(light bulb buzzing) (whistling and squeaking shoes) – Hello, and welcome to Unsolved Sports Conspiracies, a show where we examine sport’s greatest myths and debate their validity. This week we explore Michael Jordan, AKA the Goat’s departure from basketball to baseball. Was it a decision made on his own volition or were their other factors involved?
– Just blasphemy. – I know we’re talking about the GOAT, we’re talking about the shiny god of basketball, perhaps the man who saved the sport, but you know what, we’re doing the Lord’s work here. – Alright. – So all you Jordan stans sharpen your knives and let’s dig in.
In October 1993, just one day before the start of training camp for the Chicago Bulls 1993, 1994 season, Michael Jordan, widely considered to be the greatest basketball player of all time, announced his retirement from the NBA. The announcement came as quite the shock, considering Jordan was only 30 years old, in the prime of his career, and was dominating the NBA. Jordan was also coming off a three-peat. I think we need to give a little perspective about how insane it was that he moved away from basketball at the prime of his career. And one day before training camp. I think we should also put into perspective if this was in the age of Twitter, Twitter would explode if Lebron decided, “You know what?
“Just won three in a row, time to hang it up.” – [Zack] It’s like a, “Screw you, guys. “I’m outta here, you can’t do anything about it.” – Phil Jackson’s looking at his playbook, all of them just have a triangle with ‘Jordan’ written in the middle of it. Following his NBA retirement, Jordan went on to play professional baseball with the Birmingham Barons, a AA Southern League team, to mixed results, never achieving a spot in the Major Leagues as Jordan had planned.
Then, on March 18th, 1995, Jordan announced he was returning to basketball by sending out faxes via his agent, David Falk, with a two-word quote from Jordan, quote, “I’m back,” end quote. Just reading that gave me chills. – That’s incredible. – [Ryan] Just 17 months after his retirement, Jordan returned to play out the rest of the season with the Bulls and, as many of you know, would later go on to achieve a second three-peat in the year 1998 before he retired for good. Those are the facts, but what has puzzled many is the why.
Why leave a sport when you’re at the top? Especially when you consider the fact that Jordan is famous for being intensely competitive, taking pleasure in not just beating his opponents, but dominating them. One possibility was to honor his father. Tragically, at the time of his first retirement, Jordan was in mourning after the recent murder of his father, James Jordan, that had occurred less than three months prior. The murder was said to be the result of a robbery gone wrong. Michael had been very close with his father throughout his career and James Jordan was an avid baseball fan who reportedly had said he wished Michael had been a baseball player.
– [Zack] That makes sense to me. His dad was a baseball guy, always wanted Jordan to play baseball. His dad passes away and he’s like, “You know what?
“I need to honor my dad.” I think that is a huge factor in the whole reason why Jordan went on to play baseball. – [Ryan] And I know I’m pushing the conspiracy here, but I gotta say, that’s a pretty good explanation. I would want to honor my pop if he wanted me to play baseball.
– [Zack] Now I will say it’s a little fishy just because you are the greatest basketball player. Like, people are already considering him one of the greats after his first three championships. – [Ryan] In a weird way, though, it almost added to his legend and lore. Like, now the debate is how many would he have won. – [Zack] Seven or eight. – [Ryan] Another possibility was that Jordan simply wanted to try different things, perhaps bored by his steady dominance of basketball.
Jordan said during his retirement press conference, quote, “I’ve always stressed to people that have known me “and the media that has followed me that when I lose “the sense of motivation and the sense of “to prove something as a basketball player, “it’s time for me to move away from “the game of basketball,” end quote. Jordan reportedly did not want his NBA career to fade out and, according to his teammates, had been talking about the possibility of retirement for some time. He was so dominant that he was able to say, “I’m bored of this, I’m gonna move on to something else,” and nobody was like, “(beep) you, Mike.” – [Zack] Well, once again, I still think it was a sigh of relief for all the NBA when Jordan left. – Well, that’s what I’m saying, that’s the point I’m making.
If we were playing pick-up and we’d won six games in a row and we went, “You know what? “Competition isn’t good here, you all bore me. “It’s time to leave and go to a better park.” – I think that the players that you’re playing pick-up with, they’re mad because they’re like, “No, we wanna stay on the court, we wanna play these guys.” – I realize I just casually made a comparison between me and Zack Evans to Michael Jordan, I realize that, but it was for the sake of an example.
– It will also happen four to five more times in this episode. – Because it’s an easy comparison to make. – Easy, easy, I’ve been called the Michael Jordan of things before.
– If I was a foot taller, you’d read about me in the history books. (laughing) That being said, some have theorized that Jordan’s abrupt departure from basketball and his subsequent return so soon afterward was a coverup to hide a gambling suspension and that it was in the best interest of the NBA to keep this quiet to maintain the image of the league and its star player. Let’s get in to the conspiracy. Before we get into this, I gotta say I am as big a Jordan fan as most of you out there, but to establish this conspiracy, we do kind of need to establish that he liked gambling. I may say some things that a lot of you out there don’t want to hear.
– [Zack] Yeah, just ’cause he spends, you know, $100,000 in a night just for no reason. – [Ryan] I don’t think he’s a bad person. You know what, it’s Monopoly money to him. I don’t give a (beep), he’s an adult. Do what you want with it, it’s your money. – Michael Jordan was the NBA, right?
So I understand if you were going to suspend him, you would maybe wanna keep it quiet, but there is so much trust in that, knowing that David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA at the time, being like, “Hey, here’s our great idea, Mike, “you’re gonna fake retirement and go play baseball “and we’re just gonna cover this whole thing up, “but really you’re suspended but just don’t tell anyone. “You can be back in a year.” Why would you suspend someone just ’cause he gambles a lot? – Well, it’s good that you asked that because I’m about to get into just how possibly bad this actually was. And once again, Jordan stans, stay out of my mentions. – Stay out of my mentions, @ZackEvans on Twitter.
(laughing) – [Ryan] In May, 1991, during the playoffs against Philadelphia, Jordan used a two-day break in the series to go to Atlantic City, returning at 6:30 AM before attending a 10 AM team workout. Two years later, in May, 1993, Jordan once again took a detour to Atlantic City to gamble in the midst of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Knicks. He was reportedly gambling until around 2:30 AM on a Tuesday morning and returned to New York just ten hours before a game that night. He later explained he made such trips when he was too wound up to sleep.
– [Zack] This is just showing also how good Michael Jordan was, is that he would stay up ’til 5 in the morning in Atlantic City and then just drop 40. – [Ryan] Yeah, (laughing) I know. – That’s my thing, like, it never really affected Jordan. – It’s almost like he was so bored that he felt the need to put challenges against himself. – Yeah, that’s crazy.
– That’s one way to spin it. Another way to spin it is maybe he had a gambling problem. Although Jordan’s penchant for gambling was already established, it was news of his associations with a few specific men that brought his gambling into the media spotlight in the early ’90s. In December, 1991, it came out that Jordan regularly participated in high stakes gambling with a man named James Slim Bouler. – [Zack] I don’t like it, anyone named like Slim, Slick.
– [Ryan] Or if you have little in front of face, like Little Jimmy. – [Zack] And if your name is Little Jimmy, but you weigh 300 pounds. – [Ryan] You don’t (beep) with Little Jimmy. – [Zack] You don’t wanna mess with those guys. – [Ryan] And Jordan messed with them. – [Zack] And Jordan was messing with them.
– [Ryan] Bouler had twice been convicted for cocaine possession and was facing a third charge which, if guilty, would saddle him with a life sentence. He was also charged with money laundering. When investigators seized Bouler’s belongings, they found a $57,000 cashier’s check made out to Bouler and signed by Michael Jordan. – That’s bad.
(laughing) Don’t like that. – Also, once again, not to keep looping back to this, a testament to how good he was at basketball. He was so good that things like this were like, “Eh, let him play.” Jordan explained that the $57,000 was repayment for money Jordan had lost to Bouler betting on golf games, as well as money Jordan borrowed from Bouler to cover debts from poker and other gambling endeavors.
Also that year, on February 19th, 1992, bail bondsman Eddie Dow was shot dead by four men just outside his home in North Carolina. The men who killed Dow robbed him of the roughly $20,000 in cash he had in his briefcase that night, but left the papers inside. Among those papers, police found photocopies of three checks written by Michael Jordan totaling $108,000, funds that were also related to gambling.
– [Zack] No, Mike, come on. How much were, like, NBA players getting paid back then? ‘Cause now they’re signing $120 million contracts. – [Ryan] $108,000 to Steph Curry might as well be (beep) Disney dollars.
In March, 1992, the NBA launched an investigation into Jordan’s gambling. While the league had no rules against gambling in general and Jordan was not under investigation by law enforcement, they wanted to ensure Jordan had not bet on professional basketball games and that his associations would not bring disrepute to the league. – [Zack] Okay, say he was betting on basketball games. 90% of, like, crooked people in professional sports who would bet on it, they would bet on their team to lose and they would throw the game. – [Ryan] Yeah, they would shave points.
– [Zack] Where Jordan would do the opposite. He would bet on the Bulls to win and just go out and ball out. – [Ryan] Yeah, he’s like, “Bet on me, I’m dropping 50.” – [Zack] Yeah. – [Ryan] A three-week investigation turned up no evidence of wrongdoing on Jordan’s part and was laid to rest with a promise from Jordan that he would no longer associate himself with high stakes gamblers. There you go, he didn’t do anything wrong.
– [Zack] He’s clean, he’s like, “Hey, I have some shady friends.” I feel like that’s everybody. – [Ryan] Then on June 3rd, 1993, Richard Esquinas, a former general manager of the San Diego Sports Arena, alleged that he and Jordan had gambled on golf games for years and that Jordan had racked up a debt of 1.25 million, which, according to Esquinas, was negotiated down to $300,000. In an interview with Connie Chung, Jordan denied Esquinas’s figure of 1.2 million and claimed he only ever owed him $300,000.
– If Michael Jordan owes you 1.2 mill, you’re not gonna negotiate down to 300,000. Almost a million dollars less, $900,000 less. – Yeah, yeah, yeah. – Also, Michael Jordan’s good at golf. – [Ryan] The NBA launched a second investigation shortly after Esquinas made news with his allegations, but just a week and a half after Jordan’s October 6th retirement, NBA commissioner David Stern announced that the investigation was concluded and Jordan was cleared, which some point to as evidence of the conspiracy theory. You get that, right?
He says he’s going to retire and then suddenly Stern comes in and goes, “He’s clear. “The investigation proved nothing.” Could be coincidence.
– Man, slippery Stern. Let me just say, he did great things for the NBA. (laughing) – [Ryan] Jordan’s wording during his retirement announcement has been examined as possible evidence that Jordan made a secret deal with David Stern. In the conference Jordan said, quote, “Five years down the line, “if that urge comes back, if the Bulls have me, “if David Stern lets me back in the league, “I may come back,” end quote, the key part being, “If David Stern lets me back into the league.”
– [Zack] “If Stern let’s me back in,” what do you mean if, you’re Michael Jordan. Imagine even, like, let’s say the Bulls before Michael Jordan got there, how much they were worth and then after the three championships how much they were worth. – [Ryan] Yeah, I get the point you’re making. You’re saying, like, if he’s essentially saved the league, why is Stern then nickel-and-diming him over this (beep), like, gambling thing when in reality he can just keep raking in the cash.
And if Stern’s real interest is saving the league, why not just let him play? – But if he did, say, suspend Jordan, right, and gave him a secret suspension, you let Jordan leave for a year and come back, all of a sudden those gambling problems magically disappear. – Time heals everything. – You could walk up to Michael Jordan right now and say, “I’ll bet you $1,000 that I could beat you “in a footrace from here to that door–” – Do you think you could, 50-year-old Michael Jordan?
Let’s make it happen, I think I could too. – Yeah, MJ. – I’m calling you out, Mike. That being said, Stern insisted there was no connection between this investigation and Jordan’s retirement, stating, quote, “As far as the NBA is concerned, “Michael Jordan did nothing wrong and I resent “any implications to the contrary,” end quote. I don’t trust this man.
– Here’s the real conspiracy, and it’s the movie Space Jam. – Okay. – Someone pitched him the idea, the script for Space Jam, and it was a little soft, “Why would I do this? “It’s just I’m gonna go save the Looney Tunes?”
And they go, “Here it is. “You retire from the NBA and go play baseball. “We write this into the script.” It was all a marketing ploy for the movie Space Jam ’cause the Space Jam movie does not work without him retiring and coming back. – I think it’s incredibly stupid.
– Tell me it’s not crazy. – Oh, it’s crazy. – I’m just saying you saying that there is some weird secret suspension is crazier than me saying that it was all marketing for a movie that was a smash hit. I don’t think that gets talked about. Like, Michael Jordan just opened up his entire life. Him retiring, the whole reason why he comes back, for a movie with Looney Tunes.
– [Ryan] Over the course of his storied career, Michael Jordan has managed to astound the public at every turn, inspiring legions of fans, including myself. The question of why perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time left the sport only adds to the legend and will remain unsolved. (suspenseful instrumental music)