Michael Jordan's Long Season
Even as he continues to excel on the court, his life off it has become more trying
Although Michael Jordan is once again leading the NBA in scoring and his Chicago Bulls are again the best team in the league, his life off the court is being scrutinized as never before. In October he was the only member of the champion Bulls to turn down an invitation to the White House, choosing to play golf instead. In December came the publication of The Jordan Rules, a best-seller that depicts Jordan as a petulant star who bullies his teammates and the Chicago front office. And in the past two months Jordan has squabbled with the NBA and USA Basketball over the rights of those organizations to use his likeness on products.
Recently two more incidents have come to light that, at the very least, raise questions about Jordan's judgment. Five months ago Tom Ashcraft, the U.S. Attorney in Charlotte, N.C., began investigating allegations that James Bouler, the owner of a golf pro shop in Monroe, N.C., had laundered money from drug sales and gambling proceeds. (Bouler was indicted on Feb. 6.) During the investigation Ashcraft seized a cashier's check for $57,000. Bouler maintains that the check was a loan from Jordan to build a driving range, but Ashcraft, according to The Charlotte Observer, claims that the money was payment for a gambling debt.
Jordan supports Bouler. "It's a loan," he told The Chicago Tribune in December. "I've known [Bouler] for four or five years." But according to transcripts of taped phone conversations that were recently released, Bouler told an unidentified associate that Bouler won $200,000 in bets and that he wanted to avoid paying taxes on his winnings by disguising them as loans. In another conversation from the same day, Bouler told a bank loan officer that he would like to deposit a check for $57,000.
If Jordan's $57,000 check was payment for gambling debts, as Ashcraft contends, then Jordan lied to the Tribune. However, on March 6, Graham Mullen, a U.S. district court judge in Charlotte, in ruling that the check had to be returned to Bouler, wrote, " Michael Jordan confirmed that this check was a loan made by him to the Petitioner [Bouler]." But on Monday, Mullen said, "I'm unaware of any court or government official that Michael Jordan talked to."
There is also the question of whether Jordan should have been associating with Bouler in the first place. In 1986 Bouler pleaded guilty to selling cocaine, and he is now serving a six-month sentence for violating his probation. In response to a question about his relationship with Bouler, Jordan said last week, "I have a right to associate with whomever I choose." That's not quite true, if Jordan wants to protect his superclean image.
There is also the question of Jordan's reported betting. After Eddie Dow, a bail bondsman from Gastonia, N.C., was murdered on Feb. 19, his lawyer, Stephen Gheen, discovered photocopies of three checks, totaling $108,000, in Dow's briefcase—two were signed by Jordan and one was a cashier's check. According to published reports, Gheen contends that Dow and Jordan were friends and that at least some of the money from the checks was payment from Jordan (the checks were not made out to Dow) for gambling debts.
Jordan says he never bet on any pro sports events. "I am no Pete Rose," Jordan said last Friday. While betting on golf is common, questions about athletes' gambling cannot be dismissed. Should athletes be wagering tens of thousands of dollars on anything? Such behavior inevitably raises questions about integrity.
It may be that Jordan is not the flawless hero portrayed in commercials. It may be that he is human, like anyone else. Now, like anyone else in a tough situation, he has some questions to answer.
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