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COMMENTARY : These Days, It's Not Fun to Be Like Mike


NEW YORK — Yo, Mike, let's talk.

No, we're not sorry we asked you about the gambling. You gambled. We asked about it. That's what we're here for.

You're Michael Jordan, you're news.

You're the greatest basketball player we've ever seen. It's a joy to see you play and a privilege on days like Monday. Most of us do this because we like the game and you're not just special, you're other-worldly.

We're sportswriters. We cover you the way we would anyone, according to your significance.

You have a lot of impact. I guess you can tell when you check the bank account. That $20 million a year adds up, doesn't it?

Forget that piddling $4 million the Bulls pay you. You sell shoes, burgers, cereal, underwear, even competing beverages. You started setting it up that way years ago when you put out this homespun image. You made your own clothes. You took home economics classes so you could look after yourself.

You left out the part about the all-night poker games, didn't you, you rascal?

It's not a crime, but it's an interesting omission.

Maybe you didn't think you could get on a Wheaties box wearing an eyeshade, smoking a cigar, with a deck of cards in your hand.

The real you isn't that kid in the photo of the Boy Scout from Wilmington, N.C., any more, is it?

Not that you aren't a nice guy. You're uncommonly nice. We think you're a pleasure to deal with, when we can deal with you, and a lot more fun to cover than some (shudder) baseball star who could stage a career-long press boycott with minimal notice.

What you really are is an action junkie.

You practice so hard, your general manager, Jerry Krause, says the Bulls can't even bring in a young player at your position or you'll destroy him, the way you did Steve Colter and Pete Myers.

You play golf for money. You go to casinos. If you hadn't gone to Atlantic City last week, you'd probably have had your Carolina mafia in for an all-night poker game.

Remember Walter Ioos, the photographer doing that coffee-table book on you? After he followed you around for a while, he said, "All he lives for is to play games and beat people."

A lot of people worry about your gambling, but I trust you. It's not hard to see what you really live for, and it isn't to break the bank at Atlantic City, even if that's a pleasant diversion. You live to beat the Knicks and anyone else who gets in the line of fire.

Your father, James, says you don't have a gambling problem but a "competition problem."

Now about our little problem. . .

If you don't want to talk, that's OK. But we're not hounding you. Right or wrong, this thing had no legs. The New York Times published its version, you gave yours, end of story.

We weren't going to pursue it the next day when you began your boycott. You didn't get caught with known felons this time. For every editorial voice saying you should have known better, there were four saying, "So what?"

Still, this wasn't the first story about your gambling, plus your credibility is suspect. When your check was found on Slim Bouler, the convicted money launderer, you said it was a loan so he could buy a driving range. When it came to court, you said it was to pay off your golf debt.

As you know, a Boy Scout is truthful, courteous and kind. So don't do it again or they might start taking back merit badges.

If the New York Times misrepresented you, that's unfortunate. Of course, you had a chance to comment before it was published, which you passed up, but it's still unfortunate.

The news biz is tricky; we try to do the best we can, but the sands shift and sometimes people tell us they remember things clearly when they're only guessing or just want it to be true. We try to be careful; the New York Times held its story for a day until it felt it had confirmed it, offering you and Phil Jackson another chance to comment, which also went unanswered.

We have no right to misrepresent you, but it's our job to inquire about the truth and we did.

You chose the life you lead. Even when you began to see what a goldfish bowl it was, you were still out drumming up endorsements. So you have to sit still for the inquiry.

We know it's not easy being Michael Jordan. We know we're a lot to put up with. We think of ourselves as reasonable people who are only asking questions. You see us as this jumble of heads, tape recorders, cameras, sound booms and stick mikes, jumping on each others' backs, shouting over each other to be heard, asking the same questions over and over, publishing our judgments. We wouldn't want to be you, even at the prevailing rate of pay.

We know nobody understands the bargains they're making. Everyone wants to be rich and famous, but no one knows there's a downside until he's sliding down it. No one values his privacy until it's gone. We've seen it all before. That's just how it is.

The nice thing about it is that, one way or another, the truth generally comes out, or most of it. It's what we live for.

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