Michael Jordan is one of the rare figures in history who simply needs no introduction.
But if pressed to offer one to that proverbial stranger hiding his head under a rock for the last three decades, Jordan can be encapsulated in numerical form: Six-time champion of the National Basketball Association (NBA) as the leader of the Chicago Bulls, six-time NBA Finals Most Valuable Player, five-time NBA Most Valuable Player, 14-time NBA All-Star, 10-time NBA scoring champion, two-time NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion, two-time Olympic Gold medalist, and NCAA College Basketball champion.
In other words, Number 23.
Michael Jeffrey Jordan was born on February 17th, 1963 in Brooklyn, New York, but his parents relocated to Wilmington, North Carolina when he was a toddler. He excelled at basketball from the moment he stepped on the court, and during his senior year at Emsley A. Laney High School he was named to the McDonald’s All-American Team. Jordan went on to star at North Carolina University under the tutelage of legendary head coach Dean Smith. In 1982 he scored the game-winning basket to lead the Tar Heels over Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown University squad in the NCAA Championship.
Jordan won college basketball’s major individual awards in 1984 during his junior year at North Carolina, capturing both the Naismith and the Wooden College Player of the Year awards, before electing to leave college and declare himself eligible for the NBA Draft. He was selected by Bulls with the third overall pick, with sensational center and superstar Hakeem Olajuwon going first to the Houston Rockets, followed by fellow center Sam Bowie to the Portland Trail Blazers. In 2005, after Bowie’s professional career had amounted to very little, ESPN named the Trail Blazes passing over of Jordan as the worst draft pick in North American sports history.
Jordan went on to dominate the NBA like no player ever had before. After finally overcoming the Detroit Pistons dynasty of the late 1980s, following three successive defeats in the NBA Playoffs between 1987 and 1990, Jordan led the Bulls to a dynasty of their own. By cruising to NBA titles in 1991, 1992, and 1993, Jordan and the Bulls set the standard for professional basketball – so much so that Jordan tired of the game.
At the time Jordan’s name was synonymous with sport, thanks in large part to his lucrative endorsement deal with Nike, one which puts him at the head of the shoe company’s $500 million Jordan brand. Advertising campaigns for major companies like McDonald’s and Foot Locker earned upwards of $35 million per year, and he even starred in the hit animated film Space Jam in 1996.
Dogged by a desire to be challenged, as well as by his status as a global celebrity, Jordan stunned the sports world on October 6th, 1993 by announcing his retirement from the NBA. At the time, Jordan partially attributed his decision to the tragic death of his father, who was murdered in a senseless act of violence just months before.
On February 7th, 1994, Jordan turned the sports world on its collective ear once again, when he announced the signing of a minor league contract with Major League Baseball’s Chicago White Sox. While Jordan’s baseball career never left the ground in the same way has his iconic dunks once did, his curious decision to give up basketball during the peak of his reign as the game’s undisputed king gave rise to a number of rumors regarding his love of gambling.
During the Bulls 1993 playoff run, as the Bulls were ostensibly preparing to play the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals the following day, Jordan named in a report published by the New York Times. According to the article, Jordan had been spotted playing blackjack on a private table in Atlantic City’s Bally’s Grand casino.
It wasn’t the first time Jordan’s name had been linked to gambling, as he was called to testify during a 1992 trial of convicted cocaine dealer Slim Bouler. Jordan had no links to the drug trade, but he was forced to admit that a $57,000 personal check deposited to Bouler’s bank account represented a payment for gambling losses incurred on the golf course.
In 1993 the hits kept coming for Jordan, after a San Diego businessman by the name of Richard Esquinas published a book detailing allegations that Jordan owed him $1.25 million in golf-related gambling debts at one point. The Los Angeles Times reported on Esquinas’ claims in June of 1993, describing the situation by writing:
“Richard Esquinas, 38, former general manager of the San Diego Sports Arena, claims in his book, ‘Michael & Me: Our Gambling Addiction . . . My Cry For Help!’ that he and Jordan wagered hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes adding up to more than $1 million, during the course of their four-year relationship, which included more than 110 rounds of golf.
According to Esquinas, who owns the company that published the book, Jordan lost $1.252 million to him during a Sept. 20, 1991 match at Aviara Golf Course in San Diego County – the same week in which the Chicago Bulls’ guard was formally named a member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team. The following June, Esquinas said he and Jordan met for a final three-day golf betting binge at several San Diego County courses. That binge, Esquinas said, resulted in Jordan reducing the gambling debt to $902,000.”
According to Esquinas’ account of the events of in question, none of which were ever definitively proven, Jordan eventually offered to pay a $300,000 settlement on his debts, an amount which Esquinas accepted.
Jordan’s friends and close confidents had always known him to be a fan of action, and in 1992 he made headlines by taking on his fellow members of the U.S. Olympic “Dream Team” in heated high-stakes poker sessions that lasted well into the mornings. The home-game lineup consisted of fellow NBA legends and Hall of Famers to be Magic Johnson, Scottie Pippen, and Charles Barkley – himself a widely reputed aficionado of high-stakes gambling.
In the wake of Jordan’s stunning retirement announcement, one which came during at the peak of the Bulls’ three-year reign as NBA champions, whispers began to emerge from fans and media members. As the story goes, NBA Commissioner David Stern was desperate to get the superstar fueling the league’s unprecedented global growth back under control. The decision was made to secretly suspend Jordan for the upcoming NBA season, with his retirement and MLB experiment standing as cover to conceal the truth. While no concrete evidence of this secret suspension has ever surfaced, to this day it remains one of the most repeated, and believed, conspiracy theories in sports history.
Jordan eventually returned to the NBA for the 1994-1995 season, but the Bulls were defeated by the Orlando Magic in the 1995 playoffs. The previous year, a surprising 1993-1994 season saw a Pippen-led team fall short of the title. Motivated to avenge his first taste of playoff defeat in several years, Jordan carried the Bulls back to their championship form during the 1995-1996 season, and with Jordan back at the peak of his powers, the Bulls finished off another “three-peat” in 1997-1998.
Jordan retired from the NBA after finishing off his second series of three consecutive titles, but he eventually returned in 2001 to play for the Washington Wizards – the team he assumed partial ownership of in 2000. Jordan’s final NBA game took place on April 16th, 2003, and as he headed to the bench for the final time in the game’s closing minutes, the best player in NBA history was treated to an extended standing ovation – one which included fans, teammates, opponents on the court, and even the referees officiating the game.
In 2005 Jordan’s love for, or addiction to, gambling brought him back into the national news, after he gave filmed an interview with Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes in which he discussed the topic openly for the first time. During the interview, Jordan engaged in the following exchange with Bradley:
“Yeah, I’ve gotten myself into situations where I would not walk away and I’ve pushed the envelope. Is that compulsive? Yeah, it depends on how you look at it. If you’re willing to jeopardize your livelihood and your family, then yeah.”
“And you’re not willing to do that?”
“No … I want to win. I want to go out on a limb and win. And sometimes that can take you past the stage that you know you probably should take a step back from. Sometimes I don’t look at that line. I just step over that line. But once I step over it and I feel the lack of success, it’s very embarrassing things. So you look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I was stupid. I was really stupid.’ But we all are. But you have to be able to look in that mirror and say that you’re stupid.”
In 2007 NFL player Adam “Pacman” Jones sparked a rumor about Jordan’s exploits at the craps tables during that year’s NBA All-Star festivities in Las Vegas. According to Jones’ account, Jordan lost more than $5 million in a single night while shooting dice.
Renowned NBA writer and sports media personality wrote often about Jordan’s propensity for big bets during his stint as ESPN’s “Sports Guy.” One particular anecdote described by Simmons in ESPN The Magazine served to honor Jordan’s unquenchable thirst for action:
“There’s a famous gambling story about Michael Jordan. Actually, there are many famous gambling stories about MJ, but this one is my favorite. Back before NBA teams had grasped the rejuvenating power of chartered airplanes, the Bulls were waiting for their luggage in Portland when Jordan slapped a hunny on the conveyor belt: ‘I bet you my bags come out first.’ Jumping on the incredibly favorable odds, nine teammates happily accepted the wager. Sure enough, Jordan’s bags led the rollout. He cackled with delight as he collected everyone’s money.
What none of the suckers knew, and what MJ presumably never told them, was that he had bribed a baggage handler to help him out. He didn’t pocket much (a few hundred bucks), and considering his net worth hovered around nine figures at the time, it’s safe to say he didn’t need the extra cash. But that didn’t matter. There was a chance at an easy score, and he took it.
Yes, the most cutthroat athlete of his generation loves to gamble, and even more than that, he loves to win. Should you be surprised? The qualities that once made MJ transcendent on the court — his legendary hyper-competitiveness, superhuman stamina, larger-than-life swagger and unwavering confidence — make the gambling crossover an obvious choice.”