Michael Jordan sat down with NBC sportscaster Ahmad Rashad just before the 1993 Finals — the interview aired at halftime of Game 1 against the Suns — wearing dark sunglasses to answer questions about the gambling problem he insisted he did not have. It was not Jordan’s smoothest performance.
Social media today would have roasted him.
Jordan’s competitive nature leading to a lot of gambling questions was a central topic of Episode Six of The Last Dance documentary aired on Sunday night. It seemed to open the eyes of younger fans who had no idea what an obsession this had been in 1993 (long before Twitter). Enough of an obsession Jordan felt he needed to address it in the Rashad interview right at the start of the Finals.
There was evidence. There was the $57,000 check written to Slim Bouler that Jordan admitted in court was to cover gambling debts (Jordan skipped meeting President George Bush after the 1991 Finals to golf with Bouler, and Jordan skipped out on the 1992 meeting at the White House, too). There was the book by Richard Esquinas, which said Jordan lost $1.2 million to him on the golf course (although Esquinas came off as a sleaze bag in all this). There were the reports at the time Jordan would bet teammates whose luggage would come down the chute and onto the airport luggage carousel first.
And then there was Jordan being spotting at night in an Atlantic City casino between games one and two of the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals against New York. The Knicks won the first two games of that series (and lost the next four).
In 1993 Jordan said: “My father said, ‘Let’s get away from New York City. Let’s you and I go to Atlantic City.’ We got a limo and went and gambled for a couple of hours and came back. Everybody went totally ballistic – ‘He was in the casino last night.’ It wasn’t late. We got home by 12:30, one o’clock.”
Which in tone and substance sounded a lot like how modern-day Jordan defended himself in the documentary.
“I’m actually playing golf with people all the time… and if they want to gamble, we gamble. The character of those individuals, I found out later what kind of people I was playing with. I learned that lesson. But the act of gambling? I didn’t do anything wrong…
“I never bet on games; I only bet on myself and that was golf… I told [the NBA league office] exactly what was happening,”
Jordan’s takeaway line was that he did not have a gambling problem.
“I have a competition problem.”
It was enough of a problem that the NBA was paying attention back in 1993, but the late NBA Commissioner David Stern told the filmmakers, “It never reached epic crisis levels in my view.”
However, the Last Dance got into how Jordan would bet on anything — including playing quarters with a security guard in the bowels of The United Center before a game. Jordan lost that bet.
The perception of Jordan’s gambling problem was out there in 1993, enough that when Jordan’s father was murdered later that year — in what police decided was a robbery turned murder — some tried to tie it to unpaid Jordan gambling debts. The same with Jordan jumping to play baseball at that time. Expect those to be topics of future Last Dance episodes.
Roland Lazenby, the author of “Michael Jordan: The Life,” said on a recent PBT Podcast that it all got taken out of context, that the jump to baseball was all about Jordan’s grief for his father and their relationship, it was not about gambling debts or anything else.
Still, those kinds of conspiracy theories never die.
And doing an interview in dark sunglasses denying the issue didn’t help any.