“We’re not going to bet on the game…But we’re going to bet on the golf,” said Charles Barkley before the start of the 1993 Finals. Given the circumstances, it was probably the last thing Michael Jordan needed to hear as a new round of gambling allegations were threatening to become more of a story than the Bulls potential 3-Peat. The 1993 NBA Finals were extraordinary and fortunately for young fans like this one, great basketball overshadowed a much darker story, one in which the league’s marquee player fought many of his demons in public while giving a historic Finals performance.
As Michael Jordan’s fame increased, his personal life had become more and more subject to public scrutiny. By far, the biggest issues were the allegations surrounding his gambling debts that became public in 1992, which revealed an unsavory cast of characters and substantial amounts of money. These revelations prompted a reprimand from David Stern and an investigation by the NBA into Jordan’s associations and activities. The media jumped on the issue and publicly Jordan insisted that he did not have a gambling problem. Nevertheless, the gambling issue would linger through the Bulls’ second championship and Jordan’s subsequent participation in the Barcelona Olympics.
Though the worst gambling details remained secret, they would emerge at the worst possible time. The 1992-93 season proved not only difficult for Jordan but the entire team. In terms of basketball, the team was not as dominant as they had been the year before and for Jordan, a host of personal issues weighed heavily and had him contemplating retirement. Jordan’s gambling exploits reemerged during the Eastern Conference Finals against the Knicks when it was reported that he had been gambling in Atlantic City prior to Game 2. This prompted a media boycott by Jordan that began on May 26, 1993. Then, a week before the NBA Finals, details from an upcoming book by millionaire Richard Esquinas called Michael and Me: Our Gambling Addiction…and My Cry for Help emerged. The book brought a new round of previously unknown gambling allegations, a series of high stakes golf games that took place between Esquinas and Jordan beginning in September of 1991 in which Jordan lost $1.25 million.
The NBA Finals opened in the wake of these revelations, with Jordan breaking his media silence in a taped interview with Ahmad Rashad that aired during halftime of Game 1. Jordan was clad in a suit and sunglasses, looking considerably uncomfortable and defensive. He insisted that he did not have a gambling problem and denied that he had lost over $1 million (though he admitted to losing a substantial amount) while saying he had paid his debts. Jordan also lamented the betrayal of a former friend and talked at length about a better screening process for friends and associates. Also in the interview Rashad asked Jordan about possible retirement, a step that Jordan denied that he would take based on what the media or other people had done to him.
Jordan refused to discuss the issue further after the interview aired but discussion continued throughout the Finals. Bernie Lincicome in the Chicago Tribune said “Jordan sure looked guilty of something,” while Dave Kindred of Sporting News said,
“Gamblers don’t belong in sports. They are vulnerable to extortion. They re vulnerable to temptations to bet on what they know best, their game. These vulnerabilities undermine the public’s confidence that the games are honest.”
Charles Barkley defended Jordan with his usual flare saying “Michael should be more like me and not worry about the press. You can’t worry about image and things like that,” and David Stern sat down with Bob Costas during halftime of Game 6 and provided assurances that Jordan’s gambling was not a problem for the NBA.
Jordan went on to score thirty-one points in Game 1 and the Bulls took a 1-0 lead in the series. Fortunately, the personal issues and public battle over his gambling did not appear to distract Jordan and he went on to average 41 ppg, still a Finals record, which included a 55-point explosion in Game 4. The series ended in dramatic fashion when John Paxson hit a three pointer to win the series in Game 6. One day after the Bulls won their third NBA championship Sports Illustrated published a piece entitled “Smells like Another Rose,” that described what others, intimate with such issues, saw as dangerous signs that Jordan did indeed have a gambling problem. The first and the last game of 1993 NBA Finals featured a discussion of Michael Jordan’s gambling debts, a discussion that would rage until tragedy struck Jordan and his family when his father was murdered that summer. Since then, Jordan’s gambling, his father’s death, and subsequent retirement have been a conspiracy theory favorite, but, as with most conspiracies, they lack any solid foundation when looked at in the proper context. Michael Jordan’s personal struggles, which included things other than gambling, add depth, context, and stark contrast to the championship euphoria that followed the Bulls’ first 3-peat and help explain why the games greatest player stepped away at the height of his powers.
This is the second article in a series of Bulls stories from their six finals appearances in the 1990s. If any readers would like to make suggestions for a story to be a part of this series leave it in the comments.
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