x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Gambling or not, Jordan is a legend

Last weekend, Michael Jordan entered basketball's Hall of Fame as one of the greatest players of all time.

Last weekend, Michael Jordan entered basketball's Hall of Fame as one of the greatest players of all time. He put the sport on the map. Jordan also transcended the sport in a way that no one had done before him. The marketing of Jordan's image and likeness took on religious overtones. His marketing logo is one of the most distinctive sports insignias created. However crass and absurd, it is not uncommon to see people with tattoos of Jordan's corporate symbol. Jordan's supreme talent on the basketball court appeared to lend him a quality beyond the game.

I can remember interviewing Jordan when he came back to play for the Washington Wizards. I was pursuing a story on how the Wizards might have asked the US State Department to ease restrictions on dealing with North Korean citizens so that they could legally contract the 7ft 9in North Korean giant Michael Ri. The story went nowhere but it afforded me the chance to speak with the man himself. I was in awe and terrified at the same time. I have never felt that way before. As a basketball fanatic, speaking with a man whose sublime skills I appreciated more than perhaps any other skill in the world, I revered Jordan as an athlete.

Of course, Jordan is all too human, all too often. The celebrated journalist Armen Keteyian's seminal book Money Players ripped apart the NBA's constructed image. Keteyian took Jordan's image and exposed it to the light of day. Keteyian claimed that Jordan was kicked out of the NBA for his gambling proclivity. Keteyian also suggested that Jordan may have bet on professional sports. The facts are that Jordan had substantial gambling debts to people such as James Bouler, a convicted drug dealer.

In 1993, Richard Esquinas, one of Jordan's golfing partners, wrote a book claiming that Jordan owed him US$1.25 million (Dh 4.59m). In the same year, Jordan was found playing blackjack in Atlantic City, New Jersey just hours before suiting up for an NBA play-off game. Subsequently, the league investigated Jordan's gambling habits. A few months later, Jordan retired. A few days after the retirement, the NBA cleared Jordan of any wrongdoing.

Gambling addiction is a horrible disease which some experts believe to be as destructive as heroin. In his first retirement press conference, Jordan did not conceal much, saying: "Five years down the road ... if [theNBA commissioner] David Stern lets me back in the league, I may come back." Jordan added: "I am still an avid Chicago Bulls fan. I will come to some of the practices if they haven't banned me from the practices like they ban you guys [in the media]."

Not much was left to the imagination. If anything, Stern deserves to be considered the greatest spin doctor in the history of public relations. Faced with a potential PR disaster, Stern deftly steered the NBA to calmer waters and business went on as usual. He would let Jordan back into the league and No 23 would add another three trophies to his legacy. To the best of my knowledge, Keteyian was never sued for defamation. Perhaps this was because the truth is not libelous. Follow the money and read between the lines. The NBA is a business. Even if Jordan did something illegal, it would have been too expensive to burn him.

In the interests of being inconvenient, I believe the time has come for someone to tell the whole story of Jordan's gambling history. Jordan is no god. Even the ugliest truth, should there be any, will not change the fact that Jordan was the greatest basketball player of all time. @Email:gdole@thenational.ae