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Once upon a time, Michael Jordan went to an Atlantic City casino, lost a playoff game the next day and entered one of the biggest controversies of his career.
Episode 6 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” focused on Jordan’s well-documented fondness for gambling, from team plane poker games to blowing off the White House for a golf game to throwing quarters with United Center security.
One incident, however, put his reputation on the line and was responsible for the biggest drama of the episode.
Did Michael Jordan have a gambling problem?
The day before Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals against Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks, Jordan jumped into a limo and took the 100-plus-mile trip south to Atlantic City.
How long Jordan spent there is a matter of debate. The New York Times reported at the time that he was there until 2:30 a.m. In “The Last Dance,” Jordan said he was gone before midnight and back by 1 a.m.
Whenever Jordan went to bed, he looked worse for wear the next day, shooting 12-for-32 in a 96-91 loss that put the Knicks up 2-0 in the series.
As “The Last Dance” documented, the revelation that Jordan was up late before a playoff loss — imagine if that emerged in the age of Twitter — caused a media circus about Jordan’s love for gambling. Jordan’s gambling losses from a man named Slim Bouler and the release of the book “Michael and Me,” by Richard Esquinas, about his reported gambling addiction helped feed the fire.
All of the rumors and inquiries caused Jordan to shut out the media, while NBA commissioner David Stern investigated if Jordan’s love for gambling had led him into violations of the NBA rulebook (Stern later cleared Jordan of wrongdoing). Still, an inane conspiracy theory exists to this day that Jordan’s first retirement was a result of a secret punishment for gambling.
When Jordan agreed to talk about the matter, he was firm in saying he did not have a gambling problem, but did have a “competition problem.”
In his first interview with NBC Sports’ Ahmad Rashad, Jordan called it a “hobby” and noted how it hadn’t really adversely affected his life.
Denying you have a gambling problem while wearing sunglasses indoors, now that’s a power move.
So Jordan loved (and still loves) gambling. He would bet thousands of dollars on poker hands with his better-paid Bulls teammates and the smallest of sums on quarter tosses.
Of course, we’re also talking about the richest athlete in human history here. Even if Jordan lost $57,000 to Bouler in a game of golf, the only party adversely affected there is Jordan and his dependents. And they’re doing just fine.
As “The Last Dance” frames it, the reaction to Jordan’s gambling was a result of the infamous “The Jordan Rules” book by the Chicago Tribune’s Sam Smith that chipped away at Jordan’s shining persona and a larger expectation of a rise-and-fall story when it comes to athletes.
Maybe the story would have had more legs if Jordan and the Bulls had, you know, lost the series to the Knicks. Instead, the team reeled off four straight wins — with Jordan averaging 32.5 points, 9.0 assists and 6.5 rebounds — and went on to top the Phoenix Suns for a three-peat.
If only all our lives worked out so well after an arguably ill-advised trip to Atlantic City.
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