Michael Jordan has always possessed supernatural media savvy, so his interview with Ahmad Rashad during the 1993 NBA Finals was particularly bizarre. The subject was gambling, and the normally witty and charismatic Jordan appeared flustered even though he was being questioned by one of his closest friends. Odder still was Jordan’s attire. As Rashad reflects during ESPN’s The Last Dance, “It didn’t help that Michael had sunglasses on when he was doing the interview.”
Episode 6 of ESPN’s 10-part Bulls documentary focuses on Jordan’s gambling, a narrative that spans decades but came to a head in the summer of 1993. It started on May 24, when Jordan famously visited an Atlantic City casino the night before Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls lost that contest to the Knicks, and New York newspapers reported that Jordan was spotted gambling until the early morning. (He still claims he was back at the hotel much earlier in the evening.) Jordan responded to the coverage with a total media blackout. His silence lasted until June 9, when he donned sunglasses to speak with Rashad.
“Soon, whenever I walk away from this game, I think that’s the only thing that people are going to say was a bad thing about Michael Jordan,” he said about his gambling.
“Could ‘soon’ be after this year?” Rashad asks.
NBC aired the interview at halftime during Game 1 of the NBA Finals, and a large chunk of the conversation was dedicated to someone you either forgot about or had never heard of in the first place: Richard Esquinas.
Esquinas was a San Diego businessman who had built a relationship with Jordan around golf. In early June, right in the middle of Jordan’s media blackout, Esquinas announced that he was publishing a tell-all book titled Michael & Me: Our Gambling Addiction … My Cry for Help! (exclamation point Esquinas’). He alleged that the superstar lost $1.252 million to him during a 10-day golfing binge and that Jordan negotiated to have the debt reduced to $300,000. (However, in the book and contemporaneous interviews, Esquinas claimed that Jordan had still only paid him $200,000, and that he was waiting on the final hundred grand.)
When Bob Costas interviewed Esquinas at halftime during Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, Esquinas said his motivation behind the book was to “expedite my recovery” and “reach out and help Michael Jordan.” To help bolster his claims, Esquinas presented NBC with two checks from Jordan totaling $200,000 as evidence. However, he could not prove that Jordan owed him the seven-figure debt. “There is no hard evidence that says it was $1.252 [million],” Esquinas told Costas. “Ultimately it would come down to Michael versus my word.”
Esquinas wasn’t entirely convincing when pressed about the timing of his book announcement, which came in the middle of the playoffs and soon after the Atlantic City controversy. “A lot of people … had seen the book as it was becoming manufactured,” he said. “We knew that there were inquiries being made and that a leak was about to happen.” It should be noted that the book was self-published.
Convincing or not, the interview lured Jordan out of his silence. He released a statement through his agent the next day addressing Esquinas’ claims: “I have played golf with Richard Esquinas with wagers made between us. Because I did not keep records, I cannot verify how much I won or lost. I can assure you that the levels of our wagers was substantially less than the preposterous amounts that have been reported.” Four days later, Jordan would sit down with Rashad to address the matter on camera.
In The Last Dance, Jordan’s contemporary take on the situation sounds no different from his statement in 1993. “I’m actually playing golf with people all the time … and if they want to gamble, we gamble. The character of those individuals—I found out later what kind of people I was playing with. I learned that lesson. But the act of gambling? I didn’t do anything wrong.”
The Last Dance presents the affair as an accelerant to the flames that would drive Jordan from basketball, but at the time it was Esquinas who took most of the heat. Granted, the tone and tenor of his book didn’t help earn him any sympathy. “Michael Jordan was a most worthy adversary. And I was a worthy adversary for Michael,” he boasts. “I was like all of the Pistons in one body.”
It might have worked on the golf course, but Michael Jordan versus a random California business dude was not a fair battle in the court of public opinion. “Richard Esquinas is a rat, a greedy, mercenary rat at that,” sneered the San Francisco Examiner’s Art Spander. “Richard Esquinas represents everything wrong with this nation.”
“Anybody who pays actual money for Richard Esquinas’ book … is contributing to the delinquency of a sleazeball,” wrote Charlotte Observer columnist Tom Sorensen. The Atlanta Constitution’s Mark Bradley claimed Esquinas’ book “would land … on no bestseller list compiled outside his own household.”
Syndicated Sacramento Bee columnist Pete Dexter had even harsher words for Esquinas’ writing partner: “The co-author in this case, by the way, is Dave Distel, a former editor in the Los Angeles Times sports department. I do not know what the man was paid, but you can only hope it was more than the hundred or two hundred dollars that many people in Mr. Distel’s position get for renting their bodies.” Goodness!
Few seemed to care that Jordan bet extravagant sums of money on golf; the real transgression was Esquinas’ decision to publicize it. “Does the public need to know the tawdry habits of its most beloved sports figures?” asked Steve Fainaru of the Boston Globe.* “Jordan holds no public office. His only public trust is to play as hard and as well as he can.”
Richard Esquinas’ book wasn’t made available for purchase to the general public until late June. Jordan and the Bulls beat the Phoenix Suns to secure their third NBA championship, the story faded in the rearview, and Esquinas’ media appearances dried up. One exception was a June 27 interview with Florida Today. Esquinas used the opportunity to take on his “worthy adversary” one last time.
“I have much less media experience and yet I went toe to toe with Bob Costas, without wearing sunglasses,” Esquinas said. “For him to come on with sunglasses and have the lobs tossed to him from Ahmad Rashad, it was almost a joke.” When taking on Michael Jordan, you need to claim any victory you can.
Correction, May 4, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Steve Fainaru’s last name.