In episodes seven and eight of ESPN docuseries The Last Dance, it's referenced—then debunked—that Michael Jordan first retired in 1993 because of gambling (Jordan later returned to basketball after a stint with professional baseball). Jordan's father had been tragically murdered in August 1993, and Jordan's stated reason for leaving the sport was this, as well as his lack of interest in playing. But, throughout his long and storied career, questions about his gambling have remained. Jordan has stated he doesn't have a gambling problem, countering instead: "I have a competition problem." The series dives deep into Jordan's competitive nature in just about everything (and, BTW, is a terrific watch even if you don't like sports)—but here's the context on where those rumors came from.
Jordan does have a well-established history as someone who likes to bet, both small and large. As early as high school, he apparently wrote to his prom date about a bet they'd made. In college, a check that Jordan wrote after losing at pool went up for auction. Once he got to the NBA, he bet—often very large sums—with anyone who'd play with him. He bet on the Jumbotron cartoon races with stadium security guards and on cards with teammates like Scottie Pippen.
When Jordan, seemingly at the top of his career, retired in 1993, he explained that "the desire isn’t there," that there wasn’t "anything else to prove."
Despite his (absolutely justified) reasoning that his personal tragedy led to his taking a break, unsubstantiated theories remained. Per Sports Illustrated, Jordan "admitted to incurring substantial losses from gambling," and the NBA appointed a former federal judge, Frederick Lacey, to look into Jordan's bets.
Legal gambling isn't prohibited by the NBA; the problem is that Jordan didn't disclose some of his bets. Jordan had to testify about a check he wrote gambler/alleged drug dealer "Slim" Bouler for $57,000. (He admitted it was a gambling debt over golf.) Richard Esquinas wrote a 1993 book called Michael and Me: Our Gambling Addiction...My Cry for Help. He alleged that Jordan owed him $1.25 million from golf bets, and that the two settled for a lesser sum. Jordan denied the claims entirely—and he wouldn't have been charged with more than a misdemeanor if Esquinas had been correct—but at Hilton Head, where a lot of the golf was played, it's technically illegal to gamble.
The NBA ended up clearing Jordan of wrongdoing. Apparently, Jordan did continue to bet, including on card games, and even publicly betted on providing a basketball camp with free sneakers.
But he's mostly kept it out of the limelight since.
For more stories like this, including celebrity news, beauty and fashion advice, savvy political commentary, and fascinating features, sign up for the Marie Claire newsletter.