The golfing yogi: The man who says Michael Jordan lost $1.2 million to him

©The San Diego Union-Tribune

Richard Esquinas, the former president and general manager of the San Diego Sports Arena, on a trip in Switzerland. - Richard Esquinas/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS

The Hocking Hills region of southeast Ohio marks a dramatic change to the state’s flat farmlands, with the Allegheny Plateau creating a sandstone topography of cliffs, gorges, caves, waterfalls, meandering creeks and endless swaths of trees.

This is where Richard Esquinas used the windfall from various business ventures — selling the lease to the San Diego Sports Arena, making six-figure bets on the golf course with Michael Jordan — to build an Aspen-style “cabin” in the middle of nowhere. Where he moved his family in the months after self-publishing a 1993 book detailing his gambling exploits with the Chicago Bulls star that were revisited last Sunday in “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part documentary about Jordan. Where he escaped the public shaming for daring to sully basketball’s king.

“It was a few thousand square feet,” Esquinas says. “It had all the luxuries. It wasn’t rustic. But it was plopped down on 30 acres at the end of a 300-yard driveway, woods everywhere, overlooking a pond, rolling hills, wilderness. You felt like you were lost when you were out there.”

Lost, and found.

Esquinas, now 65, still plays golf on the dozens of courses near his current home outside Palm Springs, still carries a single-digit handicap, still isn’t averse to a friendly wager. (“I’ve got guys I spar with,” he says, “but small numbers — $20 Nassaus.”) That hasn’t changed. What has in the 26 years since he left San Diego and left behind a jet-set life — booking Sinatra and U2, arranging boxing cards with Don King, trying to build a new sports arena, courting the NBA and NHL — is less who he is than what he is.

“I’m a yogi,” he says quietly, confidently, proudly. “That’s it, that’s the whole thing. What’s a yogi? Somebody dedicated to teaching and spreading the wisdom of yoga. I felt like this is natural, this is what I want to do, I think I can help people. It’s to serve and share my passion for yoga, to help people sharpen their sword.

“But I still look pretty good in a suit, brother, if I ever put one on.”

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He grew up the son of a coal miner, one of eight children, in Raysal, W.Va.

Their family eventually moved to the racially charged South Linden neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio, where he caddied at Winding Hollow County Club, some days as many as 54 holes. He helped pay his way through Ohio State with college basketball bets, then moved to New York and connected with a businessman named Harry Cooper, who was looking for someone to run his publishing company in San Diego.

Then he met Jordan.

It was in August 1989, at a summer exhibition game of NBA stars hosted by the Sports Arena a few weeks after Esquinas and Cooper had acquired control of the venerable facility for $13 million. Former San Diego State basketball coach Smokey Gaines introduced them at a postgame reception. Jordan and Esquinas quickly discovered a mutual obsession for golf, and gambling.

“Gamblers have a way of honing in on each other,” Esquinas later wrote in his book. “I knew he was a player and he knew I was a player. It’s an instinctive thing.”

They played the next morning at Riverwalk Golf Club, which back then was called Stardust. Jordan shot 74 and won $2,500.

Jordan made a phone call, canceled an appearance on a late-night television show in Los Angeles and drove to since-closed Carmel Mountain Ranch Golf Course for another 18 holes. Jordan won again.

Those would be the first of, by Esquinas’ count, more than 100 rounds together over the next three years, on courses across the county and country, with steadily increasing stakes. Most days they played 36 holes. One day they played 45.

The standard wager of $1,000 per hole, with an agreement to automatically trigger side bets once someone got behind, quickly escalated. In September 1991 in North Carolina, after 2½ rounds that day, Esquinas faced a putt where he would be down a “manageable $6,000” if he made it and $98,000 if he missed. He missed.

Their next round was at Pala Mesa Resort in Fallbrook, and Esquinas said he brought two $98,000 checks — one to cover what he owed and the other in case he lost the double-or-nothing bet that day. If Esquinas won, they’d rip up the checks. He won.

They kept golfing. Kept gambling.

“It got out of control,” Esquinas says.

Over the ensuing week, he chronicles in his book, the script flipped: Jordan owed him $93,000, then $153,000, then $313,000 … then double that … then double that again for $1.252 million following a round at Aviara Golf Club in Carlsbad.

According to scribbles in the margin of a scorecard from La Jolla County Club, Jordan lowered the running tab to $902,000 during the Dream Team’s training camp at UC San Diego before the 1992 Olympics. That’s when they stopped, when Esquinas tried to collect.

They ultimately agreed to $300,000, paid in installments over three years. Esquinas says he received $200,000.

Jordan admitted to that accounting in a 1993 interview with ABC’s Connie Chung, saying: “I was in the process of finishing off all the payments, but when he pulled this stunt — we never had a written agreement, I was more or less going off my honor — I felt he dishonored me, so I don’t owe him any more honor. What’s the balance? Zero, in my book.”

The “stunt” was Esquinas’ 209-page book: “Michael & Me: Our gambling addiction … my cry for help!” It was released in June 1993, during the Bulls’ run to their third straight NBA championship, filled with details, dollar amounts, scorecards, anecdotes, pictures.

The book’s chief publicist was Rick Schloss, a longtime San Diego media relations fixture who had done work with Esquinas at the Sports Arena. A few months earlier, Esquinas invited Schloss to his Mount Soledad home and told him about his golfing adventures with the world’s greatest basketball player, how he had written a book chronicling it, how he needed help promoting it.

Schloss was skeptical: “Here’s this guy telling me Michael Jordan owed him $1.252 million from golf bets.”

Then the doorbell rang. It was a FedEx delivery for Esquinas, who opened the envelope and handed Schloss a $50,000 check from one of Jordan’s associates.

“Believe me now?” Esquinas asked.

It wasn’t Jordan’s only brush with golf and gambling. The previous year, he was a witness in a federal trial on drug and money laundering charges involving golf hustler James “Slim” Bouler, admitting under oath that a $57,000 check from him found in Bouler’s possession was not a loan, as he originally indicated, but a gambling debt. Bouler wore golf attire during the trial and entered his clubs as an exhibit.

Schloss arranged 160 interviews for Esquinas and co-author Dave Distel, the late sports editor of the Los Angeles Times’ San Diego edition. Some believed Esquinas. Most didn’t, including several newspaper columnists who penned scathing critiques. Nike co-founder Phil Knight wrote a nasty letter.

Esquinas also received this letter:

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As a person whose professional status places him in the public eye, I do not see any legitimate purpose in publishing a book whose sole apparent purpose is to demean and diminish a hero to both adults and children alike.

There is cruel irony in your claim that you are one of Michael Jordan’s “friends.” … Even assuming, for purposes of argument, that your allegations are correct, what bona fide interest could be served by disclosing them to the public? Isn’t Michael Jordan entitled to some degree of confidentiality by his so called “friends”?

I, for one, hope that I never have a friend or confidant who betrays my trust the way you have betrayed that of Michael Jordan. Perhaps, if we are lucky, your book will end up in the deeply discounted remainder bins along with the other “one minute flashes” that the public has decided not to purchase.

Sincerely,

Tom Cruise

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The NBA investigated Jordan’s gambling in 1993, inviting Esquinas to New York to discuss the claims in his book with Commissioner David Stern and a retired judge. Stern, who died earlier this year, never sanctioned the league’s superstar, saying in clips aired on “The Last Dance” that “given Michael’s earnings and the like, it never reached epic, crisis levels.” Esquinas calls the investigation “a sham.”

Esquinas also quibbles with Jordan’s characterization of him.

“Richard Esquinas, we met from a third party,” Jordan says in a present-day interview for the documentary. “You know, I’m actually playing golf with people all the time now. If they want to gamble, we gamble. The character of those individuals, I find out later what kind of people I was playing with. I learned that lesson.”

Esquinas’ response: “There was a little bit of a cloud — and this is a total public relations maneuver — where he cast it as, in that era, there where a lot of people around that he shouldn’t have been around, and I was part of that. I didn’t know Slim Bouler. I’m not anywhere near that. He had tons of problems outside the scope of Richard E in San Diego. He tried to bring me into his irresponsibleness with people, that I was in that cluster. I wasn’t.”

Jordan never sued Esquinas. But the son of a West Virginia coal miner was never going to beat No. 23 in the court of public opinion, and he knew it.

“What I was really feeling the most,” he says now, “is Jordan lovers turning into Esquinas haters, automatically, without any question about anything other than I was taking on the champ. I was taking him on and calling him out, and that was irreverent to his holiness.”

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His saviors: transcendental meditation, yoga, a house in the woods overlooking a pond. You felt like you were lost when you were out there.

Esquinas first learned TM and yoga at age 17, and they became a daily part of his life. When he worked at the Sports Arena, he would inconspicuously close his office door and meditate. Or he’d say he was getting out of town for the weekend and go on a yoga retreat.

It was what kept him balanced and centered on the golf course when the bets escalated from four figures, to five, to six, to seven, when he was standing over a 10-foot putt on 18 with His Airness glaring at him. It was what grounded him when the world turned on him.

“Let me tell you something,” Esquinas says, “TM and yog, and then me teaching TM and yog, were the instruments for pushing away the tremendous amount of stress I took on, the tremendous amount of angst associated with doing battle with a big figure like Michael Jordan.”

He began teaching at an upscale facility an hour away in Columbus. That grew into classes at two other downtown studios, then moving back to Columbus and opening his own studio.

He spent parts of six years studying advanced techniques at Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa, acquiring the title of siddha, or yoga master. By his estimation, he taught 350 people per week for more than a decade, amounting to 15,000 hours of formal class instruction and an additional 3,000 in one-on-one sessions.

He branded himself “The American Yogi” (because, he says, he attended The Ohio State University). His clients include three-time U.S. Olympic gymnast Blaine Wilson, NCAA wrestling and UFC champion Mark “The Hammer” Coleman, college and pro football players, business and community leaders.

He specializes in japa yoga, an old lineage associated with reciting mantras and developing repetition. His company, JapaWest, recently integrated the medicinal marijuana industry, selling CBD oil intended to facilitate flexibility and healing — and, Esquinas is adamant about this, not for use while practicing yoga.

In 2011, he embarked on several yatras, or spiritual pilgrimages, to India. He visited revered ashrams. He met renowned masters. He sat in a wooden boat on the Ganges river at sunrise, delicately floating candles in the placid, muddy water.

He discovered something else on the trip.

“As I went through yoga, as I went through yatra,” Esquinas says, “I confided in many great seers about this and talked to them about addiction. I realized I didn’t have that classic addiction thing. Michael and I were episodic. It was the episode of him and me taking it to those levels.

“There’s a thing in yoga called lila. It means ‘play in life.’ I enjoy and live the playfulness that life has to offer. That’s all it was, an expression of that. I have a disdain for all these hard-core terms that categorize people as addicts and things like that. I think it’s a narrow term. Gamblers Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, they have done great work for people. But everyone doesn’t fit in that modality … I’m not anti high-stakes wagering. I’m anti irresponsible high-stakes wagering.”

What he hasn’t resolved internally, what still gnaws at him, what has him working on a sequel to “Michael & Me,” is not why he gambled with His Airness, but why a man worth $2.1 billion refused to pay.

“For whatever reason, I think a lot of this is just the fact that he did not want the loss,” Esquinas says nearly three decades later. “He didn’t want to give me a W. Maybe he was embarrassed. Writing me a check was an L to him.

“I’ve sought advice and read and this and that — only speak the sweet truth, these kind of things — and somebody not wanting to pay versus can’t is what I really couldn’t accept. That’s one of the things that’s hung with me, my inability to reconcile. I understand can’t pay.

“I don’t understand when a man won’t pay.”

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©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Richard Esquinas, the former president and general manager of the San Diego Sports Arena. - Richard Esquinas/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS