PHOENIX — Commissioner David Stern said here Thursday that the NBA has cleared Michael Jordan of any wrongdoing, amid allegations that he lost more than $1 million in golf bets, but admitted that the league had closed the case without even interviewing the man who made the claim.
Stern and Russ Granik, NBA deputy commissioner, said league officials plan to speak with Richard Esquinas, the San Diego man who claims in a new book that Jordan, at one point, owed him $1.252 million in golf gambling debts, but not on that specific issue. They also said they will have ongoing dialogue with Jordan.
Granik said: "The issue of simply betting on golf or visiting casinos, in terms of penalties on Michael Jordan, that's closed, (all) but for the open question of the nature of the people that he's associating with."
Speaking at America West Arena, where Jordan and the Chicago Bulls will take a 1-0 lead into Game 2 of the NBA finals tonight against the Phoenix Suns, Stern was firm in his defense of Jordan and insistent that the league will no more get involved in a player losing $1 million in legal gambling than it would with a player losing a million on a bad business venture. He also dismissed those times when betting on golf is against the law, depending on the state, because "if it is technically illegal, it's a routinely non-prosecuted issue."
Added Stern: "In betting on golf and going to Atlantic City, no player violates any current NBA rule, any rule that we plan to enact or any rule that we think would be wise to enact. The issues of gambling that have most affected us really relate to gambling on NBA games, and we are satisfied that there's no hint at the current time that any of our players gamble on NBA games.
"We don't think that we should be regulating, as it has been suggested, whether a player can go to a casino, for example, and engage in activity that is not only legal but is actually encouraged by virtually all state governments: Go to casinos, go to Indian reservations for gambling, go to riverboats, bet lots, gambling is good, it supports higher education, lower education, senior citizens, you name it. As the states rush headlong into attempts to raise new money, there seems to be a national campaign encouraging gambling.
"We don't believe issuing rules about wagering on golf or wagering at casinos would be fair or wise," Stern said, adding that it is a good topic for all sports to consider "even though the source that raises it is less than praiseworthy."
Along those lines, the commissioner was so firm in backing Jordan that he criticized news organizations for turning Esquinas' book into a major topic, going so far as singling out NBC, whose coverage has long been considered an extension of the league's public relations department.
And so it went on a day when Stern was also atypical in mood, once even raising his voice to answer a question in, well, stern fashion.
Jordan had new concerns a day after scoring a game-high 31 points, 14 in the fourth quarter, to lead the Bulls to a 100-92 victory: the suggestion that he would be singled out should the NBA adopt a policy on gambling.
"Yeah, I would, because now you're telling (players) what to do in their private time," he said. "That's a dictatorship. Every profession has freedom, and you start taking away from that freedom when you start saying that."
Not to worry, Mike.
Said Granik: "I think we would have a concern about a player losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in golf the same way that we would a concern about any player losing those sums of money in investments. . . . But there are limits as to where it becomes a league's obligation to get involved in a player's financial dealings."
Phoenix point guard Kevin Johnson, asked if there is something he has to do differently tonight compared to Game 1, when he had five turnovers and two assists and missed nine of 13 shots: "I think I have to play better, and that is different." . . . Michael Jordan moved past Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor into sixth place on the playoff scoring list with 3,635 points. Magic Johnson, with 3,640, figures to drop tonight. . . . The Suns were quick to draw on history for encouragement, noting that the Bulls had the home-court advantage each of the last two seasons and lost one of the first games at Chicago Stadium before winning the titles. "So let's not go crazy," Charles Barkley said. "If we lose Game 2, then we can go crazy."
* TONI KUKOC
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