Think Jordan couldn't gamble it all away? Think again, Forte recommends PRO BASKETBALL

June 08, 1993|By Bob Rubin | Bob Rubin,Miami Herald

If Chet Forte were locked in a room alone with Michael Jordan, he would tell him a horror story.

"I'd tell him the story of my life," Forte said. "I'd tell him, 'Michael, it can happen to you. It happened to me, and I was making millions. It can happen to you, even if you're making billions. Michael, it can happen to you.' "

Forte, a member of Gamblers Anonymous who conducts a radio sports talk show in San Diego, says he can't be sure Michael Jordan is a compulsive gambler. "But the signs are bad," Forte said. "The signs absolutely stink."

For example?

"When Michael said he went to Atlantic City to relax. Come on. Any gambler would have laughed in Jordan's face. No one gambles to relax. You gamble because you want action. Gambling's a high."

There's no proof Forte is right in his fears about Jordan. But Jordan's multiple gambling episodes are, at very least, disquieting, suggesting a habit that's more than recreational, indicating a carelessness about his associations. And these are only the ones we know about.

Forte is worth hearing on the subject of compulsive gambling. He was once as compulsive as they come.

His name probably has a vaguely familiar ring. A director who won 11 Emmys, Forte was one of the best and brightest at ABC Sports during its glory years under Roone Arledge. He directed "Monday Night Football," the Super Bowl and more Olympic coverage than any man in history. He was a superstar in his field, rich and famous.

And he blew it all gambling.

Forte lost everything he owned, including a $1.5 million home. He wound up more than $1 million in debt, which he'll be paying off for years to come. He was forced to plead guilty to three of 11 felony counts, two for fraud and one for failure to file a tax return, avoiding prison only through the compassion of a judge.

He lost the respect of his family. His career was destroyed, and he has been shunned by former ABC colleagues. Fortunately, Forte's family stuck by him, and others he calls "angels" befriended him when he was most in need.

Once tough and abrasive, Forte cries when he talks about the people who helped pull him through a downward spiral that reached rock bottom when he lost $208,000 in one desperate outing in Atlantic City.

People close to Jordan have circled the wagons around him, lashing out at anyone who suggests he may have a problem. Well-intentioned though they may be, they do Jordan no service, Forte said.

"I think Michael Jordan needs help, and I hope and pray he gets it," Forte said. "But how do you get through to a guy like him? People are afraid to talk straight to him, just like they were afraid to talk straight to me, but does that mean you don't try?"

A lot of people were aware of Pete Rose's heavy gambling. A lot of people looked away. A lot of people knew Pete Rose was associating with undesirables. A lot of people looked away.

Is the same thing happening with Jordan?

"I can't do that," Forte said. "I've got to speak out. I only wish someone had locked himself in a room with me 20 or 30 years ago and said, 'You're out of control.' Don't tell me Michael can afford it. I don't care how much he has, he could blow it all."

Jordan's competitiveness, such a powerful weapon on the basketball court, works against him on a golf course. He can dare greatly on the court and pull it off. He can't do that on the course, where he isn't the greatest on the planet and daring can be foolhardy, especially if the stakes are high. There must be guys lining up around the block for a chance to play with him and take his money.

Jordan gets defensive and hostile at questions about his gambling. "Denial, absolute denial," Forte said. Jordan took such offense at stories about his Atlantic City excursion, he is boycotting the media, breaking his silence only with a written statement responding to the claim of Richard Esquinas that Jordan lost $1.25 million to him gambling on the golf course.

Yes, Esquinas appears to be an exploitative, publicity-seeking slimeball. But that doesn't necessarily make him a liar.

Jordan admits he gambled with Esquinas. He terms "preposterous" the amounts Esquinas alleges were bet but says he can't recall how much it actually was because he didn't keep records.

Didn't keep records? Hmmm. Speaking of preposterous . . .

"And let me tell you something, if you owe $1 million to some guys out there and refuse to pay, as Esquinas says happened to him, they turn it over to someone and you get your legs broken," Forte said. "Let's go further. Say Michael owes a lot. Wouldn't it be easy to get out with a little gesture? 'I owe you $1 million? Let's see. In the next five games, we're not going to beat the spread.' You hate to think about things like this but. . ."

The NBA shudders at such talk, even if it is hypothetical. At the very least, Jordan's gambling has been a huge public relations black eye.

It may be worse. Forte's right. The signs are bad.

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