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Smells Like Another Rose

Experts see telltale signs in Michael Jordan of the gambling addiction that felled another idol

Thank heavens that's over. "As far as the subject of Michael Jordan," NBA commissioner David Stern said last week, "that subject is closed." Hallelujah. And pass the Moët-Chandon.

So why is Chuck Freiburger so worried? "Because it reminds me so much of what we went through in the early stages." Freiburger says. "Exactly. The checks written for debts. The escalating amounts. The denial that there's any problem." What does Freiburger know? Not much, except that for years he was the lawyer for a confessed gambling addict—former Baltimore Colt quarterback Art Schlichter.

Accchhhh. Let's forget it. Jordan does not have a gambling problem. He says so. His father says so. Besides, the commissioner says that what Jordan did is as harmless as playing any state lottery.

So why is Arnold Wexler so worried? "I don't like the signs," says Wexler. "The guy is sending up some serious red flags." What does Wexler know? Not much, except that his Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey annually fields 22,000 calls for help from problem gamblers.

No, no, no. Why make yourself crazy? Whether Jordan lost only $500,000 in golf bets to San Diego businessman Richard Esquinas, as Jordan told his press secretary, NBC's Ahmad Rashad, last Friday, or $1.25 million (negotiated down to $300,000), as Esquinas says in his recently self-published book, it was only beer money to an eight-figure human teller machine like Jordan. The only downside for Jordan is that the next time he wins, people will probably pay him off according to the Jordan Rules: 25 cents on the dollar.

So why is Chet Forte so worried? "My old gambling-addict friends and I just laugh at some of the things he says," Forte says. "That gambling is a 'hobby.' That he went to Atlantic City that night 'to relax.' Nobody gambles to relax. You gamble for the thrill of it." What does Forte know? Not much, except the Emmy-winning director of Monday Night Football and numerous other sports shows is recovering from a gambling addiction that cost him $1.5 million and his career.

And you're right. Jordan broke no laws, no league rules, not so much as a city statute. But when a man has written $108,000 worth of checks of which photocopies were found in the car of a dead bail bondsman: when a man first lies about—but then admits in court—to paying $57,000 in golf gambling debts to a convicted felon and money launderer; when a man is so bored with the city of New York that he takes a four-hour round-trip to Atlantic City between two huge playoff games, don't you squirm for him a little?

According to Wexler, here are some of the "soft" signs that, taken together, point to a problem gambler.

•An IQ over 120. Jordan certainly is intelligent.

•An unreasonably high level of optimism. To chase and chase and chase and get down hundreds of thousands of dollars to Esquinas, Jordan had to feel as if his slice would disappear at any moment.

•A high level of energy. Friends say Jordan rarely sleeps. If he stops at 18 holes in a day, a typhoon must be coming.

•An extremely competitive personality. Jordan? Competitive? SI asked a member of the Bulls' team last week how competitive Jordan is.

"This guy is a killer," the source said. "He's the most viciously competitive player I've ever seen. That's what makes him, I think, the greatest player ever. He has practically ruined [reserve forward] Rodney McCray for us." When the two players are on opposite teams in scrimmages, the source says, "[Jordan] is in Rodney's face, screaming, 'You're a loser! You've always been a loser!' Rodney can hardly put up a jumper now."

After practice, Jordan wants to shoot baskets for money. And it doesn't matter whether he's betting $5 a shot or $100, he wants his money right now. He wants to beat you in everything. "He passes people going home some nights—on the shoulder—doing 125," the source said. "He doesn't care. He lets the highway patrol chase him a little. You think they're going to give him a ticket? They'll ask for his autograph, but they won't give him a ticket. Guy scares me to death."

Competitive? One day in Monte Carlo last summer, where the Dream Team trained before the Barcelona Olympics, coach Chuck Daly beat Jordan by one shot on the golf course. "That's it," Daly said, meaning that he was quitting while he was ahead. "I'll never play Michael again." The next morning, at the crack of dawn, Jordan rang Daly's room. Getting no response, he went directly to Daly's room and knocked. Then he pounded. He wouldn't go away until he got his rematch. He got it, and he won by a shot. But would you expect anything else? Whatever searing obsession is inside Jordan, driving him to be the most dauntless basketball player on earth, does not suddenly leak out of his Nikes when he leaves the court.

"Sitting down with shady characters; needing to get to the casino in the middle of something that is very important in his life," says Wexler. "That tells me there's a very big thirst there to gamble."

"I hope I'm wrong," says Freiburger. "But we could be looking at the next Pete Rose."

Still, let's do what Stern and Rashad and Jordan all want us to do—forget about it. Subject closed and swept under the rug. None of our business anyway. Besides, Jordan is this nation's most cherished athlete. What could happen to him?