Did David Stern Force Michael Jordan Into Early Retirement?
The Facts: In 1993 Michael Jordan was the best player in the NBA and arguably the most famous person in the world. He had just won his third championship in a row, showcased his greatness in the ‘92 Olympics with his time on The Dream Team and starred in dozens of marketing campaigns for Nike, Gatorade and various other companies. Everyone wanted to “be like Mike.” Simply put, Jordan could do no wrong. Or could he?
The NBA launched an investigation into Jordan’s alleged gambling problems soon after the 1993 NBA Finals. Months later, on October 6, 1993, Jordan shocked the world by announcing his retirement from professional basketball. At the retirement press conference when asked if he would ever return to the NBA Jordan stated “…Five years down the line, if the urge comes back, if the Bulls will have me, if David Stern lets me back in the league, I may come back.” The league dropped the investigation into Jordan’s gambling just days after his retirement.
Soon after he announced his intent to pursue a career in professional baseball. He returned to the NBA in the 1994-1995 season, 18 months later.
The Conspiracy: The popular theory proposes that NBA Commissioner David Stern and MJ came to an agreement in which the NBA would drop its investigation in exchange for Jordan’s early retirement. The announcement and his foray into baseball would create a distraction from the investigation and would prevent a suspension so Jordan’s name and brand could stay clean. Furthermore, the NBA’s business model wouldn’t suffer the consequences of its biggest star being suspended for chronic gambling and his association with criminals . If things went according to plan, Jordan could come back eventually once things had cooled down.
To believe this theory, you have to believe that the NBA’s investigation found conclusive evidence that Jordan indeed had a serious gambling addiction and that he had potentially got himself in debt to individuals in the criminal underworld. Some even suggest that his father’s murder in July of 1993, just a few weeks after winning his third NBA title, was carried out after Jordan refused to pay his gambling debts, thereby sending a message to the Bulls star that he should pay up or someone else in his family or even himself would be the next victim.
Evidence For: In 1992, following his second championship win, Jordan was called to testify in criminal trial of James “Slim” Bouler, a convicted drug dealer who happened to be in possession of a $57,000 check signed by Jordan. MJ initially claimed it was just a business loan but under oath he admitted that it was payment for gambling losses from a single weekend. Eddie Dow, a bail bondsman and known gambler, had three checks from Jordan totaling $108,000 in his possession when he was murdered in a home invasion robbery in February of 1992. One year later Jordan was spotted in an Atlantic City casino in the early morning hours of Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals and that same year, a former associate of Jordan, Richard Equinas, revealed in his book, Michael and Me: Our Gambling Addiction…My Cry For Help, that he had won over $900,000 in golfing bets from MJ.
Jordan admitted to the writer Bob Greene in 1992 that “Was I gambling with goons who had bad reputations? Yeah I was.”
Weeks after winning his third title, Michael Jordan’s father, James Jordan, was murdered in an apparent carjacking in North Carolina.
Looking at it from a psychological point of view, it doesn’t make sense that the greatest player of his era, at his peak of popularity and in his athletic prime would suddenly walk away from the game–especially considering what we know about his competitive nature. There are tons of anecdotes that go into his borderline sociopathic competitiveness. It’s hard to imagine a guy like this walking away for any reason.
The language of MJ’s retirement press conference is also rather suspicious. Why would Jordan say he would come back “…if David Stern lets me back in the league…”? Could he be hinting at the kind of mutual agreement that we discussed earlier?
Evidence Against: Michael Jordan’s father had always wished that Michael had played baseball instead of basketball. The two were very close and it’s certainly possible that following his father’s tragic death Michael would have felt compelled to honor his father’s legacy by fulfilling one of his life’s wishes.
There’s no evidence that the NBA was prepared to take action against Jordan for his gambling and it’s highly improbable that the NBA conducted any kind of real investigation at all considering they dropped the investigation just days after the announcement. The Chicago Tribune conducted their own investigation into the NBA’s investigation and found that the league had failed to contact any of Jordan’s known gambling associates thereby dispelling any credibility that the NBA was conducting a thorough investigation.
Sam Smith, author of The Jordan Rules, perhaps the definitive book on Michael Jordan and a former investigative reporter himself, argued on Andrew Jenks podcast What Really Happened? that “Yeah it was complete bullshit. There was no investigation.” Smith goes on to explain that the investigation was only to satisfy the press, who had begun to pry into MJ’s gambling issues.
Both Smith and Jenks suggest that if anything, the way the media covered Jordan’s gambling and not Jordan’s gambling itself may have played a role in MJ’s retirement. Jordan’s dislike for the media was on full display during his retirement press conference in which he made comments like “As long as you guys (the media) stay away from my house I can have peace and quiet” and “I would never do your guys job because you don’t have sympathy for normal people sometimes….” However he makes clear that the media had no part in pushing him out of the game and that he was going out on his own terms but it may have been another straw on an increasingly fragile camel’s back.
Perhaps a bigger factor in his early retirement was exhaustion. Apart from his injury plagued second year, Jordan played in all 82 games five times and never fell below 78 up until his retirement in 1993. He averaged 40 minutes per game three times and was consistently in the upper 30 minute range and above. Consider that Russell Westbrook averaged only 34.6 minutes per game during his MVP season last year and that LeBron James hasn’t averaged 40 minutes a night since 2007, more than a decade ago. Jimmy Butler is the current leader in minutes this season, averaging a paltry 37.2 compared to MJ’s heyday. In fact no NBA player has averaged 40 minutes a night since Monta Ellis did way back in 2010-11. It’s also important to appreciate that these numbers don’t include all the postseason, preseason and Olympic games that Jordan participated in. This on top of the pressures of international superstardom and the demands of his personal life surely would drain the energy of any human being, even someone as superhuman as Michael Jordan.
As for the famous line “If David Stern let’s me back in the league, I may come back” Smith explains that:
SMITH: “Knowing Michael it made complete sense because it was like a side comment to Stern like you’re doing this bullshit gambling investigation when you know nothing is there and you’re doing it just for the media, just to satisfy them. So it was like to me it was a side statement to Stern like ‘You know this is bullshit, I know this is bullshit’ and so I took it as Michael’s way of giving the needle to Stern and where he knows Stern’s gotta do this for the media and for the public but he knows Stern knows that there’s nothing to it but ‘You too, Et tu, David, you’re hanging me out there for no reason.’ So it was like a little slide shot at Stern.”
JENKS: “That’s incredible. So classic Jordan if anything really? Somehow finds a way to give you a jab.”
SMITH: “Yeah. Exactly. It fits exactly with the way–and it was the way Michael was because I heard that over the years, that he would say things like that and you could tell who it was aimed at.”
A litany of new evidence has cast doubt on the legitimacy of James Jordan murder trial and basically excused Michael of any connection to the murder of his father. The State’s investigation mishandled evidence and committed a series of legal errors which the Charlotte Observer did a great job of detailing here but more importantly it shows that there are no credible ties between MJ’s gambling and the killing of his father.
The Verdict: Put yourself in Michael Jordan’s shoes. They’re big of course, not just literally but metaphorically as well. You’re a champion and a celebrity, everyone’s favorite star and nobody’s disappointment. You’re a living legend, alone atop Mount Olympus, but also uniquely aware that the only place you can go from here is down.
Your body is slowly suffering from overuse and little sleep. You feel exhausted and know that you’re only getting older from here on. The media, who you’ve been quick to befriend and careful to create a positive image with, is now attacking you for a private hobby, a personal matter neither illegal nor related to the basketball court.
Then you get the news of your father’s death. Not just your father but perhaps your best friend as well, brutally murdered and found in a lake weeks after the fact. You never got a chance to say a proper goodbye. You do know that he always wanted you to play baseball and that the two of you talked about it as recently as the year before. What better way to honor his legacy than to do what he always wanted you both to experience?
As enticing and juicy a story it is, after pouring over the evidence and judging it for myself I have come to the conclusion that there was no conspiracy of any sort.
The NBA did not conduct an actual investigation thus they had no grounds for suspension. The many issues detailed in the investigation of James Jordan’s death dispel any notion of a connection between MJ’s gambling and his father’s death–a serious charge that would take more than conjecture to convince me. Jordan did have established connections to criminals but it’s not all that surprising when it comes to an environment like gambling which tends to attract men of nefarious natures. Embarrassing, yes but not surprising either.
He was exhausted from three straight NBA Finals runs and an Olympic campaign in between his second and third championship seasons. The media’s consistent badgering and the pressures of celebrity taxed his mental health while his body suffered from chronic overuse. His father’s murder was the worst possible combination of the two. Now put yourself back in those size 13 Jordan VIII’s and imagine yourself in that terrible situation. Would you be exhausted? Pissed off? Depressed? Would you need a break?
Michael Jordan needed a rest and so does this conspiracy.