Starting in 1994, Michael Jordan basically stopped talking to the press. He was scuffling along in minor-league baseball, and after an inflammatory Sports Illustrated cover story (for which the writer has apologized not once but twice), the world’s most famous athlete decided he simply didn’t want to engage. There have, of course, been exceptions to the rule: a deep-access ESPN profile for his 50th birthday a few years back, along with his interviews for The Last Dance, the 10-part documentary that concluded this week.
And then there is Cigar Aficionado. Jordan has appeared on two of the magazine’s covers, in 2005 and 2017, each time sitting for a lengthy interview (and a number of cigars) with editor-in-chief and publisher Marvin Shanken. Those interviews—as well as the videos that accompanied the second story—are essential Jordan literature. Because the MJ who graces the pages of Cigar Aficionado is relaxed, expansive, and even jocular—far from the vicious, pathologically competitive figure of The Last Dance, where he’s rarely seen without a stogie.
To learn more about Jordan’s history with the magazine, and his hellacious six-smokes-a-day habit, I called Shanken up at his home in Florida.
GQ: So your first interview with Michael was in 2005. How did that come together?
Marvin Shanken: I had indirect access to him through a friend, who plays golf with him. He helped arrange it. Obviously Michael loves cigars, and knew of me, and read the magazine and so forth. He was in Chicago. I flew out one day and we played golf.
How was that?
The rumour is that he likes to play for a lot of money. He wants to play for more money than you can afford to lose. He thinks he has an edge that way. So he started off—I don’t remember the number, but he wanted to play for so much a hole that I said, “You’re out of your mind! I’m not gonna play for that.” So we chiseled it down to an amount that he agreed, but was more than I wanted to gamble. It was me and my friend versus Michael and my executive editor at the time, Gordon Mott. Coming down to the 18th hole, I think we were down $400. It was a push—we didn’t lose any money. But that showed me the competitiveness that he had. I play with him occasionally in Florida, and he’s a very laid-back, fun guy to be with and to play with. He doesn’t know who he is when he’s on the course having a good time.
There’s no fans, there’s no cameras—it’s a relatively private moment.
Yeah. And he loves his golf, and he loves his cigars. I love golf, I love cigars. It worked fine.
Does anything stick out to you from that first interview?
The interview took place in his living room, where he has a wine cellar, a cigar room, and you’re surrounded by six MVPs. It’s daunting. You realise that this is a very special man. The thing that blew me away was—and I have to go back to see how it came up; maybe I was asking about his smoking habits, and why he smoked and so forth—he confessed to me that nobody knew, but on the way to every Bulls home game, because he’s in the car for an hour and fifteen minutes to an hour and a half, he smoked a cigar. Usually a Hoya de Monterrey Double Corona. Which would allow him to relax, and be ready for the game.
The perception is that athletes don’t smoke. And if they do smoke, they smoke on the weekend. Certainly not before a game. That was such an eye-opener to me. It really told me that this guy loves cigars. He’s passionate about cigars. To a fellow cigar-smoker, that is real bonding. Not for this day, but there are many stories about how men meet other men and start talking, having a cigar, and how it affects their life and their friendships and everything else. So it was a rich experience. I felt honoured to have the opportunity. And it was very well received by our readers.
So I have a question. I’ve had a cigar here and there, but I don’t know much. It seems like smoking a cigar before a basketball game—well, I would not want to play basketball after doing that.
A lot of people, it does hit them in a certain way. It could alter them. But, you know, you don’t inhale cigar smoke. And obviously Michael was able to get the benefits from it, which was the relaxation. And maybe in the fourth quarter, when there’s four seconds [left], maybe it was the cigar that helped him get a swish and win the game.
I’m gonna credit the cigar! Michael will laugh if he hears it, but I’m gonna say he never would have made those shots, at home anyway, had it not been for the cigar that relaxed him before the game.
So obviously you guys had a happy initial interview. What led to the second one happening 12 years later?
You know, we stay in touch.
What sort of things do you guys talk about?
Eh, it’s personal stuff. So he was at the Bear’s Club [Ed.: Jack Nicklaus’s private golf club in Jupiter, Florida], and I was playing at the Bear’s Club one day. His cart is going one way, my cart is going the other way. “Michael!” “Marvin!” “Michael!” “Marvin!”
So we’re facing each other, and the carts are going opposite directions, and I said, “It’s time!” And he knew what I was talking about. You know, for another interview. He said, “Let’s do it. Call me, we’ll set it up.”
And it was as simple as that.
It was as simple as that. So then we arranged to do it at the Bear’s Club, which was closed at the time. And this time, I brought a crew and I videotaped the whole thing. And the highlight there, which went viral after it was released, was when we talked about cigar smoking. I know he smokes on the golf course; I play with him. So I said, “How many do you smoke a day?” He said he smokes six a day, and he plays 36 holes. And I know he plays almost every day. And these are not little cigars!
Put that in context for me, as not really a cigar smoker.
Well, you can smoke a five-inch cigar: that’s 20 minutes, more or less. You can smoke a six-and-a-half, seven, seven-and-a-half inch cigar—a double corona—and that’s like a one-hour cigar. He likes big cigars in general.
Big cigars meaning—in terms of length? Intensity? Taste?
In the context I was mentioning, it’s about length. And typically, if it’s long, it’s wide. It’s like a Boeing 747.
A real baseball bat.
As opposed to a Piper Cub, or something like that. And then there’s also shorter cigars that are fat. But he likes a big cigar. And, in general, he enjoys Cuban cigars. Listen, I know it because I go through the same thing: when you play golf and you smoke a cigar, you don’t even know you’re smoking a cigar. You’re into the heat of the moment, and the competition, and who you’re playing with, and the conversation. And the cigar just relaxes you. When I play golf and smoke a cigar, I play much better. And I think most cigar-smokers do. That’s part of the relaxation. It’s a secret—it’s a competitive advantage!
In any case, six—that’s a pretty decent number of cigars for a day.
Let’s put it this way: it’s like averaging 45 points a game. There aren’t many people out there that are smoking more. Michael is passionate about his cigars. It’s a joy.
Did it seem that Michael had changed at all between interviews?
You’ll probably be surprised by the answer, but I didn’t feel any change. He was the same guy. He is the same guy. When I see him, he’ll come over, or we’ll see each other, and there’s a genuine kindness in his face, and a warmth in his “Hello.” He’s just a nice guy.
You see in The Last Dance that, by a certain point, it had become very hard for Michael to live a normal life. But he looks really relaxed when you guys are talking—he gets expansive in a way you’re not used to seeing.
I don’t want to speak for him, but I think Michael enjoys the camaraderie that we have. He may even think it’s fun! I’m not an adversary. And we share a bond: we love cigars.
Is that the power of sharing a cigar with somebody?
Yeah. I mean, one time—I’m in New York in my office. This is after the interview. And my cell phone rings. Usually, we text. And I can see who’s calling. So I pick it up, and I say, “Michael, I can’t believe you’re calling me!” He said, “I’m in New York. I’m at an NBA owner’s meeting. I’m bored to death, I want to come over and have a cigar with you.” He came over, and we spent three or four hours just sitting around talking, and having a cigar. It was very cool.