Last Call?

The greatest sports dynasty of the '90s may (or may not) be about to hang it up, but behind the scenes the Chicago Bulls' season has certainly felt like a farewell tour
The greatest sports dynasty of the '90s may (or may not) be about to hang it up, but behind the scenes the Chicago Bulls' season has certainly felt like a farewell tour
May 10, 1998

It's just a bus, yet kids hug it. Grown men pat it as it passes
by. Women buss this bus. A kid jumped on the bumper once, trying
to serve as a human hood ornament. Caravans of cars chase this
bus wherever it goes. In Phoenix one night this season, about 15
cars, led by a Chevette filled with screaming teenagers,
followed the bus onto the tarmac of a private airport. Hey,
kids, can you spell trespassing?

This bus is the leading cause of bad snapshots in America. Right
now, somebody somewhere is opening a pack of prints to find a
dozen pictures of an unmarked chartered bus and not a famous
face to be seen. Even pros do it. In Paris, paparazzi on
motorcycles chased the bus, madly snapping away at blackened
windows.

There is a kind of rolling panic about this bus, on account of
the Chicago Bulls are inside it. If the end is coming, if the
greatest sports dynasty of the 1990s is unraveling, people want
to reach out and tear off its muffler before the whole thing
comes unglued. In Indianapolis on March 17, so many fans
gathered outside the Canterbury Hotel to witness the Bulls walk
four feet--four feet--from the hotel's secured lobby onto the
magic bus that police had to close off the street. For an hour.
At times like that, Michael Jordan, the center of the madness,
sits in the back of the bus, smiles and says, "O.K., we love
you, but it's time to go home now."

What Americans are afraid of is that their Babe Ruth will go
home before they've seen him in person. And so, this season has
been the bonfire of an obsession that has been smoldering for
years. In New York City last year, hundreds of people stood 10
deep outside the Plaza Hotel for a chance to see these 12 tall
Beatles. Pressed into the front row were three businessmen in
fine Italian suits and $300 shoes. Jammed next to them were
three cross-dressers in size-20 Donna Karans and spiked heels.
Shoulder-to-shoulder-pad, sideburn-to-earring, they were six
guys who wanted only one thing: to be flies on the wall of
history. Out came Jordan, dressed in a $3,500 tailor-made suit.
As he hopped aboard the bus, the three businessmen high-fived.
Then came Dennis Rodman, in bright purple bone-tight pants, an
aquamarine silk blouse open to the navel, Nancy Sinatra boots
and a throw pillow for a hat. As he hopped aboard, the
transvestites hugged.

In one stretch of three road games in late March, the Bulls drew
more than 98,000 paying fans. In Atlanta on one of those nights
they set a one-game NBA attendance record of 62,046. Eight
thousand of those seats had no view of the floor. "I think the
feeling people have this year is that it's going to end," says
Jordan. "And I think they should enjoy it, because you never
know when it's all going to be taken away."

Is that how you feel, Michael?

"Yes," Jordan says. "Yes. Exactly."

As the world reaches out for Michael Jordan one last time, he
recoils further and further into the corners of his life. He
used to come out two hours early and shoot, but he doesn't now.
He used to hang in the locker room with his teammates before
games, but he doesn't now. Instead, until visitors and reporters
are barred from the premises 45 minutes before tip-off, Jordan
retreats beyond the locker room, down the corridor, past the
ankle-taping tables, to a little office with a desk, a small TV
and a sign on the door that says DOCTOR'S, TRAINER'S OFFICE.

It's the emperor's bedroom now. To be granted entry, you've got
to be huge (Tiger Woods, Joe Montana, Muhammad Ali) or,
sometimes, just small enough: The winner of last October's
Chicago Marathon, 5'4" Khalid Khannouchi of Morocco, asked
meekly if he could meet Mike and, miraculously, word came back
that he could. Mostly, though, the answer is N-O-period. One
night recently an Iowa congressman, who kept showing his
congressional badge and insisting that Jordan would want to see
him, had to be ushered away from the locker room. Supermodel
Valeria Mazza's handlers were flabbergasted recently to learn
that Jordan didn't want to meet her. Johnnie Cochran got bubkes,
too.

Yet the one guy Jordan would most love to see walk through that
office door hasn't been able to do it lately. He's a 61-year-old
former Chicago narcotics cop named Gus Lett, and Jordan says,
"He's like my second father." That sort of figures, considering
that Lett and James Jordan, who was murdered in 1992, were born
two months apart, both Air Force vets and both as
straightforward as a left jab. Gus even looks like James
did--5'10", balding, hard face around soft eyes.

Gus is one of six former or off-duty Chicago cops who can come
into the office anytime they want, as far as Jordan's concerned.
They look like guys you might see in a barbershop, and they
spend more time with Jordan than his wife does. They're Jordan's
security force, and you'll find them in the office with him, on
the bus with him, in crowds with him, in his hotel suite with
him, behind the bench with him. They watch his back, his front,
his side and, especially, his cash, because they play a lot of
liar's poker with him. Jordan loves the game. Chicago cops are a
bitch to bluff. In the same way a hostage learns to love his
captors, Jordan has made them his best friends. What choice did
he have?

There's Joe Rokas, 49, a detective in the city's organized-crime
unit. There's Clarence Travis, 63, Gus's old partner, retired
from narcotics. There's detective John Wozniak, 45, narcotics.
There's special agent Calvin Holliday, 49, internal affairs.
There's Sgt. Tom West, 49, who supervises a tactical unit. And
there's Gus, the man in charge, the one who's been with Jordan
the longest, the former DEA undercover agent from the South
Side. "Where's Gus?" Jordan would constantly bellow. "Where's
Gus?"

They became friends during Jordan's second year with the Bulls,
the season he spent with a cast on his broken foot. Gus was
working security at the old Chicago Stadium. He noticed how hard
it was for Jordan to get up and down the stairs, so he would
carry Jordan's bag, give him a shoulder to lean on as he
climbed. Something about the two of them just worked. Gus never
asks anything of Jordan, not even an autograph. When you've
taken a bullet, worked the riots in Marquette Park after Martin
Luther King's assassination, worked the riots at the '68
Democratic Convention, made some of the biggest narcotics busts
in Chicago in the '70s, sat in a room full of drug dealers with
your cover blown, you do not worry about some scratchings on a
napkin.

"We just became close," Gus says. "I don't know why. Maybe
because I talk to him the way I talk to my own two sons." Gus
stopped being just a guard to Jordan a dozen crises ago. "We've
never lied to each other," Gus says, "and we always listen to
each other."

"His wisdom is always welcome," says Jordan. "Rarely do I come
to any big decision without talking to him first."

Gus knows that. "Michael loved his father very much," he says.
"You know, sometimes I see him staring into space, I can tell
he's thinking of him."

So when everybody--Jordan, Gus, the other guards--got the flu in
Utah in February, just before the All-Star Game, nobody worried.
Why shouldn't Gus and Jordan be sick at the same time? They're
never much farther than a gin hand from each other. But when
Jordan recovered and Gus never did, never got rid of the cough
and the weakness, Jordan wouldn't stop bugging him to go to the
doctor.

"It's nothin', Jumper," Gus kept saying.

"Don't make me take you," Jordan kept saying. So he went.

The news wasn't good.

When Jordan is finished, the Bulls will be finished, we all know
that. Jordan tells friends he is probably finished. He says he's
not playing for anybody but coach Phil Jackson or for any team
but Chicago. Jackson acts as if he's gone, too, says he's gone
and routinely and publicly rips Bulls vice president Jerry
Krause. If he's staying, he's going to need a lot of Wite-Out.
Jackson says he might coach some other team, might just stay
home and read, might work on a possible presidential run by Bill
Bradley. "People come up to me all the time and say, 'I can't
believe they won't bring you back,'" Jackson says. "I tell 'em,
'Believe it.'"

The center is not holding. Scottie Pippen says he wouldn't be
surprised if the Bulls just cut him. Rodman figures he'll be
with the Los Angeles Lakers next season. "And it's gonna be just
as crazy there, bro, lemme tell you," he says.

Jordan has always said he wants to go out "right at the peak" of
his career, not on the way down, and, in a wonderful and strange
way, this season may be it. He helped wring 62 wins out of a
team that was without Pippen for three months and that has
little bench to speak of. True, Jordan doesn't go to the hole
the way he used to, and gravity has finally begun to figure him
out, but watching him this year has still been like staring at a
winter sun. He's so brilliant, it hurts the eyes. He was
unguardable in the air as a young man, and he is just as
unguardable on earth now. Nobody ever toyed with the double team
the way Jordan has this season. Nobody ever hit the big shot
night in and night out. Few players in the NBA's history have
won the way Jordan does. Do you realize that in the 1990s Jordan
has never started a basketball season that didn't end in a parade?

Yet this year there have been tiny glimpses of the end. Against
the New Jersey Nets on a March night, long before the Bulls
dispatched the Nets in last week's playoffs, Jordan opened the
game by throwing a pass into the stands. Then he threw one into
the scorer's table. In one 89-second span he missed one dunk and
had another chumped by a nobody named David Vaughn. A kind of
hush came over the United Center, a giant whisper, the kind
heard at Sinatra concerts near the end. Of course, Sinatra
didn't come back the next night with 35 points on the road
against the Indiana Pacers.

"I know I will be forgotten as soon as this is over," says
Jackson. "All of us will. Except Michael. Michael will be
remembered forever."

As Camelot closes down, even the Bulls are finding their own
ways to remember. Jackson calls this season "the last dance" and
has been taking photos on the road. Center Bill Wennington takes
along his video camera, making tapes to show to the grandkids.
Routinely, Bulls ball boy Chris Mott brings something in for
Jordan to sign--for the refs.

The rest of the world would love to get that close. The Bulls
have been sold out at home for more than 10 years. The waiting
list for season tickets has 23,000 names. One doctor calls
ticket official Joe O'Neil every year with a standing bribe. "If
I get him one season ticket," O'Neil says, "he'll give me a free
nose job." Yet people still show up at the United Center,
hundreds a day, hoping to find a freak ticket, begging to see
the court, wanting just to be part of it. Lobby receptionist
Michelle Danaher has to turn them away, but they're desperate,
so they get her autograph and picture. Hey, it's something.

When Jordan eats at his own restaurant, Michael Jordan's, near
the Loop, people stand vigil around his red-and-black Range
Rover with the TWO TREY plates. Well, no, Tommy, I never got to
see him play. But I made sure nobody messed with his wheels. It
took only a few months for the restaurant's managers to realize
that if they didn't take the Jordan logo off the dishes, they'd
go broke. So, on logoless plates, Jordan eats his standard
pregame meal--medium-well 23-ounce steak, mashed potatoes, a
salad he rarely touches and two ginger ales, only one of which
he drinks--in a private room with the shades drawn. Still,
people wait patiently with cameras down a nearby hallway. Why?
Because that's the way to the men's room. See those shoes under
there? Those are Michael's!

How would you like to have a job in which your entire year's
schedule is printed in the paper? In which the world knows which
city you'll be in on what day, in which hotel and at what time?
Outside the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City in Arlington, Va., last
November, a dozen security people had to be marshaled to hold
back more than 500 people who'd left a nearby mall and gathered
around the Bulls' bus. They stood, enthralled, as it idled for
more than an hour. When, at last, they saw Jordan inside the
lobby, they surged forward, cameras raised, pens readied, toes
tipped. The path the players had been using to get to the bus
narrowed by half. When Jordan saw the crowd, his shoulders
hunched up. Somehow he made it onto the bus, but he looked
scared. "I was," he says.

In Atlanta this season there has been such a last-day-of-Saigon
thing going on that the Bulls' bus has often left without
Jordan, dissolving the crowd. Jordan has then snuck out in a
special car, which has pulled off the highway at a certain exit
to let him rejoin the bus.

For most business travelers the hotel is a refuge, but not for
Jordan. Sometimes he checks in under the name of Leonard Smith,
sometimes Lawrence Welk. One night Tom Smithburg, the Bulls'
manager of media services, accidentally got Jordan's room and
Jordan got Smithburg's. Smithburg hardly slept because of all
the people knocking at the door. Oh, sure, the hotel was
completely secured. The people knocking were hotel employees.
Everything's still fine, Mr. Jordan. Say, could you just sign a
quick one for my brother?

Sometimes fans call a hotel months in advance to get a room the
night the Bulls are there. Then it's just a matter of knocking
on every door until they've got their favorite player. Usually,
that's Jordan. When you're Michael Jordan, the line between fan
and stalker is very thin. "I really feel sorry for him
sometimes," says George Kohler, Jordan's longtime assistant.
"People tell me they want to be rich and famous? I tell 'em,
'Just be rich.' Michael's had 14 years of this nonsense. I
wouldn't blame him for wanting to retire."

No wonder Jordan likes hanging out with the old cops who never
want anything more than a locked hotel room and a rousing game
of bid whist. No wonder he likes the bull sessions and the
kidding, even if he's pinned into a tiny back office. No wonder
it tears Jordan up not to be able to protect an old guy who has
spent 14 years protecting him.

Jordan pulled up to a side entrance at Northwestern Memorial
Hospital, in downtown Chicago, and was taken up a service
elevator. He knew he wouldn't have a lot of time, maybe a half
hour. It's the 30 Minute Rule. If Jordan stays anywhere in
public longer than 30 minutes without a good exit route, it may
take him hours to get out.

Gus had always been good at finding a route. "We're not above
going through a few kitchens," he would say. That was the funny
thing about this visit. The guy who could best get Jordan out of
this kind of jam was the reason he was in it.

When Jordan got the news in late February from Gus's wife,
Tisher, it hit him like a roundhouse right. Two tumors. One in
the brain and one in a lung. The doctors said the cancer had
metastasized. If that isn't the worst word in the language.
Metastasized. Spread.

The worst thing about being John Elway or Ken Griffey Jr. or
Michael Jordan is that you learn more about deadly diseases than
you ever hoped to. If there's a sick or dying kid in North
America, chances are good that he's written to Jordan. Twice a
year Jordan fills the third floor of his restaurant with dying
kids for the Make-A-Wish and Starlight foundations. He sits down
with them, one by one, and talks with them, signs for them,
tells them he'll see them next year, even though he knows it's a
lie. He doesn't cry, though. Neither do the kids. The parents do.

But now cancer is working on a man he loves like a father. "He's
got my plane, my staff, whatever," Michael told his agent after
speaking to Tisher. "The best doctors, the best hospitals,
whatever. I want him to have nothing but the best." That's how
Gus got moved from the South Side hospital he was in to
Northwestern. Hey, everybody needs a shoulder to lean on when
he's got some stairs to climb, right?

After visiting Gus in the hospital, Jordan played indifferently
in a win over Toronto. There was no joy in it. He refused to
speak to the press, a rarity. He looked wrung out. "Bad day," he
said as he left. "Very bad day."

Every home game beat writers, columnists, radio guys, cameramen
and television reporters bolt from their courtside seats with a
minute or so to go, scramble down the hall and jump in line
outside the Bulls' locker room. They carry stepladders, stools,
boom mikes. They want a good spot in line, because in about 10
minutes the locker room door will swing open, and they'll burst
in, and in 20 manic seconds they'll construct a human
amphitheater around Jordan's locker. We're talking about 40 to
50 people, many of them in designer dresses and silk ties, all
pushing, slinking and elbowing into a perfect semicircle around
a locker that isn't three feet wide.

"Seriously! Seriously! That's my foot!" a woman yells.

"Well, I can't move! If I move, this guy's gonna fall on top of
us!"

"Wait! Ow! Wait! That's good!"

Finally everybody is jammed into a solid, mangled mass, some up
high on chairs, some down low on their knees, arms stuck under
armpits, legs akimbo. Everybody's ready. Except Jordan, of
course. It'll be another half hour before he comes. Pippen,
named one of the NBA's top 50 players of all time, comes and
goes, and the human jigsaw puzzle doesn't budge. Rodman, wearing
pajama bottoms, leaves without a bother. It would be nice to
talk to them, sure, but if you do, you give up your spot, and
you're toast. A lot of the newspaper writers are forced to stand
in the opposite corner of the locker room and wait for the TV to
show Jordan's mini press conference, which is almost always
broadcast live in Chicago. It will be a bizarre scene: grown men
and women taking notes off a TV set while the live,
three-dimensional Jordan is standing 15 feet behind them.

Someday soon Jordan will stop coming altogether. "It's going to
be quick," says Jackson. "And it's going to be painful." What
then? Will the Bulls go back to what they were the season before
Jordan--attendance of 6,365 a night, one fourth of the games
televised, two photographers on the apron instead of 40? Will we
all be a little like those 50 journalists, our cameras focused
on an empty locker, wondering what in the world we're going to
do now?

What in the world will they do at Chicago's Lakeview High,
where, nine times a day, they use the Bulls' theme music to get
kids to class fast? Who will be the big hero in Toronto, where
the Raptors' mascot stomped on a Jordan jersey one night this
season and was roundly booed for it? What will fans do for a
team in Denver, where the crowd for the Chicago game this season
wore four times as many Bulls jerseys as Nuggets jerseys? What
will they write about at The Philadelphia Daily News, which
recently put out a 52-page section to commemorate the career of
an athlete who never played for a Philly team?

"People are getting desperate," says Jackie Banks, who handles
Jordan's 6,000 pieces of mail a month. "They're desperate to get
to him before he retires." They send letters. And cards. And
packages. And flowers. And crotcheting. Somebody sent the Bulls
a box of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. What the sender didn't realize
is that mail that arrives for the team today is opened in three
months. Ice cream doesn't do three months in a hot warehouse
very well. "Oh, lord," groans Banks. "That was a mess."

People send Jordan money. Do people send Dolly Parton
Wonderbras? Occasional letters from Japan contain $20 or $50 for
a picture or a ticket. Banks sends the money back. People write
in Chinese, Polish and Swahili. "We get letters from countries I
never heard of," she says. People send Bibles. Lots and lots of
Bibles. People send wooden shoes and hand-sewn curtains and
specially designed bathrobes and giant oil portraits of Jordan.
"Tell everybody," Banks says, "Michael Jordan does not need
another portrait of himself."

She opens the door to the warehouse. There must be 100 portraits
in there. Jordan comes by every now and then and pokes his head
in, sees himself in 100 poses, half smiles and closes the door.
One lady knitted him a sweater with arms that are six feet long.
No kidding. It's still in the warehouse. "That sweater is not
going to fit anybody on this planet," says Banks.

But mostly people send their fondest wishes to be part of it.
The weird thing is, finding out that they aren't really part of
it makes them feel like they are. Banks is sent photos all the
time of people in their backyards, squinting into the sun,
proudly holding up a letter from her that reads: "Thank you for
your letter to Michael Jordan. Unfortunately.... " Hey, it's
something.

"It's really kind of wonderful," Banks has decided. "I
constantly read, 'Dear Michael, thank you for entertaining me,
thank you for entertaining my mom or my sister when they were so
terribly sick. They never missed a Bulls game.'

"I don't understand sports, really. I've never been a fan. But
sports seem to be such an uplifting thing for these people. It's
like, for that hour and a half, people step away from all the
pain and tribulation of their lives and look forward to these
games and to Michael playing in them. They're overjoyed."

But who comforts Jordan?

What was it Jordan said? Enjoy it, because you never know when
it's all going to be taken away.

Where is Gus?

Gus Lett had brain surgery, chemotherapy and radiation in the
last month, and he's still laughing. "Good news!" he told one
hospital visitor, even though he looked 20 pounds lighter and 20
years older than when he checked in. "The doctors tell me that
unless I fall down the stairs or get caught in a drive-by, I'm
not gonna die today."

As the free world frets about Jordan's future, Jordan's got
something real to worry about. He calls Gus and goes by the
hospital, keeps wanting to spend the day with him. Maybe the two
of them will leave the NBA together next month, the second
father and the third son. Leave the tray table and the hotel
rooms and the cramped office behind, spread out in a great big
room and play some real cards.

"Give me a coupla months, Jumper," Gus says, "and I'll be back
on the job."

Only one problem with that: Gus is so damned good at liar's
poker.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)