SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- If Michael Jordan doesn't start getting his stories straight, his nickname may soon have to be amended to Hot Air.
Jordan has been given almost every benefit of the doubt, but the news credibility problem isn't going to be explained away by some corporate press release.
Regarding his alleged gambling activities and a $57,000 check he wrote last year to a North Carolina man named James "Slim" Bouler, Jordan will have to tell the truth. He has been subpoenaed by Bouler's attorney to testify later this week in Charlotte, N.C., where Bouler, a convicted cocaine dealer and local golf hustler, is standing trial on drug and money laundering charges.
"I thought this was behind me," Jordan said here yesterday. It would have been, had Jordan stated publicly what he has apparently told one Chicago reporter, officials of the NBA during its so-called investigation of his gambling last winter and what he will have to tell the court, unless he treats the judge and jury like a pack of sportswriters.
One can easily understand Jordan's discomfort and embarrassment on the disclosure of his expensive gambling tastes. Concocting stories about it only makes it worse. There have also been other needless waffles, suggesting that Jordan believes he is so popular that accountability on any subject is irrelevant or there is present in him the same deep-seated character flaw most often found in politicians.
Thirteen days ago, when he reported to the Chicago Bulls' training camp for the annual media day photo opportunity, Jordan said his threat to not participate during the Bulls' exhibition season was overblown by the news media coming out of the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. He implied that whatever remarks he made were casual, the results of "some guys I ran into."
Nonsense. He clearly stated that he had no intention of playing until November in an interview with the news media after one of the Dream Team games. It was an answer to a question of how such a limited summer vacation might affect him during the 1992-93 season. He not only answered it unequivocally but also elaborated, saying he planned to speak with the Chicago front office to set up his own training timetable.
The next day, of course, he disappeared, leaving his teammates to grouse that no other Dream Teamer had found it necessary to play, or not play, by his own rules. Jordan rejoined the Bulls last week with the agreement that he not play in the exhibitions scheduled for Chicago but that he would participate in those on the road, including last night's at the Carrier Dome against the New Jersey Nets, in towns, naturally, where the gate was predicated on Jordan.
Jordan made a stand. What were the Bulls going to do about it? The flip side of the NBA superstars becoming world icons is that they are becoming free agents in the abstract, transcendent of their sport, beholden more to their sponsors than to their teammates and teams.
How much Jordan can get away with regarding the Bulls is between Jordan and the Bulls. But in the marketing arena, where Jordan pitches himself to kids as a role model in his "Be Like Mike" campaign, he ought to be accountable and he ought to tell it straight. Yet his behavior suggests that he wants to be two people, the Air Jordan of the carefully organized media event and Michael Jordan, whose version of the truth seems to be made up as he goes along.