At the height of his professional career, Michael Jordan retired from basketball to pursue a childhood dream shared by he and his father. Most assumed that his decision was due to grief, but a lingering rumor surrounding his 18-month exodus from the league still remains a part of Jordan’s legacy. For our latest #HSTBT, we explore the conspiracy angle of his retirement.
With the conclusion of another successful NBA All-Star Weekend which showcased the freakish athleticism of some of the finest basketball players on the planet, the event also served as the perfect stage to overdose on nostalgia. With past greats in attendance and commentators quick to point to older, more historic performances in the 3-point contest, dunk contest and game itself, the preservation of history is every bit as important as pumping up the new breed of superstars. Even advertisers couldn’t help getting in on the sentimentality – with Gatorade churning out a digitally remastered version of their “Be Like Mike” campaign which first aired 23 years ago – as well as the recent announcement that Jordan Brand and Warner Brothers would be renewing their Hare Jordan campaign.
Just as the weekend’s festivities were kicking off, Grantland/ESPN’s Bill Simmons made a statement regarding LeBron James’s recent play that surely got the tinfoil cap wearing conspiracy theorists on the edge of their seats. As part of his popular podcast, Simmons danced around the notion that James used some type of performance enhancer, saying, “LeBron James… looked like he was entering another phase of his career. He’s got a lot of miles on him. Looked different in how he was playing. Went away for two weeks, came back. He’s been lights out. [He] basically has been at 29 [points] a game, 6 [assists] and 6 [rebounds]. Fifty percent shooting. He looks like LeBron again.” While he never audibly blew the PED whistle, the context of the prior conversation along with his comments insinuated something nefarious.
The NBA is no stranger to cries of conspiracy. Notable instances include the idea that the 1985 NBA Draft was rigged so that the New York Knicks could draft Patrick Ewing, that referees had a hand in deciding the outcome of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, and that there was another instance of draft-rigging when the Cleveland Cavs got the first pick after LeBron departed for Miami. But of all the conspiracies, the one involving Michael Jordan looms the largest. Having just celebrated his 52nd birthday, we explore the circumstances surrounding his first retirement from the NBA.
On October 6, 1993, at age 30, Michael Jordan announced not only to the sports world – but every single person inhabiting the planet – that he was calling it a career. At that point, he had won three straight NBA titles, three straight NBA Finals MVP awards and seven straight NBA scoring titles. To say that he was in rarefied air was an understatement; he was the Wright Brothers in Nikes.
On that fateful day, people crammed into the Berto Center – the Bulls’ practice facility in Deerfield, Illinois – and listened to Jordan make it official after word had gotten out a day earlier that he planned on retiring. Flanked by the main architects of the Bulls’ dynasty, Jerry Krause, Jerry Reinsdorf and Phil Jackson – as well as his wife at the time, Juanita – Jordan said, “I’ve reached the pinnacle. I always said to the people that have known me that when I lose that sense of motivation and that sense that I can prove something, it’s time for me to leave.”
The summer before his shocking, fall announcement, Jordan’s seemingly perfect life was rocked when his father, James, was murdered along U.S. Highway 74 and dumped in a swamp in rural South Carolina where his body was found weeks later. When suspects Daniel Andre Green and Larry Martin Demery were arrested and subsequently convicted, damning evidence against them included the possession of two NBA championship rings that Michael had given to his father.
While Jordan’s first retirement lasted only 18 months, most assumed that his absence from the game was simply due to the grief associated with his father’s death. However, it was Jordan’s well-documented thirst for competition off the court – in the form of gambling – that left some to wonder if he and the NBA had successfully and secretly suspended the superstar without having to say as much. Was his sabbatical a way to punish Jordan without damaging his “brand” which was valued at $10 billion USD, and save the reputation for a league that had become reliant on his coattails as previous stars like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson reached the end of their careers?
Jordan’s gambling was becoming a problem. According to CBS Sports, “[after the] Chicago Bulls won their second NBA Championship in a row, he was called to testify in the criminal trial of James ‘Slim’ Bouler and asked to explain why Bouler – a convicted cocaine dealer – was in possession of a Jordan-signed personal check for $57,000. The NBA superstar first claimed it was a business loan, but while being questioned under oath he changed his tune, admitting that it was actually payment on gambling and poker losses over a single weekend.”
When Eddie Dow – who the Chicago Tribune said “carried a revolver and a stainless steel briefcase full of cash to work every day “- was found slain in Charlotte, North Carolina in March of 1992, his briefcase contained three checks, totaling $108,000, written by Michael Jordan.
In a 1993 book titled Michael and Me: Our Gambling Addiction … My Cry for Help, Richard Esquinas – a San Diego businessman – alleged that during their time as gambling associates, Jordan had lost $1.252 million to him during a September 20, 1991 match at Aviara Golf Course as well as an additional $902,000 during an additional 110 rounds of golf.
Finally, as the Bulls were attempting their 3-peat, some questioned Jordan’s motivations when he was spotted at an Atlantic City casino in the wee hours of the morning before an important Eastern Conference Semifinal game against the Knicks. The New York Tmes noted, “Jordan reportedly lost $5,000 playing blackjack in a private area in the baccarat pit, but that’s not the issue. If he had won $5,000, it still wouldn’t justify his being a two-hour limo ride from the Bulls’ midtown New York hotel at 2:30 the morning of a big game.”
By this time, Commissioner David Stern was not only aware of Jordan’s habits, but he was forced to explore if Jordan had broken any rules – or if he had committed the cardinal sin in the sport’s world: he had bet on NBA games (that he either did or didn’t play in).
A week after his sudden retirement, the Chicago Tribune’s Melissa Isaacson challenged NBA officials to provide an answer as to if Jordan’s gambling and subsequent indirect ties to the criminal underworld contributed to his retirement. “When we met with him, our investigation revealed this (gambling), and he admitted it,” said NBA spokesman Brian McIntyre. “It’s exactly in line with our investigation.” McIntyre said there will be no further action by the NBA, which issued a reprimand at the time. “There was never any suggestion or evidence that he was betting on NBA games,” McIntyre said. “Realistically, people bet all the time. Where we were concerned was with his association with inappropriate people. He was admonished strongly for that, and he was very embarrassed and apologetic about that.”
In a 2005 report for 60 Minutes by Ed Bradley about Jordan, the journalist noted, “one stain on Jordan’s otherwise clean image was the allegation that he had a compulsive gambling problem. The NBA cleared him in 1993, after conducting two investigations. But today, Jordan admits he’s made some reckless choices at the gambling table with his money.” When faced with the gambling line of inquiry, Jordan responded, “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.” Bradley asked, “And you’re not willing to do that?” Jordan replied, “No.”
As recently as 2006, Bill Simmons was able to question David Stern about Michel Jordan’s first retirement. “OK, you know I love joking about conspiracy theories,” Simmons presented. “It’s a crime!” Stern retorted. “What about when you told MJ that he had to retire for 18 months because of his gambling?” Simmons challenged. Stern was playful in his response, detailing that the alleged “shady agreement” took place in Stern’s living room while his wife was out. Ultimately Stern met the conspiracy theory head on, saying “no. I promise.”