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And he was partly right. The press, the adoring fans who wouldn't leave him alone, the constant pressure to live up to the persona who jived with Spike and rode a magic carpet with Bugs—all of it made Jordan a prisoner of his fame, a burden he had begun to talk about. His peers had also begun talking about it, particularly good buddy Charles Barkley, who admitted that he found the Elvis aspect of Jordan's existence spooky. "The one thing that's weird about Michael is that whenever we're together, we're in a hotel room," said Barkley last week, "because he doesn't ever go out."
Finally, factor into all of that the shooting death of his father, James Jordan, whose body was found in a South Carolina creek on Aug. 3. (Two 18-year-old North Carolina men, Larry Martin Demery and Daniel Andre Green, have been charged with first-degree murder.) Jordan was extremely close to his father, who had served at times as his unofficial spokesman, and friends say Jordan was not only despondent over the death but also angry at press reports intimating that it may have had something to do with his gambling. As for the tragedy's impact on Jordan's departure, Michael himself said, "I would've made the same decision with my father around." But it was probably the final push he needed.
The great unknown, though, is the extent to which Jordan's gambling was a factor in his exit. He must have known that "you guys" in the media would not stop looking into his private affairs as long as he was an active NBA player. Unhappy over publication last June of Michael & Me, a book in which erstwhile golfing partner Richard Esquinas revealed that Jordan had run up large gambling debts to him, Jordan might also have feared that others would come forward with tales, true or not, of similar losses.
There was also speculation that Jordan was apprehensive about the NBA's investigation into his gambling practices and retired so that the league would cease and desist with the questions. Jordan did not deal with the subject of gambling at his press conference and did not return phone calls afterward (he has agreed to be interviewed—and undoubtedly subjected to relentless grilling—by Oprah Winfrey on Oct. 26 for a show that will air three days later), but both Falk and NBA commissioner David Stern dismissed suggestions that there was a link between Jordan's gambling and his retirement, Stern angrily calling the very idea "scurrilous and disgusting." Stern and Jordan had been scheduled to meet before the season opener to discuss Jordan's gambling, but Stern denied that the timing of Jordan's announcement had anything to do with the pressure of that meeting.
But the NBA's latest investigation, which Stern last Friday declared closed, seemed to be as cursory as one the league conducted into Jordan's gambling practices last year. Stern clearly is uncomfortable about looking into a player's private life, particularly a player who has brought fame and fortune to the NBA. The commissioner is certain, he told SI last Friday, that Jordan has never had a gambling addiction and that he has never bet on NBA games, an offense that could have led to suspension or banishment. Neither was Jordan's gambling sufficient, in Stern's mind, to bring disrepute to the league, another basis for suspension.
But how can Stern be sure, especially after the two gambling-related Jordan bombshells that have already rocked the league? The first came in late 1991, when a $57,000 check from Jordan was discovered by the IRS in the bank account of convicted cocaine trafficker James (Slim) Bouler; then $108,000 in checks from Jordan were found in the briefcase of slain bail bondsman Eddie Dow.
Jordan initially told reporters that the money in Bouler's account was a loan to Bouler but later admitted under oath that the money had been used to repay gambling debts. The NBA appointed Frederick Lacey, a former federal judge and U.S. attorney, to look into the matter, but no punitive action was taken. In Hang Time, a book written by Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene and authorized by Jordan, Jordan said he told Lacey that there were no more checks, no more big-money gambling debts and no more potentially embarrassing situations.
What Jordan neglected to tell Lacey was that he had incurred heavy gambling debts to Esquinas, who said he was hounding Jordan for payment. Esquinas said in Michael & Me that Jordan had lost $1.25 million in golf bets with him, and while Jordan publicly disputed that figure, he did admit losing considerable sums to Esquinas. He had clearly been caught in another lie.
Stern said on Friday that Jordan's lying to Lacey would not have constituted a punishable offense, even if he had continued to play in the league. "As far as the NBA is concerned, Michael Jordan did nothing wrong, and I resent any implications to the contrary," said the commissioner. Stern said that he and Jordan will soon meet (at the superstar's insistence, according to both Stern and Falk) to "close the loop." Whatever that means—and it is strange that Stern is talking to Jordan only after he pronounced the league "investigation" closed—a league source says Stern will ask why Jordan didn't come clean with Lacey. The meeting, according to Stern, will be "a private matter." And, so, Jordan hopes, will be his life now that he won't have a 23 on his jersey for eight months a year.
But can Jordan stay away? He will almost certainly not return this season. Once the NBA receives the official letter from the Bulls declaring that Jordan has retired—a formality that often takes months—he could return only with unanimous approval of the Board of Governors, which comprises one representative from each franchise. It would be hard to imagine that championship wannabes like the New York Knicks or the Cleveland Cavaliers would be eager to green-light the return of their tongue-wagging, one-man stumbling block.