It’s well known Michael Jordan had a bit of a gambling habit, but Sunday’s episode of “The Last Dance” showed just how big the story got — with some even speculating it had something to do with his father’s murder.
James Jordan was killed at 56 in July 1993 by two teens, Daniel Green and Larry Demery, after he had pulled over on a North Carolina highway to take a nap. It was devastating for Jordan, who was extremely close to his father and brought James along with him everywhere he went.
Just two months earlier, Jordan made headlines when he went to Atlantic City the night before an Eastern Conference Finals game against the Knicks. In combination with the release of Richard Esquinas’ book “Michael and Me,” which alleged Jordan owed Esquinas more than $1 million from betting on golf matches, the narrative quickly formed that Jordan had a gambling problem.
He steadfastly denied it: “I can stop gambling,” he said at the time. “I have a competition problem, a competitive problem.”
But he couldn’t get away from the rumors, and the speculation peaked after his father’s death.
Orlando Sentinel columnist Brian Schmitz wrote an article with the headline, “Is Michael somehow tied to dad’s bizarre death?” The Daily Press of Newport News, Va., wrote that a “lack of motive leads to speculation about son’s gambling habit.” And there was plenty of other speculation in the media that his father’s death was tied to Michael’s gambling.
“All the articles, the speculation that came out, it was not journalism’s finest hour,” said Brian McIntyre, former senior communications advisor to NBA commissioner David Stern.
“That was really bad, really unfair,” said Sam Smith, who wrote “The Jordan Rules.” “You imagine your father gets killed and now they’re blaming you? That was really cheap-shot stuff.”
Jordan issued a statement at the time saying he was “outraged,” and that he “simply cannot comprehend how others can pour salt in my open wound.”
“It wasn’t from the people I loved, the people that knew me and that cared,” Jordan said. “It was from the people who got tired of me being on top.”
All investigations at the time came up with the same conclusion: It was nothing more than “brutality and greed” that led to James Jordan’s death, as a news report from the time put it.
“There wasn’t a thimble’s worth of evidence to connect that horrible incident to Michael Jordan’s gambling or any other aspect of Michael Jordan’s behavior,” said Bob Costas.
Jordan retired from the NBA not long after his father’s death, a decision he said he had already made before the tragedy. But that decision, of course, led to even more speculation: Some thought his “retirement” was a secret suspension by David Stern due to his gambling.
Stern himself put those rumors firmly to rest: “There’s no basis in fact. It’s just not true.” McIntyre was even more direct: “How do I phrase this delicately? Total bulls–t.”