After revelations last year that Michael Jordan had played high-stakes golf games with James "Slim" Bouler, a convicted cocaine dealer, the National Basketball Association promised to investigate. The league interviewed Jordan, warned him not to associate with Bouler and concluded that the Chicago Bulls star did not have a gambling problem. End of investigation.

But a year later, the world's wealthiest and most famous basketball player is still dogged by allegations that he's a gambler who has no limits. In June, a San Diego businessman, Richard Esquinas, alleged in a self-published book that he was owed $1.25 million by Jordan after a 10-day golf gambling binge. Esquinas said they negotiated a $300,000 settlement, a figure Jordan publicly confirmed.

More recently, Jordan has been reported to have won money gambling with the New York Giants' Lawrence Taylor (on golf) and the Los Angeles Clippers' Mark Jackson (on cards). Jackson says he played cards with Jordan but didn't lose any money. Taylor says his debt to Jordan was substantially less than the $150,000 that has been reported.

Now, for the second time in two years, the NBA has retained Frederick Lacey, a former federal judge and U.S. attorney, to look into Jordan's gambling activities. And for a second straight year, questions are being raised about Jordan's associations and how aggressively the image-conscious NBA wants to dig into his off-court life.

"I gambled and played golf with Michael for six summers but the NBA hasn't even called me," said Bouler, who was convicted in 1986 of selling cocaine and who this spring began serving a nine-year federal prison sentence for money laundering and gun-related violations. "What kind of an investigation is that?"

In what he described as his first extensive interview, Bouler said he played golf with Jordan as many as 50 times from 1986 to 1991 and loaned him thousands of dollars to play big-money card games, often with the understanding he'd receive a percentage of Jordan's winnings.

"The question needs to be asked: Why hasn't Jordan been called in this summer by the NBA to discuss his gambling?" said Bob Costello, Esquinas's New York-based lawyer.

A self-described compulsive gambler, Esquinas was interviewed by Lacey on July 12.

"Richard offered to talk to the NBA under oath but Lacey said that wasn't necessary," said Costello, a former assistant U.S. attorney. "I think the NBA is interested in seeing if there's a way {Jordan's gambling} can all be covered up."

The Jordan gambling saga illustrates a vexing issue faced by professional sports leagues: what to do about star athletes who engage in activities that are legal but potentially damaging to the integrity of their leagues?

Bulls vice president-basketball operations Jerry Krause has said repeatedly in the past year that he has no interest in Jordan's gambling activity because he has violated no club or league rules and "that's Michael's private business."

The NBA hasn't taken any disciplinary action against Jordan. By contrast, in 1991 then-baseball commissioner Fay Vincent placed Philadelphia Phillies center fielder Lenny Dykstra on probation for a year after he piled up $78,000 in poker and golf debts to a gambler in Mississippi.

"It's a difficult issue: to draw the distinction between whether a player is doing something that's maybe not in his best interests," said NBA Deputy Commissioner Russell Granik, who has participated in the Jordan inquiries, "and whether the player has either violated a league rule or done something that threatens the integrity of our business.

"But we don't feel we're in a position to interfere in every player's private life to {require him} to live up to certain standards that somebody else might set." Spotlight on NBA

Bouler and Costello aren't alone in questioning the seriousness of the NBA's probe.

One NBA general manager, who asked not to be identified, said last week the league has soft-pedaled its investigation to protect its showcase player from further embarrassment.

"The league is stuck between a rock and a hard place," he said. "I sense that Michael has gotten preferential treatment because the league needs Michael to participate in many activities that promote the NBA. So they can't afford to get him angry. I wonder if another player had this problem if there wouldn't be a more ardent pursuit of the facts."

Under NBA rules, players can be disciplined if they are found to have bet on pro basketball games or if -- in the judgment of the commissioner -- they bring disrepute to the league. There are no other NBA rules concerning gambling in general.

Jordan says he has never bet on an NBA game. Sources say the NBA has heard an allegation that Jordan has at least a passing interest in sports betting. But there is no evidence he has wagered on a sporting event.

While golf betting is legal in many states, it is a misdemeanor in South Carolina, where Jordan has a luxury house and regularly plays during the offseason. But the law is not enforced, and NBA officials seem more concerned with Jordan's associations than with his high-stakes betting.

"That's the major purpose of this investigation: who Michael was associating with," Granik said.

In Bouler, Jordan was associating with a high-stakes bettor and convicted felon who says he hired out his services as a golf hustler to mysterious gamblers whose true identity he never knew.

Granik said he doesn't know why the league hasn't interviewed Bouler. "It may be that Judge Lacey just felt he had an understanding of what the facts were and that Mr. Bouler wasn't going to add anything," Granik said. Lacey, contacted at his New York law office, declined comment.

In Esquinas, Jordan was associating with an admitted compulsive gambler who says he's bet on National Football League and college basketball games, but never on the NBA. Esquinas, 38, was president and part-owner of the San Diego Sports Arena when he played golf with Jordan from 1989 to 1991.

A consummate competitor who likes to prove he can excel at anything, Jordan, 30, has wagered hundreds of thousands of dollars on high-stakes golf and card games and made big-money bets at casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Monte Carlo.

Jordan insists he is not a compulsive gambler -- an issue that has been debated widely in the sports media. But he appears to have misled the NBA about the extent of his betting. In a March 31, 1992, meeting in New York with Lacey, Granik and other NBA officials, Jordan pledged not to associate with high-stakes gamblers such as Bouler. However, at the time, he owed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Esquinas, whose name he never mentioned to league officials, sources said.

Pro sports executives say the perception that gamblers are associating with athletes -- or that athletes are themselves gamblers -- can erode the integrity of their product. Once players become linked to gambling, they say, fans can logically question whether the outcome of games is being influenced by betting considerations.

Jordan's financial success is linked as much to his credibility as to the athletic talent he exhibited this season in leading the Bulls to their third straight NBA title. To corporate America, image is everything. Jordan has become the nation's best-paid sports endorser -- he earns an estimated $35 million a year -- largely because he has convinced consumers they should want to "Be Like Mike."

But as Bouler described in a recent four-hour interview, being like Mike has at times required carrying fat rolls of cash to a golf course (he wears a money pouch around his waist) and having a willingness to risk it all.

"I think Michael knows if he was to leave this world today, you'd see 99 cars {in the funeral procession} but you wouldn't see no Wells Fargo or Brinks trucks behind him," Bouler said at the minimum-security Federal Correctional Institution in Seagoville, Tex. "You know, Michael can't take this money with him. So why not enjoy it?" The First Sign

Jordan, who declined through his agent to be interviewed for this story, has said he didn't know during their six summers of golfing and gambling that Bouler had pleaded guilty in 1986 to selling cocaine. Or that Bouler was later convicted of two probation violations, one for possessing semi-automatic weapons.

Bouler's drug conviction was common knowledge among Jordan's North Carolina golfing buddies, according to Esquinas. "Someone whispered it to me when I was down there playing with Michael and Bouler," Esquinas said recently.

It was a $57,000 check from Jordan to Bouler that first brought their gambling association to the public's attention. That was in December 1991. So why, Bouler asked on a recent afternoon, hasn't the NBA contacted him?

"I'm here -- and I'm not going anywhere," Bouler said, sitting in a cafeteria-style chair in the prison visitors' room. "If the NBA wants to talk to me, I'm sure they know where to find me. But for some reason, they haven't wanted to talk to me."

Bouler paused as he watched other inmates mingle with family and friends. "I don't think Michael has done anything wrong," he continued. "But I do know something about his gambling."

Bouler said he played golf at two levels: socially with friends and acquaintances such as Jordan and the Giants' Taylor and more commonly as "a hired gunfighter": a golfer who'd represent high-stakes gamblers in matches on which they'd bet up to $700,000 and pay him a percentage of their winnings.

And who'd bankroll these shoot-'em-ups?

"See, most people just have road names," Bouler said. "Mississippi Slim. Texas Shorty. Big Daddy. You never know a guy's real name. Only their hustling name or road name.

"One of my friend's names was Little Willie. He was an Italian guy who lived in Vegas. I'd met him at a driving range one day in Newark. ... We became friends and he'd ease me into games and I'd make $15,000, $20,000 and I was gone."

Would Bouler describe himself as a golf hustler?

"If you want to call me that, I won't get mad," said Bouler, dressed in tan prison-issue pants and shirt. "All I'll tell you is: When you come to play, bring a lunch because you're not going to no picnic."

Bouler leaned forward. "You can bet me from $25 to $25,000," he said, lowering his voice. "If you want to classify me as Jimmy the Greek, I'll cover whatever you want to bet. If I don't have the money to bet you, then I'll pick up the telephone. I'll say, 'John, I need to borrow $10,000.' Or, 'Bill, loan me $25,000.' "

Bouler, 42, displayed a stack of color snapshots that showed him with more than a dozen present and former sports stars, including Jordan, Taylor, the Washington Redskins' Art Monk and former Boston Celtics star Larry Bird. Of those four, Bouler said he knew only Jordan and Taylor socially.

When asked if a reporter could borrow a few photos, Bouler firmly shook his head. "That'd be a problem because I usually sell those," he said. "Hey, look, you've got to understand: I'm in the prison system where our wage is five dollars and 30-some cents a month. And the federal government seized all my assets." When It Started

An amateur golfer who at different times owned a driving range and pro shop in Monroe, N.C., Bouler said he met Jordan in the summer of '86.

"Some guys came {to the driving range} and said, 'Man, Michael Jordan's down to the golf course,' " Bouler said. "I said, 'So what?' I mean, it wasn't no big deal because I'd been around celebrities all the time in different golf tournaments.

"But when they said, 'Jordan's playing with some $100 bills,' that drew my attention because I make a living by playing golf. I said, 'Go in and get my equipment.' So we played and there was chemistry between Michael and me. Michael likes golf and I like golf. Michael likes to gamble and I like to gamble."

During the next five summers, Bouler said he carried up to $30,000 in cash to matches with Jordan. Now munching on potato chips and a cheeseburger from a a vending machine, Bouler described the routine when they played in Hilton Head Island, S.C., where Jordan has a vacation home:

"We'd meet at Michael's house at 7 a.m. As you walked in the front room you'd smell the eggs, bacon, ham and coffee. The maid, she was already preparing breakfast for 15 or 20 guys.

"At 8 we'd be on the golf course and make our little wagers. It was just like a gunfight at the O.K. Corral out there: every man for himself. Sometimes you play for $100 {a hole}, sometimes $500, sometimes $1,000. Sometimes you'd press {double your bet}.

"We'd call our foursome 'The Big Group' because there was another group {among Jordan's friends} that played for $25 or $50. You know, they just played for fun.

"We might play 27 holes each day; we never played 18. Michael is like the {Energizer} bunny rabbit: He keeps going and going and going. If Michael had a bad day he could lose anywhere up to $20,000. But he'd also win.

"At night you'd shower, get your full-course meal at Michael's house -- the best food you'll ever want to eat -- and then you'll play your cards, usually poker."

Although he didn't play cards, Bouler said he became a gambling partner of Jordan's, putting up a percentage of the action. "I'd just say, 'Michael, If you're going to play cards tonight ... give me a dime {10 percent} of your action,' " Bouler said.

And on days when Jordan would lose all his cash on the golf course, Bouler said he'd loan the basketball star money to play cards, often late into the night.

Bouler described how Jordan, at the card table, would typically ask for a loan:

"He'd say, 'Slim, I need ... ' "

Bouler raised his right hand and flashed five fingers, twice.

"And that'd mean $10,000."

And then?

Bouler made a motion with his right hand as if he was dishing out money.

"And then I'd go about my business," Bouler said.

At the end of a five-day spree in the fall of '91, Jordan owed $57,000 to Bouler and more than $100,000 to other acquaintances, including Eddie Dow, a Gastonia, N.C., gambler and bail bondsman. Jordan promised to send them checks.

At the time, Bouler was under investigation by North Carolina authorities as a suspected cocaine trafficker. In one court-authorized wiretap, Bouler was overheard saying he hoped to disguise $200,000 in gambling winnings as a loan to buy a golf driving range, according to a transcript of the conversation.

After Bouler received the $57,000 check, it was seized by federal authorities who alleged he intended to avoid paying taxes on the money. Bouler told authorities the check was a nontaxable loan from Jordan to build a driving range. When the Charlotte Observer asked Jordan about the check, he responded: "It's totally true. It's a loan."

Bouler was indicted on drug and money-laundering charges; the government alleged he used his role as a golfer as a front for his real job as a drug courier for two Charlotte cocaine dealers.

At Bouler's trial last year, Jordan had a different story to tell about the $57,000 check.

From a witness stand in the U.S. District Court House in Charlotte, the NBA's most prominent player admitted he had lied about the purpose of the check. Bouler was acquitted of the drug charges and convicted of money laundering. The case is now on appeal.

Early last year, the NBA retained ex-judge Lacey to investigate Jordan's association with Bouler and Dow, who was murdered in February 1992 during an unrelated burglary. League officials warned Jordan against associating with high-stakes gamblers and convicted felons, but took no disciplinary action against the Bulls star.

"I don't think you'll be hearing about any stuff like this anymore," Jordan told reporters.

But they would. Another Chapter

Unknown to the NBA, Jordan had an unpaid debt to another golf gambling partner: Richard Esquinas. At one point in 1991, Esquinas said Jordan owed him $1.25 million. Jordan recently called that allegation "preposterous" but acknowledged owing $300,000.

This summer, after the publication of Esquinas's tell-all book, "Michael & Me: Our Gambling Addiction ... My Cry For Help!", the NBA again retained Lacey to investigate. Granik said the probe likely will be concluded within several weeks.

"We felt we had some obligation to at least make sure that Mr. Esquinas, other than the fact that he's obviously a good golfer and able to win substantial sums ... that he's not a bad person that a player shouldn't be associating with," Granik said.

"That's the primary focus. But once somebody starts looking into something -- and Judge Lacey is not a stranger to investigations -- you don't tell a person to ignore anything. So I can't tell you what the scope will be in the end."

Of his recent 2 1/2-hour meeting with Lacey, Esquinas said: "He wanted to find out if I'd bet on NBA games. I told him I have not. He wanted to find out if I ever associated with people who did. I have not. Or have I ever been associated with organized crime? I just told him real quick, 'You can do research on me and find I haven't been with organized crime. I'm pretty squeaky clean.' "

Granik said the size of Jordan's bets "should be a concern in that we have a concern for the well-being of all players. But in terms of whether it's a disciplinary matter, that's something different."

Since Esquinas's book was published, Jordan has hired a private investigation agency to screen potential friends and associates, according to his agent, David Falk. "It's unfortunate Michael has to hire detectives to protect himself from people out there," Falk said.

Meanwhile, Jordan has tried to distance himself from his former betting partners. "Was I gambling with goons who had bad reputations? Yeah, I was," he told Bob Greene, a Chicago author, last year. "Should I not gamble with goons anymore? Yeah, I shouldn't gamble with goons."At the federal prison in Seagoville, Bouler slowly shook his head as that quote was read to him.

"Goooooons. That's strong," he said, finishing up his bag of potato chips. "But, you know, it's like anything else. Goons have to hang with goons. You know, if you associate with a goon, then you're a goon yourself."

But Bouler said he has no hard feelings toward Jordan, only pleasant memories of their golf and gambling outings.

"What would I say to Michael if I saw him today?" Bouler said. "I mean, if I was out in the street, in the free world? I'd say, 'Michael, get your golf clubs. Let's go to work. Let's get busy.' "

And if the NBA ever comes calling?

"I'll tell them the only people who are saying Michael Jordan is having a gambling problem are the people who don't know Michael," Bouler said. "Some people love to eat. Some people love to fish. Some people like to hunt. Some people like to drink beer. And some people love to gamble.

"Michael Jordan loves to gamble."


Federal investigators seize $57,000 check from James "Slim" Bouler, a convicted cocaine dealer who gambled and played golf with Jordan. Bouler says money was loan from Jordan -- an assertion the basketball star later confirms. The check actually represented gambling-related debts by Jordan.

MARCH 1992:

After revelations Jordan lost more than $100,000 betting on golf and cards in the fall of '91, the National Basketball Association begins an investigation.

MARCH 31, 1992:

NBA Commissioner David Stern announces completion of investigation. Jordan is warned against associating with felons. No action is taken against Jordan. "I'm glad to put this behind me," Jordan tells reporters. "I hope I've learned my lesson."26, 1993:

Jordan spotted at Atlantic City casino the night before playoff game in New York.

JUNE 3, 1993:

San Diego businessman Richard Esquinas announces publication of book in which he alleges Jordan wagered more than $1 million in golf matches with him in 1991. Jordan later acknowledges a $300,000 debt. NBA later begins another investigation.

JUNE 9, 1993: Jordan tells NBC-TV's Ahmad Rashad: "If I had a {gambling} problem, I'd be starving, I'd be hocking this watch, my championship rings, I would sell my house. ... My kids would be starving. ... I do not have a problem. I enjoy gambling."

AUGUST 1993: The NBA's investigation continues.