Some devoted NBA fans still talk about the “sunglasses” interview in 1993 during the Chicago Bulls’ third straight championship run, when Michael Jordan and veteran NBC sportscaster Ahmad Rashad addressed the superstar’s rumored gambling problem — which had stained his glowing reputation.
Jordan and Rashad, whose close friendship dates to the early stages of Jordan’s phenomenal basketball career, talk about it too. “We laugh about it now,” Rashad said last week as he discussed “The Last Dance,” the ESPN documentary series centered on Jordan’s final championship run with the Bulls in the 1997-98 season.
But at the time of the interview, which is featured in the sixth installment of the documentary, it was anything but a laughing matter.
The Bulls were about to face off in the NBA Finals with the powerful Phoenix Suns, headed by Charles Barkley. Shortly before that contest, Jordan had been hit by allegations of a gambling problem after visiting an Atlantic City, N.J., casino during the Eastern Conference finals between the Bulls and the New York Knicks.
Jordan’s inconsistent performance during the second game of the Knicks series had revived oft-repeated speculation about his off-court activities, including that the star might be addicted to gambling. Jordan became so upset by the media barrage that he stopped talking to reporters.
After a silence that lasted about two weeks, Rashad — a former NFL player and one of the top broadcasters with NBC, which then aired the NBA “Game of the Week” — got a call from his good friend just before the first game of the finals.
“We’re going to the game and Michael calls me and says, ‘Can you get a camera?’” Rashad recalled. “I say, ‘For what?’ He says, ‘I want to do something about this gambling thing. You can ask me whatever you want.’”
Rashad notified Dick Ebersol, who at the time was the chairman of NBC Sports. “I said to Dick, ‘Here’s what I want you to do for me. I want you to give me the questions. You give me what you want out of this interview. That way it won’t look like I’m taking it easy on my friend.’”
Rashad had come under criticism from other journalists who felt he was already too cozy with Jordan. “During the whole time we were covering the Bulls, I would get blasted by every other sports reporter who thought I had unfair access. I don’t think it was unfair. It was just fortunate for NBC. My job at the end of the ‘Game of the Week’ was to interview the star of the game. And it was always Michael.
“They were already jealous of our relationship. I didn’t want it to look like Michael got a homer. I’m doing this as a sports journalist. So Dick and the others came up with a list of questions. And we sat down.”
Jordan was wearing dark sunglasses. “The only thing I wished, I wish he had taken those glasses off. I said, “Mike, can you take off the sunglasses?’ He laughed and said, ‘Aw, man, let’s just do this.’ ”
During the interview, Jordan repeatedly said he did not have a gambling problem.
“We do the interview,” Rashad said. “I stop before they say, ‘That’s a wrap,’ and I turn around to everyone and say, ‘Dick, is there anything else we need? We got everything? Are you satisfied?’”
Still, Rashad was roasted by other sports journalists after the interview aired. He recalled a vicious swipe by Mike Lupica: “He took a shot at me. Mike was a friend of mine, and he said I shouldn’t have done the interview. ‘You guys are always together. How did you even get the interview?’ ”
He continued, “There were other people who blasted me for not being tough enough. Not once did Dick say they were his questions... I didn’t try to explain it either. I was moving forward.”
Rashad also has vivid memories of the Bulls’ “last dance.”
“It was one of those things when you couldn’t believe they were going to break this team up,” he said. “In sports, you play until you can’t win anymore. It was just hard to believe, ‘This is it?’”
Rashad felt that this team was truly a standout.
“It was amazing that they were able to perform under this kind of pressure,” he said. “It’s amazing that Michael could perform under this kind of pressure. This was their last dance, and these players all rallied around each other. And Phil Jackson showed that he is one of the greatest coaches of all time, in any sport. To get what he got from those guys, knowing it was the end. It would have been easy to quit.
“It was a great group, with the greatest player who ever played and the greatest coach. It was truly incredible.”