As the ESPN documentary The Last Dance proves over and over, Michael Jordan’s life and career are full of stories that would be hard to believe if there weren’t cameras there to capture them. The intense, pathologic competitiveness, the ability to transcend what seems humanly possible by sheer force of will, the downright meanness that fueled it, the love of making a few bets — it’s all there in spades, which in turn lends credence to some of the more outlandish off-the-court tales about His Airness. Here are some of the wildest tales about Jordan — both from unconfirmed sources and related by his friends and foes (as if there was a difference to him) — that exemplify the savagery that makes him even more of a legend than his highlight reels.
He got caught cheating at cards — against a teammate’s mother
This tale comes by way of Chuck Klosterman:
“There is a famous story about Michael Jordan visiting the home of North Carolina teammate Buzz Peterson. While playing a casual game of cards with Peterson’s mother, Jordan attempted to cheat while the old woman was using the bathroom. This is often used as an example of what made Jordan so awesome; he would do absolutely anything to win, regardless of the circumstance. And because the character in this anecdote is MJ, the story is charming. However, I doubt Buzz Peterson would tell this yarn if it had involved his mother and some random dude he met in Anthropology 251 (and if he did, the story would now be about that one time he brought a lunatic home for Thanksgiving break).”
He was fueled by Anita Baker
Jordan never associated with hip-hop in the same way the genre loved him. Mostly, it appears he tended toward R&B and soul, playing D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar on the set of Space Jam and using singer Anita Baker’s tunes as both hype-up and psych-out music. After making the “Shot” over Cavaliers guard Craig Ehlo, he credited her “Giving You the Best That I Got” as the pregame song that inspired his ice-in-veins bucket.
Whether he employed it strategically or unintentionally let his internal soundtrack fly in the moment, his love of Baker came out on the court, unnerving his opponents. “I just remember stories of Jordan singing to guys when he was playing,” NBA forward Roshown McLeod said in 2016. “His No. 1 song was ‘Giving You The Best That I Got.’ I remember him singing that to Jerry Stackhouse one day and just putting on a show. It was like he had a concert going on in his own head.”
He used cigars to intimidate
Jordan didn’t burn anyone with his stogies — but he did employ them as a show of his strength. Washington forward Chris Webber remembers that during the 1997 playoffs against the Bullets, Jordan came into their locker room with a lit cigar and asked, “Who’s going to check me tonight?” Webber said in 2013 that before the third and final game of the Bulls’ series sweep, the young team got off its bus at the arena to find Jordan and Scottie Pippen smoking cigars, hanging around Michael’s Ferrari. “It was almost like, ‘I lit the cigar. I’m celebrating already. This is just a formality, you guys getting on the court tonight.’”
He allegedly killed Muggsy Bogues’s career with an insult
According to unverified statements attributed to former Bulls assistant coach Johnny Bach, one of Jordan’s most cutting remarks might have ruined the career of Charlotte Hornets guard and Space Jam co-star Muggsy Bogues who, at five-foot-three, remains the shortest player in NBA history. In a tight 1995 playoff game, Jordan stopped defending Bogues and said, “Shoot it, you fucking midget.” Bogues missed the open look and later told Bach that the moment made him permanently lose confidence in his jump shot.
He got Charles Barkley to ease up on him in the finals — with a $20,000 earring
In a straight Art of War move, Jordan subdued his enemy Charles Barkley without fighting during the 1993 Bulls-Suns finals. According, again, to those unverified Bach statements, the former Dream Team pals went golfing on a day off in the midst of the championship series, when the Bulls were up two games to one. At some point that day, Jordan gave Barkley a $20,000 diamond earring — just to soften Sir Charles. It might be hearsay, but Bach supposedly says that Jordan told him, “He won’t get in my way the rest of the series. What’s $20,000 to me? Charles thinks we’re great friends. I hate that fat fuck.” Jordan scored 55 points in game four, and the Bulls won in six.
He talked trash to Bill Clinton
Just as he used manhood-challenging barbs to elevate the play of teammates, Jordan tried the same tactic on former president Bill Clinton. At a golf tournament, MJ both challenged the retired politician to shoot under 100 for the round and play from the more difficult champions’ tees, as opposed to the standard whites. “You’re going to play from the little-girls’ tee?” Jordan asked when he saw Clinton setting up his shot from the whites, where most average male golfers hit. Clinton subsequently moved back to the area usually reserved for pros and exceptional amateurs — and broke 100 for the day.
He drove his baseball team’s bus
ESPN’s 30 for 30 doc Jordan Rides the Bus is a great recap of the star’s mid-career foray into professional baseball, detailing both the influence of his father’s murder and the burnout with basketball that led to this dalliance. As a member of the White Sox minor-league club the Birmingham Barons, Jordan elected to travel alongside his teammates for the long road trips between games — but also arranged for the lease of a state-of-the-art, TV-laden charter bus, nicknamed the Jordan Cruiser, so he could ride in comfort.
In addition to a large couch that let him stretch out his six-six frame, he also got one special, temporary, illegal privilege: steering the 45-foot coach. “For a couple miles on an open highway, completely open highway, he actually jumped in the driver’s seat and was driving,” Barons broadcaster Curt Bloom recently told the White Sox Talk podcast. “We made the switch probably going 70 miles an hour, and our bus driver got up and Michael sat in there and turned it a few times and went straight. I certainly hope that this doesn’t get anybody in trouble. Department of Transportation, we’re sorry, and the statute of limitations has passed.”
So why did he do it? Said Bloom, “Because he can, and it made a funny story.”
As a Baron, he also cheated in Yahtzee
Downtime on the Jordan Cruiser also included some not so friendly games of Yahtzee with teammates and manager Terry Francona, who later led the Red Sox to two World Series championships. “We’d play Yahtzee on every road trip on the bus,” Francona told ESPN. “He’s the richest man in America, the best basketball player ever, and I’m making $29,000 a year. And he’s cheating at Yahtzee to take my money because he just can’t bear to lose.”
He put a reporter in the hospital
Jordan didn’t give up basketball when he played in MLB’s Arizona Fall League, and his devotion to his first sport seemingly came close to killing a reporter who covered his team, the Scottsdale Scorpions. Invited by Francona to play in a game, beat writer Steve Gilbert, overwhelmed and a bit out of shape, ended up in the hospital that night because he was so out of breath. Jordan said that was the last time Gilbert would be allowed to join him.
“Listen, you can’t play basketball with us ever again, because I can’t have a good time if I’m worrying about you keeling over and dying,” he told the writer.
He ran an airport con against teammates
An oft-repeated story — which many sportswriters swear is true but Jordan has yet to confirm — shows he needed to win in even the most mundane circumstances. As Bill Simmons recounts:
“Back before NBA teams had grasped the rejuvenating power of chartered airplanes, the Bulls were waiting for their luggage in Portland when Jordan slapped a hunny on the conveyor belt: ‘I bet you my bags come out first.’ Jumping on the incredibly favorable odds, nine teammates happily accepted the wager. Sure enough, Jordan’s bags led the rollout. He cackled with delight as he collected everyone’s money.
What none of the suckers knew, and what MJ presumably never told them, was that he had bribed a baggage handler to help him out. He didn’t pocket much (a few hundred bucks), and considering his net worth hovered around nine figures at the time, it’s safe to say he didn’t need the extra cash. But that didn’t matter. There was a chance at an easy score, and he took it.”
He went to great lengths to win at Ping-Pong
Another story has Jordan, during the Dream Team run, taking on Christian Laettner — the Duke forward who was the only collegiate player to make that squad — who excelled on the Ping-Pong table, to Jordan’s ire.
“Michael is playing Ping-Pong, sweating, like fourth-quarter-at-the-free-throw-line kind of sweat. For some reason, Laettner beat him,” basketball photographer Nat Butler recounted. “He threw the paddle. He didn’t talk for two days to anyone. Come to find out he had a Ping-Pong table delivered up to his room. No one knew about it. And he was practicing for the rematch. They had a rematch two days later, three days later. It was (something like) 21-4. He destroyed him.”
He dissed Chamillionaire
The Last Dance shows Jordan not being the biggest fan of autographs — according to Common, he once told the rapper/former Bulls ball boy to forge his signature on a ball. Fellow hip-hop artist Chamillionaire has a less fun story about asking for a picture with Jordan after making a winning $7,000 bid on one of the star’s jerseys at a charity auction.
The incident occurred when Cham approached Jordan, Spike Lee, and Celtics legend Paul Pierce at an after-party. “I was just like, ‘Hey I don’t mean to be rude, but Mike, I just wanted to know if I could get a picture?’ I kind of expected him to say no, so I wasn’t mad if he said no,” the rapper claimed. “But the way he said it? He said, ‘Oh hell nah, man! I ain’t taking no pictures with no n - - - - - -.’”
When the “Ridin’” rapper explained how he’d just won the jersey, he says Jordan responded with, “You know what? I tell you what. You pay $15,000 right now for a jersey from me, and I’ll take a picture with you.” The incident was quickly quelled.
He drank a bunch of beers and scored 52 points to win a bet
This anecdote, which combines Jordan’s love of golf and gambling plus the ability to score at will, comes from hockey great Jeremy Roenick, who starred for the Chicago Blackhawks in the early ’90s.
In this one — another “I shouldn’t be telling this but I will anyway” story — the Windy City dynamos competed in a round of golf for a few thousand bucks, which Roenick won. Jordan wouldn’t have it and asked for a rematch, so they loaded up “a bag full of ice and Coors Light” and played again, with Roenick winning once more.
And here’s where it gets hairy, as Roenick told it on a radio show. “Now we’ve been drinking all afternoon, and he’s going from Sunset Ridge to the stadium to play a game. I’m messing around. I’m like, ‘I’m gonna call my bookie. All the money you just lost to me, I’m putting on Cleveland.’ He goes, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll bet you that we’ll win by 20 points and I have more than 40 [points].’ I’m like, ‘Done.’ Son of a gun goes out and scores 52 and they win by 26 points or something.”
He even talked trash to Space Jam extras
Jordan filmed Space Jam in the summer after his first comeback retirement season, inviting a slew of NBA and college players to come by for pickup games that were anything but loose competitions. Keith Gibbs, a college standout who went on to act in a number of basketball-related productions, told Grantland about the no-mercy experience. “Jordan hit a 35-footer on me. I mean, it was ridiculous: leg out, tongue out, all that stuff … hit a 35-footer on me and goes, ‘GET THE FUCK OFF THE COURT.’”
Olden Polynice — by then an NBA veteran center — told ESPN he came to the games thinking, It’s the summertime. They’re going to be bullshitting. After seeing how brutal the competition was, he said, “Come to find out, they weren’t bullshitting.”