Jordan Hit on Gambling : Golf bets: San Diego man says the Bulls' star played him for four years, once owed him $1.252 million.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

NBA superstar Michael Jordan owed a San Diego businessman as much as $1.252 million in golf gambling losses before eventually agreeing to a negotiated settlement of $300,000, according to a soon-to-be-released book obtained Wednesday by The Times.

Richard Esquinas, 38, former general manager of the San Diego Sports Arena, claims in his book, "Michael & Me: Our Gambling Addiction . . . My Cry For Help!" that he and Jordan wagered hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes adding up to more than $1 million, during the course of their four-year relationship, which included more than 110 rounds of golf.

According to Esquinas, who owns the company that published the book, Jordan lost $1.252 million to him during a Sept. 20, 1991 match at Aviara Golf Course in San Diego County--the same week in which the Chicago Bulls' guard was formally named a member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team. The following June, Esquinas said he and Jordan met for a final three-day golf betting binge at several San Diego County courses. That binge, Esquinas said, resulted in Jordan reducing the gambling debt to $902,000.

Despite several phone conversations and formal letters requesting payment, Esquinas said Jordan remained evasive about settling the bet. Esquinas later offered to lower the debt to $300,000, at which point Jordan agreed, but asked that the payments be spread over several months. According to Esquinas, Jordan said he wanted to keep the lost wagers a secret from his wife, who had access to the basketball star's personal financial ledger.

"I took a ($602,00) hit just to get the hell out," Esquinas said. "I just wanted out. I knew it was a quick fix, that he could afford it. I figured that it was a number he could afford. I wanted out of this whole process."

Esquinas said he has since received two separate cashier's checks for $100,000, one of which was drawn from American National Bank and Trust Company of Chicago. A cover letter written by Chicago-based lawyer Wayne A. McCoy of the law firm Schiff, Hardin & Waite accompanied the first cashier's check. Esquinas provided The Times with copies of those documents.

There was no reference to Jordan in the March 26, 1993, letter, nor was he mentioned in a May 27, 1993, correspondence, which included the second $100,000 payment. The only reference to a payor made by the law firm in the letter was to a "client."

Jordan, said Esquinas, is scheduled to send a final payment by January, 1994. "I expect him to honor his debt," Esquinas said Wednesday.

The Times also obtained a photocopy of a $25,000 check drawn from Citibank which, said Esquinas, bears the signature of David Falk, Jordan's longtime agent.

Falk, who was questioned by a reporter at courtside during Game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night, said: "I will not comment on anything about Michael or golf during this basketball game."

Falk also refused to comment on the $25,000 check itself or on whether the account number was, indeed, his. When asked about the connection between Jordan and Schiff, Hardin & Waite, Falk waved the reporter away.

When questioned again after the game by the reporter, Falk said, "I don't manage Michael Jordan's money." He also said, "Obviously, your information is wrong."

Esquinas said he has reported his gambling winnings on his Internal Revenue Service returns. He provided The Times with a copy of his 1992 tax return that reported $125,000 of "gambling winnings."

This is not the first time questions concerning Jordan's golf gambling have been raised. In October of 1992, Jordan was subpoenaed to appear at the drug and money-laundering trial of James (Slim) Bouler. At the trial, in Charlotte, N.C., Jordan testified that he wrote a check for $57,000 to Bouler to pay off debts for golf, poker and other gambling. He was never questioned in those proceedings about three additional checks from Jordan found in the briefcase of bail bondsman, Eddie Dow--slain in February of 1992--and totaling $108,000. But Dow's attorney's said the money was for payment of gambling debts.

Most recently, Jordan's gambling habits have come under scrutiny after his trip to an Atlantic City, N.J., casino on the eve of an earlier playoff game against the Knicks. He has since refused to speak to the media, including Wednesday night after the Bulls' victory in New York.

Esquinas, who describes himself as a recovering gambler who still undergoes therapy and attends Gamblers Anonymous meetings, said he wrote the book as "an attempt to understand myself. The book is my catharsis." He said he also wanted to "reach out" to Jordan.

The 209-page book, co-authored by Dave Distel, former sports editor of The Times San Diego edition, describes in detail the birth of Esquinas' betting relationship with Jordan.

The two met at a 1989 exhibition basketball game in San Diego. A golf game was arranged for the next day, which only served as a betting prelude for four years' worth of wagering between the Esquinas and Jordan.

Esquinas said he and Jordan eventually kept running tabs on their wins and losses. "We were always very flexible in payments," he said.

The only time Esquinas was unable to pay a debt to Jordan was after losing $98,000 to the Bulls' star during a 1991 match at a Pinehurst, N.C. In September of that same year, Esquinas said he offered to play Jordan double or nothing and produced two checks, each for $98,000 and each made out to Jordan should he win the match.

Jordan accepted. Then, during approximately a 10-day period, Esquinas said he went from owing Jordan $98,000, to winning the $1.252 million.

At one point, Esquinas said he feared he might be physically harmed.

"I feared that I'd be perceived as a threat to Jordan, and the things that come with those fears," he said.

Shortly after Esquinas said he won the million dollar-plus wager, Jordan and Esquinas spoke on the phone, according to the San Diego man. During the conversation, Esquinas said Jordan jokingly remarked, "Rich, I just might as well shoot you as to give you a check for $1.2 million."

"I played it off," Esquinas said Wednesday. "But he was definitely drawing the line that he wasn't going to pay the full amount. What he was saying was, 'I'm not paying the full amount.' And right there, I knew I had trouble collecting."

Esquinas said that he didn't write the book, which will be distributed starting next week, to punish Jordan for allegedly failing to pay the $1.252-million debt in full. If anything, said Esquinas, he pleaded with Jordan not to double the original $626,000 wager at Aviara.

Wrote Esquinas in his book: "Once again, (Jordan) went into a long story about his wealth. He could handle $1.2 million, he said, should he happen to lose.

" 'Let's play for it,' he said. 'E-Man, I can't believe you won't give me this game.'

"I was trying to get him to comprehend the magnitude of losing at such a level, to defer this insistence that we engage once again. Not only did he want to continue this chase, he was demanding it.

" 'I do not want this game,' I said, 'but I must be honest with you. You lose and you pay. That's the only way I'll give you a shot. And, if I beat you, that's it. No more of this double or nothing . . . ' "

Esquinas said he hasn't spoken in person with Jordan since the two exchanged handshakes at a Clippers-Bulls game at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Esquinas also said he never told Jordan of his decision to write the tell-all book. "My ultimate resolution, my hope, is that Michael seeks out some help, that he sees this as a positive and we can be friends," Esquinas said. "Given the ramifications of everything around it, that's probably a stretch."

According to Esquinas, Jordan's penchant for golf gambling was no secret. When the Dream Team assembled in La Jolla for training camp in the summer of 1992, Jordan and Esquinas would play and wager in full view of Jordan's Olympic basketball teammates.

"But everybody knew not to come near the question of how much (was being bet)," Esquinas said.

In fact, said Esquinas, the last round of golf he and Jordan played together was at the La Jolla Country Club during the Olympic training camp. It was during that June 25 round that Jordan allegedly whittled the overall debt total to $902,000.

Esquinas, who said that both he and Jordan are about 5-7 handicappers and that they had never given strokes to each other, said that he hasn't played golf for money in more than six months. But he hasn't entirely given up gambling, either. He said he placed a bet on this year's Super Bowl.

"What we were chasing was not so much money . . . we were chasing competition," Esquinas said. "It was like putting kerosene on a fire."

Times staff writer Mark Heisler contributed to this story.

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