Basketball: Jordan's night-life gambles with the affections of a nation: Rupert Cornwell, in New York, gathers reaction to an American sporting icon's controversial night out

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The Independent Online
FORGET Christophe slipping aboard Air Force One for a dollars 200 ( pounds 131) snip of the Clinton mane. The most famous sighting of the week here was the alleged presence of Michael Jordan, secular divinity of US sport, in an Atlantic City casino at 2.30am on Tuesday morning, 18 hours before the second NBA play-off game of his Chicago Bulls against the Knicks in New York.

A quick calculation suggested that if true, and given the 125 miles separating the cities, Jordan could not have been tucked up in bed before 4.30am - hardly ideal preparation. If so, the scoop on Thursday belonged to the New York Times, whose unnamed informants further claimed Jordan had lost dollars 5,000 at the tables. To judge by sports pages across the nation yesterday, World War III might have been declared.

Basketball is America's most popular sport; and in its current pantheon, Jordan is Zeus. Earvin 'Magic' Johnson may have had the winning smile and the AIDS sympathy vote. But by common consent, in terms of skill, Jordan is probably the greatest player who ever lived, worth every cent of the dollars 4m he earns for his prowess on the court. Even more probably, he is the most famous man in America today. Therein lies the problem.

There is not a shred of evidence the episode affected his play. The Bulls lost game two 96-91, but Jordan scored 36 points; his competitive fury nearly salvaged a win which had looked impossible. But when you are paid dollars 20m a year as an idealised All-American hero in product endorsements to 'Be Like Mike,' different standards kick in.

In the context of the sports superstar who is mobbed everywhere he goes, the explanation of an outraged Jordan makes perfect sense. Casinos may be less wholesome than churches, but they offer worshippers a similar anonymity. He wanted to get his mind off basketball, so he took some friends and family down to Bally's Grand Casino in Atlantic City in a rented limousine. 'I didn't lose dollars 5,000. The limo was checked out to leave by 11.04. I was in bed at one o'clock. That's it.' Anyone who dares suggest otherwise will be sued.

Late nights moreover are part of the Jordan lifestyle. He is an insomniac who will stay up to three or four in the morning, with no effect on his play. His team-mate, Scottie Pippen, is typical in his forgiveness. 'Whatever Michael does is his prerogative. He's going to come ready to play when it's time to play, and I think people should let him live his life. I don't think the timing is bad. If you turn the series around and we're up two games, it's no story.'

Maybe Pippen will be proved right. There are five games left in the play-offs, three of them in Chicago, and maybe the Bulls will achieve a famous win - possibly to face the Phoenix Suns and Charles Barkley, his friend and pretender to his throne, in the NBA Championship series. The controversy may then be forgotten. Perhaps not.

If Michael Jordan ever loses his reputation, it will be over a blackjack table rather than the basketball court. A trial last year revealed he had lost dollars 57,000 gambling with a convicted drug dealer and money launderer. Cheques from Jordan for dollars 108,000 to make good gambling debts were found in the possession of a murdered North Carolina underworld figure. The case was unrelated to Jordan. Say it ain't so, Mike. Alas, sports icons, like Presidents and Prime Ministers, are judged by the company they keep.

(Photograph omitted)

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