The Last Dance gives a unique insight into Michael Jordan’s career and the Bulls’ journey during the 97-98 season, the final run of some of the game’s biggest legends.
His Airness himself, his faithful sidekick Scottie Pippen, the ever-colorful Dennis Rodman, and mastermind Phil Jackson. Oh, and let’s not forget the Two Jerrys.
But while most of us have enjoyed the nostalgia, the buzzer-beaters, the dunks, and the unique behind-the-scenes footage, some are focusing on the controversy. Particularly, Michael Jordan’s gambling ‘problem’. Did he have one?
What Michael Says
After losing to the Knicks in the NBA playoffs, the media got its hands on a juicy story: Michael Jordan visited an Atlantic City casino the night before the game. The conclusion? MJ has a gambling problem.
Then a check for $57,000 written to Slim Bouler, an admittedly sketchy figure, was found. To make matters worse, a ‘friend’ of Michael’s published a book, in which he detailed their golf habits. Jordan purportedly lost a staggering $1.2 million to him.
Jordan eventually reacted. First, he went to the casino with his dad. He plays golf with people all the time, with many wanting to put a bet on. He doesn’t see anything wrong with gambling, he never bets on games. He’s done nothing wrong.
His problem? It’s not a gambling one, it’s a competitive one.
We see evidence of this in The Last Dance. He even bets quarters with security guards before games. He plays high stakes games with teammates. To MJ, everything is a competition.
The NBA (and Society) Are Different Today
Back in the 90s, gambling was pretty much a taboo subject. For those of you who are under 30, it can maybe be a little difficult to wrap your head around that idea. But a lot of people, including those in charge of the major sports industries, used to take a very hard line against betting.
These days, the NBA and society as a whole are more accepting of putting on a wager on a basketball game. States are opening up and legalizing betting, multiple online casinos are open for business, and even Adam Silver, the new commissioner, has argued for national regulated sports betting.
So while people in the 90s may have instantly thought ‘problem gambler’, people now understand that it’s far more nuanced than that. Putting a friendly bet on a game isn’t a problem, unless it becomes one.
Debunking the Retirement Conspiracy
The retirement conspiracy deserves a closer look. In 1993, Michael Jordan took a back seat from the NBA. He was at his absolute peak. He was just thirty years old. But he was walking away from the game to try his bat at baseball.
He had solid reasons. His desire was gone. He’d achieved everything in the game. His father, James Jordan Sr., was tragically murdered that summer. When Jordan was younger, they dreamed of getting to the MLB.
But for some, it just didn’t make sense. Especially when he made his comeback just under two years later. The conspiracy theorists agree: Jordan was pushed out of the NBA due to his ties to gambling. The voluntary retirement would protect his image, circumvent messy legal spats, and ensure the NBA would avoid controversy. Many use this story as ‘proof’ that MJ had a verifiable gambling problem.
It’s a nice story. But that’s all it is, a story. Concocted out of the infamous Atlantic City casino visit, it’s essentially a dud.
Even though Frederick Lacey, an attorney and former federal judge, was given the task by the NBA to look into the issue, nothing was found.
It’s been 27 years and no concrete proof has yet surfaced. David Stern, the former commissioner, always rejected the allegations. And do you think he’d really want to kick out the most marketable player in NBA history? The guy who made the league what it was in the 80s and 90s? Yeah, it doesn’t really make sense.
Gambling Itself Does Not Equal a Problem
Michael Jordan is a big name. People like a rise and fall story. That’s part of the reason why the gambling conspiracy theories were met with public fascination. But as we’ve already alluded to, a lot of people think gambling means addiction.
There is a difference, however. Michael still has his millions. Yes, he wrote a check for $57,000. It’s a lot of money, but chump change to him. He still delivered on the court, and it never got in the way of his work. He’s been irked by the questions, true, but he’s always been 100% transparent about his love of a bet.
If Michael Jordan deserves a label, it’s that he’s ridiculously competitive. Perhaps sometimes he went a little too far. But he never did anything illegal. And he never squandered his income.
Let’s Get Back to Basketball
Michael Jordan likes to gamble. There’s no question about it. MJ has never denied it, and The Last Dance confronts the issue head-on. When it comes to the gambling allegations, the docuseries takes a warts and all approach.
But Michael Jordan didn’t have a gambling problem.
Despite the conspiracies and the naysayers, the evidence suggests he was addicted to winning. He is a pure competitor. And with all of that said, let’s get back to enjoying what’s important: basketball.