The only thing Michael Jordan bet on was himself, he admitted in ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary on May 3. In episode 6, the NBA icon finally addressed one of the biggest controversies of his career — his gambling. MJ’s love for friendly wagers has always been a topic of discussion in his career, but, it became a public controversy after a night (May 24, 1993) in Atlantic City with his father, the late James R. Jordan Sr. — The same night Michael and his Chicago Bulls lost to the New York Knicks in a physical Game 2 of the 1993 NBA Eastern Conference Finals.
“My father said, ‘Let’s get away from New York City. Lets you and I go to Atlantic City.’ We got a limo,” Jordan recalled. “We went and gambled for a couple hours, we came back. Everybody went totally ballistic. ‘Hey, he was in a casino last night.’ It wasn’t late. We got home by 12:30, 1 o’clock,” he insisted, although media reports claimed he was out and about until much later.
Michael was known to enjoy golf outings and card games where he’d wager with friends. What was harmless to him, was detrimental to his career, image and reputation, according to media and critics. Around the same time, Richard Esquinas, former general manager of the San Diego Sports Arena, authored, Michael & Me: Our Gambling Addiction. The book alleged that MJ owed him $1.2 million over a bet.
“Yeah, Richard Esquinas,” Jordan said in the doc, addressing book head-on. “We met from a third party, you know I’m actually playing golf with people all the time now. And if they wanna gamble, we gamble. The character of those individuals I find 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.”
After he was scrutinized in the media, Jordan went radio silent in the press. The usually charismatic and playfully sarcastic MJ refused to repeatedly defend himself for not doing anything wrong. His quick getaway to AC did not violate league or team rules, or the law. NBA commissioner at the time, David Stern even admitted that he didn’t find Michael’s actions to be extreme enough for him to intervene.
MJ finally broke his media silence after 14 days in an interview with his longtime friend, Ahmad Rashad during the 1993 NBA Finals. Rashad flat out asked him about his alleged gambling problem. Meanwhile, MJ was wearing a pair of tinted black shades and a silver chain.
“I don’t have a gambling problem,” Jordan said before listing the things that would’ve been going on in his life if he did. “If I did, “I’d, be starving… my wife would’ve left me… my kids would be starving… Soon, whenever I walk away from this game, I think that’s the only thing that people are going to say was a bad thing about Michael Jordan.”
In a separate past interview from around the same time, Jordan was asked about his gambling. He responded with the real issue: “I have a competition problem, a competitive problem.” He hated to lose at all costs — even the casual sports fan would know that about him.
A present-day Michael maintained that he never had a gambling problem.
“I never bet on games — I only bet on myself,” Jordan said. “You know, that was golf. Do I like to play blackjack? Yeah, I like playing blackjack. There’s no laws with that. And the league did call me, and they asked questions about it, you know, and I told them exactly what was happening.”
After his interview with Rashad, Jordan proved that public scrutiny and his off the court actions didn’t affect his performance. Of course, Jordan and the Bulls went on to win Game 3 and swept the rest of the series against the Knicks, which led their third championship ring for the dynasty — a repeat 3-peat. Sounds like a competitive problem to us.
Episode 6 of The Last Dance also chronicled the globalization of Michael Jordan as a brand and a cultural icon. Past footage showed him opening up about the trials and tribulations of being the most famous athlete in the world. Despite the fame, love and money, it wasn’t easy to be Michael Jordan, especially in his prime.