later recall. “He could handle $1.2 million, he said, should he happen to lose. ‘Let’s play for it,’ he said. ‘E-Man, I can’t believe you won’t give me this game.’ I was trying to get him to comprehend the magnitude of losing at such a level, to defer this insistence that we engage once again. Not only did he want to continue this chase, he was demanding it. ‘I do not want this game,’ I said, ‘but I must be honest with you. You lose and you pay. That’s the only way I’ll give you a shot. And, if I beat you, that’s it. No more of this double or nothing.’”
Jordan promptly lost, bringing his total debt to what Esquinas claimed was $1.252 million. MJ seemed a bit shaken after the loss but returned home to Wilmington for the grand honor of having a stretch of Interstate 40 near his Gordon Road boyhood home named after him.
It’s a good thing news about his gambling didn’t break until later. Local officials might have backed off their road-naming plans. The later revelations about MJ’s gambling would be that shocking.
It was in the wake of these events that Jordan’s first real troubles surfaced. In December, police surveillance of a Charlotte man, a convicted cocaine dealer named James “Slim” Bouler, turned up a $57,000 check that Jordan had written to him. Bouler later faced charges. Both Bouler and Jordan told authorities that the money was a loan, but Jordan was soon caught up in Bouler’s troubles and would later be served with a subpoena to testify in the case against him.
Then in February 1992, a bail bondsman, Eddie Dow, was murdered during a robbery at his home. Thieves took $20,000 in cash from a briefcase on the premises but left three checks worth $108,000 written by Jordan. The lawyer handling Dow’s estate confirmed that the checks were for gambling debts owned by Jordan to a North Carolina contractor and another. Press reports revealed that Jordan often hosted small gatherings for golfing and gambling at his Hilton Head Island residence, where Jordan had lost the money. Dow had been to at least three such gatherings, according to his attorney. Jordan was also known to host Mike’s Time, a gathering of golf and high-stakes poker before training camp each season.
The reports prompted commissioner Stern to issue a reprimand to Jordan. The league soon launched the first of two “investigations” into Jordan’s activities, although they were limited in scope. Neither Jerry Krause nor Nike shoe maven Sonny Vaccaro was approached about an interview. Krause said in 2012 that the Bulls were as surprised as anyone else when Jordan’s issues came to light, but they never made any attempt to learn more about his off-court activities. That was surprising, considering that Krause worked in the Los Angeles Lakers’ front office in the late 1970s. The Lakers, according to former GM Pete Newell, employed off-duty LAPD vice officers to keep track of players’ activities. Phil Jackson would later accuse Krause, aka “The Sleuth,” of spying on the off-court activities of Bulls players, which Krause also denied.
“I have complete confidence in him as a person,” Krause said of Jordan at the time. Nike took a similar approach. “In his private life, he should be able to do what every other person can do. He’s not the president or the pope,” replied Dusty Kidd, a Nike spokesman, when queried by reporters.
“He had problems,” Sonny Vaccaro recalled in 2012. “He’s the only guy that could have survived the gambling stuff. You know that, don’t you?”
Perhaps, but Vaccaro also acknowledged that no one had ever suggested Jordan bet on basketball.
Twenty years later, Krause offered his take on the matter, too. “I didn’t know that there were gambling issues,” he said. “I knew he played cards on the airplane. You’d hear the guys yelling at one another. I didn’t know what the stakes were. Later on I found out that they were very high. But all the great old-timers in the NBA used to gamble. I was used to that. I was used to guys playing cards. That’s the way of the NBA. As for Michael, it was just his way of living. So what? He had the money. He was never nonprofessional. That sucker showed up every night and he was ready to play. I saw him do tons of charitable things, good deeds. And tons of asinine things, too. He is who he is.”
That spring of 1993, in the wake of the revelations about his golf and gambling binges, Jordan addressed the strange arc of his life in an interview with the Chicago Tribune’s Melissa Isaacson. “It’s just one of those things that happened,” he said of his sudden fame. “And it shocked everybody. It’s a hell of a burden and it’s just one of those things that I stumbled into. Then you see people counting on you so much that you start to try to constantly maintain it, and that’s when the pressure starts to mount. Suddenly, everything you do, you have to stop and think, ‘How is this going to be perceived?’”
Esquinas later argued with Jordan over attempts to collect the debt. What Esquinas didn’t know about basketball’s main man was that he had a long reputation for welshing on gambling losses, whether it was 75 cents lost putting into trash cans in college, or a hundred bucks dropped to Chicago sportswriter Lacy Banks playing pingpong.
Jordan, of course, proved far better at collecting – awards, titles, endorsement deals, and other fans –over a career that saw him come to own the game of basketball like no other player ever had.
Did he ever shame the game that he loved so dearly, the game that made him the first billion dollar athlete?
If you have even the slightest evidence of that, please let us know. Otherwise, all the talk is just so much bull.
You can buy Michael Jordan: The Life by Roland Lazenby online at Amazon.