The Gambling Man

Leave it to the psychologists to determine whether Michael Jordan is a compulsive gambler. Suffice it to say he is a frequent and ardent one. At practice he'll wager on trick shots or play H-0-R-S-E for cash. On the Chicago Bulls' plane, he runs games of 21 or tonk, a sort of gin rummy. On the road, he hosts all-night poker games in his hotel room. Three years ago the team began using its own charter plane to protect the players' privacy-but also, it seems now, to keep from embarrassing view the hundreds of dollars spread across airport-lounge tables, the stakes in Jordan's card games.

It's not easy being the most famous athlete in the world. The drive to excel, to compete, to win, evidently is as hard to turn off as it is awesome to behold. Jordan's father says that if anything, his son has "a competition problem," an understandable flaw in a player who's better than anyone who's ever pulled on a pair of shorts. But Jordan's search for challenges now threatens to cause him an image problem. He began the season with a reprimand from the National Basketball Association for gambling on golf games with a cast of unsavory characters, including a convicted felon. Now he's ending the season with a remarkable series of playoff performances sullied by more off-the-court gambling disclosures. Two weeks ago, on the eve of a big playoff game against the New York Knicks, he limousined to Atlantic City, N.J., for a night of casino gambling that The New York Times reported lasted until 2:30 a.m. And then last week Richard Esquinas, a San Diego businessman, alleged that Jordan lost $1.2 million to him during a 10-day golf binge in 1991.

Jordan denies any wrongdoing. After playing in Atlantic City he was back in his hotel room by I a.m., he said. He admitted gambling with Esquinas, though he claimed to have no records or memory of the amounts. He deemed "preposterous" the million-plus figure, which, of course, is preposterous regardless of whether it is accurate. And, he said, the press had no business poking around in his private affairs, so he cut off all interviews.

Back on the court he was merely extraordinary. One night against the Knicks he scored 54 points; the next he stepped back and fed his teammates. When they tired, he scored 17 consecutive points.

As every fan knows, gambling and basketball can be a lethal combination. For 40 years the sport has periodically been disgraced by point-shaving scandals. But there is no suggestion that Jordan has ever wagered on basketball. "I am no Pete Rose," he has said. The Bulls insist that the only thing on the team's mind is its quest to become the first franchise to win three straight titles in almost three decades. "I have complete confidence in [Jordan] as a person," said Bulls general manager Jerry Krause. So, apparently, do his corporate masters. "In his private life," says Dusty Kidd, spokesman for Nike, which pays Jordan an estimated $20 million annually, "he should be able to do what every other person can do. He's not the president or the pope."

No, he's far bigger than that, a flying international conglomerate who last year, according to Forbes magazine, earned $35.9 million. While his fans may not care that he gambles, Jordan is in danger of becoming the subject of talk-show monologues-the winner who off the court loses to every small-time hustler coast to coast. (What do they call it when Michael Jordan bets on a golf game? Err Jordan!) In the macho arenas where Jordan soars, it can hardly be image-enhancing to lose $1 million, or even $1, to a nonathlete who gives away eight years and several inches. Suddenly Jordan's current McDonald's ad, in which he and Larry Bird trade shots to see who will win the Big Mac, takes on a new spin. Now we know Bird will win, swishing the shot off the Hancock Building, and Jordan will plead to go double or nothing off the Sears Tower.

His longtime friends say his lust for competition and willingness to gamble on virtually any game-from tiddlywinks to Monopoly-is nothing new. "He's always had this thing ever since he was a kid: 'I'm not gonna let you beat me'," says a friend from Jordan's hometown of Wilmington, N.C. About five years ago Jordan bought a summer home in Hilton Head, S.C., where he hosts Mike's Time, a pre-NBA-training-camp gathering of golf and high-stakes poker. On the golf course, says one regular, "any Joe Blow can get in if he throws down the challenge. Michael was shark meat."

Payoff: According to Esquinas's self-serving and self-published book, "Michael and Me: Our Gambling Addiction . . . My Cry for Help!", the two men met in 1989. They discovered they were both avid golfers with handicaps "between 5 and 7" who liked to put money on their putts. By 1991, Esquinas says, they were playing for thousands and paying off on every hole. The trouble actually began when "E-man," as he says the basketball star called him, lost $98,000 to Jordan playing golf in North Carolina.

According to the book, that debt was postponed until Jordan visited San Diego, and the two commenced a series of double-or-nothing matches. When Jordan was down $626,000, Esquinas says, he wanted to double again. Esquinas insists now that he kept trying to "pump it down." He writes that he warned Jordan: "Michael, are you prepared to pay $1.2 million? I'm doing my best to get the f--- out of this." He says Jordan demanded the match and lost, escalating his debt to $1,252,000.

Not only did Jordan gamble, charges Esquinas, he also refused to pay up. Still, the two continued to play golf for money until last summer, with Jordan cutting his debt down to $900,000. Esquinas says Jordan asked to pay it off in smaller increments because his wife bar, access to their financial records. For nine months, Esquinas says, the two negotiated by phone. Finally, Esquinas says, he settled for a dollar on three-and claims Jordan still owes him $100,000, an amount he apparently intends to collect through book sales.

In a statement, Jordan admitted to wagering with Esquinas but said he had no records of the amount. He added that "it is extremely disappointing . . . that an individual whom I caused no harm . . . would shamelessly exploit my name for selfish gain." He also apologized for "the distraction this story has caused."

Jordan has been embarrassed by gambling before. Last fall he was subpoenaed to testify for the prosecution at the money-laundering trial of James (Slim) Bouler, a convicted drug dealer. Under oath, he admitted losing $57,000 to Bouler at golf. Previously he had insisted the money was just a "loan." Also last year, $108,000 in checks linked to Jordan's gambling-related debts was discovered in the estate of a Gastonia, N.C., businessman who was shot to death.

Apart from gambling, Jordan's image is exemplary. Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene, who hung out with Jordan to write "Hang Time," says he was amazed by how disciplined Jordan was in his public life. Though Jordan drinks moderately, he never takes a drink in public because someone might think he was drunk. And no matter how thirsty or hungry Jordan was, he refused-even in those rare moments out of the camera's eye-to taste a product that competed with one he endorsed. While Greene doesn't know if Jordan has a gambling problem, Jordan did tell him about repeated nightmares in which he is an alcoholic and loses everything he has. "And let me put it this way," Greene says. "He's not an alcoholic."

The NBA would appear to have as much at stake in all this as Jordan. If ever a superstar transcended a league and overshadowed a commissioner-even one as shrewd as the NBA's David Stern-Jordan is the one. Not wanting to step on the dramatic playoff games, or Jordan's sensibilities, Stern has yet to comment publicly on Jordan's latest travails. But if pressure builds, the commissioner may take steps to curb Jordan's off-court activities.

Those close to Jordan say he really doesn't have a gambling problem, just a problem in choosing friends. Maybe he should stick to Spike and Bugs. The issue now is not his privacy, not the press, nor even the amount he supposedly lost. He's gambling with something far more precious than money-his good name. And that appears to be another wager he is beginning to lose.