Michael Jordan is on the edge. His problem, like that of someone caught in the advanced stages of alcoholism, is that he no longer can recognize how much trouble he is in.
Not only Jordan, but the entire leadership of the National Basketball Association is in a state of denial.
Neither Jordan nor Commissioner David Stern sees Jordan's compulsive gambling as a problem. They see it only as a problem of legality. Alcoholics are viewed that way, too, when they are in the early stages. Jordan's problem is that he is in the final stages. Anyone who watched how Jordan was treated during the two games the Bulls played here in Phoenix could understand the reasons for his isolation from ordinary society.
Jordan is treated like a god by both the Bulls management and the NBA front office. Wherever he walks, he is surrounded by bodyguards and an entourage much like the President of the United States. He seems quite comfortable in this role.
He owns a Ferrari, a Porsche, a BMW, a Z, two Mercedes, several Corvettes and several Chevy Blazers for the Chicago winters.
Jordan is a partner in the Bigsby and Kruthers clothing store in Chicago. He is provided with a wardrobe that consists of 23 suits for night wear, another 23 for day wear and still another 23 for weekend or relaxed wear.
He has a basement with a six-hole putting green, as well as billiards, Ping-Pong and poker tables.
His favorite food is still McDonald's. There was a time when he would go through the drive-through lane in a chauffeur-driven limousine. But he has become too famous for that. He now sends friends to pick up the Big Macs for him.
Jordan did not come from royalty. He has become royalty in the same way that Elvis Presley and the Beatles did. And he has become every bit as big a celebrity.
He has come a long way. He has always been given a pass by the media. The fact that his father pleaded guilty to embezzling $7,000 from General Electric in 1986 has rarely been mentioned publicly.
When Bob Greene was doing his book Hang Time, he asked Jordan if he ever goes out for a walk by himself.
"In theory, it sounds nice," Jordan said. "But I couldn't do it on the road. I'd be stopped by people. It sounds like something I'd very much like to do. It sounds very peaceful--a park or something like that. . . . Simplicity is one of the things you have to give up."
So Jordan is left with things like his halftime interview with Ahmad Rashad, the groveling NBC interviewer, during the first game of the Finals series.
Jordan had refused to talk to the media for a brief period. He was affronted by the stories depicting his gambling run to a casino in Atlantic City during the New York series.
He was indignant over the book written by Richard Esquinas, a former acquaintance who passes for what Jordan calls a friend. Esquinas claimed that Jordan had built up losses of $1.2 million on the golf course to Esquinas.
According to Esquinas, Jordan had finally agreed to pay $300,000 of that figure. To date, he reportedly has paid $200,000.
Jordan was portrayed not only as a "pigeon" who could be taken for a ride by a clever hustler, but also as a "deadbeat" who won't pay up. Given the fact that Jordan's estimated income exceeds $30 million a year, he is an interesting "deadbeat."
One can't see inside Jordan's mind. So we can't tell why he chose to appear on television wearing dark shades and a gold earring. He looked for all the world like a Mafia hit man.
Is this why they have been running all those "I wanna be like Mike" commercials?
I have always wondered why NBC retained Ahmad Rashad's services. The job of a sideline reporter is a totally demeaning one. All that is required is the ability to get down on your knees and genuflect to every jock you encounter.
People who work with Rashad say that he is perfect for the job because he has absolutely no self-doubts. He still thinks he's a wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings.
Jordan's explanation to Rashad and to the public was a simple one. If he was doing anything wrong, he would lose his house and his wife would leave him. End of explanation. Message: Mind your own business.
Later, after the first game, Jordan was brought into the interview room. You could feel the excitement generated among the hundreds of media people when they heard that Jordan was on his way.
The media had been punished enough. He would consent to speak once again.
There seems little purpose in repeating his words. These days Jordan speaks in a weird patois of his own devising. It all sounds wise until you sit down to dissect it. Then you realize it is merely gibberish.
I agree there is something unworldly about Jordan's talents . . . the level to which he has developed his skills. He is the best player I have ever seen.
But his gambling problem is obviously out of control. It will grow progressively worse because no one has the power to check his downward journey.
Unless Jordan's gambling is brought to a halt, a scandal that will bring grave harm to the NBA is inevitable.
Watch Jordan closely in the games that remain in this championship series. Study how he interacts with his Chicago Bulls teammates . . . with Phil Jackson, his coach.
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"You should never let anyone know what you really feel," Jordan said once to an interviewer.
And what do you consider your relationship between you and the 11 men on your team?
"They're not my friends," Jordan said. "They're my teammates. You have to understand about the players in the NBA. It's a constantly competitive situation. To exist on this level, you've got to have been some sort of a star at some point in your life.
"And when I look around the locker room every night, I'm aware that every one of those 11 is aware that he's not the guy anymore. And while we all may accept that professionally, it's hard to accept personally. It's not something that's conducive to friendship. "We are teammates. We are not friends.