Editor’s note: This article appears in the June 19 issue of ESPN The Magazine. There’s a famous gambling story about Michael Jordan. Actually, there are many famous gambling stories about MJ, but this one is my favorite. Back before NBA teams had grasped the rejuvenating power of chartered airplanes, the Bulls were waiting for their luggage in Portland when Jordan slapped a hunny on the conveyor belt: I bet you my bags come out first. Jumping on the incredibly favorable odds, nine teammates happily accepted the wager. Sure enough, Jordan’s bags led the rollout. What none of the suckers knew, and what MJ presumably never told them, was that he had bribed a baggage handler to help him out. There was a chance at an easy score, and he took it.
Yes, the most cutthroat athlete of his generation loves to gamble, and even more than that, he loves to win. The qualities that once made MJ transcendent on the court — his legendary hypercompetitiveness, superhuman stamina, larger-than-life swagger and unwavering confidence — make the gambling crossover an obvious choice. Now, not all top-tier superstars have the bug. But Jordan was fundamentally more reckless. I’m the last person to think that MJ’s hobby makes him as unsavory as a Bada Bing! Too much has been made of his gambling “problem” over the years. Take Michael Leahy’s mean-spirited book, in which he salaciously recounts a 2001 blackjack blowout at the Mohegan Sun that included Rip Hamilton and Antoine Walker. Last summer, at my buddy Hopper’s bachelor party, we played blackjack at Mandalay Bay until 8:45 a.
Women had flirted with us, pit bosses had sauntered over to “cool” us down. We love to pick athletes apart, but what’s the big deal about their gambling so much? 50-60 million at the slots, and it becomes a national story. 10 million in casinos over the years. Of course, the media blows up that revelation and excoriates him for being so irresponsible. It’s about owning the biggest mansion and the most cars, being able to buy anything without someone saying, “Wait, you can’t afford that. It’s about walking into a Ferrari dealership and having the salesman keel over with glee. It’s about buying a yacht even though you don’t particularly like water. It’s about wearing a different suit after every game.
Casinos actually hold an allure beyond the action. With their elite gaming areas and impeccable security, they are some of the few public places where athletes can unwind without being badgered by starstruck fans. Call it an amusement park for the privileged, a place to let loose and be rich, where competitive juices can get a victimless workout. For a big-stakes guy, every night starts with the same vow: “I’m gonna kick ass. If he gets down, he just knows he’ll win it back. David Stern says he’s dead set against moving a team to Vegas because he’s afraid players will wager on NBA games. But if they want to, they can easily do that online. Charles Oakley publicly threatened Tyrone Hill for being slow to settle a dice debt. For every story that leaks out, dozens of others are almost surely buried.
But no one can convince me it’s a bad thing. There has been a negative link between gambling and sports dating back 100 years, back when heavyweight title fights and the World Series were fixed. But that is a lot less likely to happen now: Professional athletes earn too much to be swayed by fixers. We refer to point spreads all the time — the Steelers are favored by six — and naïvely pretend they happen in some sort of vacuum, that there’s no correlation between the numbers and actual wagering. Maybe there are ways teams can actually use it to their advantage. For instance, Hopper once played blackjack in Vegas with Norv Turner, who spinelessly kept staying on 16 until my belligerent friend drove him from the table with a biting remark. After hearing that story, I thought Turner’s coaching career made infinitely more sense.