Then, almost immediately, Starks went off again. "You wanna go, Mike?" he said, charging after Jordan. "You wanna go?" That's when Starks earned his second technical, an automatic ejection.
As a matter of fact, John, Jordan was in a mood to go. Though he had repeatedly set up his teammates—he finished with a game-high 11 assists—Jordan's poor shooting in Game 3 continued a series trend (he was 22 for 59 in Games 1 and 2), and he did appear to be frustrated. Jordan, in fact, had been so angry about Anthony's flagrant foul in Game 2 that he later issued a back-alley challenge in curiously sugarcoated words. "If I ever catch him outside this [arena], I will certainly pay my dues to him," he said. But most of all, Jordan had spent the prior 48 hours fuming over the media's treatment of his trip to an Atlantic City casino between Games 1 and 2.
At week's end it was still not clear whether The New York Times had erred in its May 27 report that Jordan was spotted at Bally's Grand casino as late as 2:30 a.m. on May 25. That was the morning of Game 2. Tipoff time was 8 p.m. Jordan swore that he left the casino at 11 p.m. and was back in his room at The Plaza by 1 a.m., and he threatened to "lay a lawsuit" on anyone who said otherwise.
Like most stories at major sporting events, Bally'sgate took on a life of its own, deservedly or not. The network news shows even picked it up. Naturally the New York tabloids took their shots (HIT ME! headlined the New York Post). Jordan answered the questions concerning his whereabouts at an unruly press gathering, which, inevitably, turned ugly. This one, which look place at the Bulls' suburban practice facility last Thursday, did so when a persistent Chicago television news reporter asked Jordan insulting questions: Is this the way you normally prepare for a playoff game? And, do you go to Joliet [a Chicago suburb where gambling is legal] the day before games? When the reporter brought up the name of James (Slim) Bouler, the convicted drug trafficker whom Jordan was forced to admit he had paid $57,000 in gambling debts to last year, and asked Jordan if his "gambling problem" was "escalating," Jordan made an angry exit.
Is it news if Jordan goes to a casino? Well, anything Jordan does during the playoffs (or any other time) is news. But was it wrong for him to go? That's a different question. Actually, the majority of media types sided with Jordan on this issue. But because of the sheer number of reporters present and the hostile manner in which some of the questions were asked at Thursday's impromptu press conference, Jordan could rightfully conclude that he was under attack.
At some point Jordan, or any superstar, must be cut some slack. He was at a legal gambling establishment, not in a floating crap game down on the waterfront. He was with his father and a few friends, not the James Gang and John Dillinger. He was not drinking alcohol (he almost never does in public). He knows his body and his limitations as well as any athlete.
Jordan docs appear to enjoy the juice that he gets from gambling, and if some people consider that a character flaw, well, so be it. But what if he had been spotted at, say, Manhattan's Carnegie Deli at 4 a.m., chowing down a mountain of pastrami? That would've been far worse for his health but, had it been reported at all, would certainly not have been accompanied by the sort of moral outrage that was sparked by his foray to Bally's. If Jordan has a serious gambling problem, a la Pete Rose, then that would be a major news story. But so far no one has proved that he does. (And don't think the NBA hasn't looked into it.)
The other unfortunate aspect of Bally'sgate is that it devalued the New York defense in Game 2, suggesting as it did that Jordan's nocturnal habits were the cause of his poor shooting. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Knicks have been rightly compared with the Piston championship teams of 1989 and '90 because of their chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, but their defense is clearly superior to Detroit's in at least three respects:
First, New York's ability to both clog the lane to prevent drives and then recover and challenge shots on the perimeter astounded the Bulls in Games 1 and 2. Second, New York defends against the high pick-and-roll aggressively and scientifically. That is, they always double-team the dribbler but also rotate and recover in order to prevent the dribbler from easily sighting an open man. Finally, Ewing and Oakley close up driving space better than any frontcourt twosome in the league. (The Knicks believe that the officials protect Jordan. Nonetheless, they have refused to concede him safe passage, making sure he has been treated roughly whenever he has driven to the basket.)
But the Knicks could not rediscover that defensive intensity in Game 3. And MJ's magic made it moot in Game 4. Jordan has apparently decided to pay his dues on the court, and in New York the Knicks had better have an answer.