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Remembering the security guard who became like a ‘second father’ to Michael Jordan

“The Last Dance” finale airs Sunday night, and one of the storylines involves former Bulls security guard Gus Lett. “He was a protector," Jordan says. “But he was more than that.”
Michael Jordan arrives at the United Center in Chicago for a 1998 Bulls playoff game with bodyguard and close friend Gus Lett.
Michael Jordan arrives at the United Center in Chicago for a 1998 Bulls playoff game with bodyguard and close friend Gus Lett. [ CHARLES CHERNEY/CHICAGO TRIBUNE | TNS ]
Published May 17, 2020
Updated May 17, 2020

CHICAGO — Michael Jordan kept this inner circle small during his second stint with the Chicago Bulls, a necessity considering he was arguably the most famous person in the world at the time.

Jordan only allowed select security guards to escort him in the arena, which included John Michael Wozniak, who stole the show in Episode 6 of the The Last Dance by beating Jordan in a game of quarters and following up with a Jordan shrug.

Jordan’s rapport with the workers has provided some of his most humanizing moments in the documentary so far. On Sunday night, another member of that detail will step into the spotlight when Gus Lett, who Jordan often referred to as a father figure, is highlighted.

Lett, Wozniak and fellow Chicago police Officer Clarence Travis were the most consistent members of Jordan’s security team, and the star player trusted them so much that he asked the trio to quit their jobs at Chicago Stadium to work security for him when he left the NBA to pursue a baseball career in 1993. The Bulls rehired them three years later when he returned to basketball.

Lett was the most stern of the group. When Jordan would walk from the court toward the Bulls locker room before or after games, Lett, a former Chicago narcotics officer, could usually be found nearby, with a stern look that suggested “don’t even try it” to anyone who even considered approaching Jordan.

“When people are around, they think they’re entitled to certain things. Gus would put ’em straight,” Jordan says during the docuseries. “That was Gus, he was a protector. But he was more than that.”

In Lett, who died in November 2000 after a battle with cancer, Jordan had found someone he could confide in and ask for advice. Reporters would often see him engaged in a conversation with Lett at the United Center rather than his teammates.

Lett was there for Jordan when he needed him, especially in the years after his father, James, was murdered in 1993. Lett’s widow, Tisher, recalls in the documentary how Jordan would call, in tears, as late as 2 a.m. Lett would always console him and even get up and go see Jordan.

“Whatever he needed, he was there to take care of him,” Tisher says.

“No question, Michael fed off of that father-son relationship,” added former Chicago Tribune sports columnist Fred Mitchell. “I think probably as he got older, he realized, like all of us, how important your parents are and have been in your life. No doubt he reflected on the people who had the greatest influence on him.”

The relationship worked both ways.

As that Last Dance season was winding down in 1998 and the Bulls found themselves faced with, perhaps, the toughest test of their second three-peat — a seven-game series with the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference final — Lett was going through his own fight with cancer.

Earlier that year, he had surgery to remove a malignant lesion from his brain and required radiation to get rid of a chest tumor. It was later revealed that Jordan had helped pay for his medical expenses and ensured that he was admitted to Northwestern Hospital.

But he was back in the United Center for Game 7, sitting behind the Bulls bench about 20 pounds lighter than normal, but his spirit unshaken.

“Michael and I talk all the time,” Lett said then. “Probably twice a week we will talk. We talk about my health. He is encouraging me to keep fighting. And he keeps telling me that it’s going to be all right, which I know it will be. The doctors tell me I’m on the good side of (cancer prognosis). The tumors are gone. And I am going through chemotherapy now.”

Jordan offered a warning before the start ESPN’s 10-part series, that some of the footage might make people think differently about him or that he’s “horrible guy.”

The warning has been largely ill-advised with the final two-epsisodes coming Sunday night and, if anything, the opposite has been confirmed. Jordan’s popularity is rising, and while the documentary does not shy away from the most toxic aspects of his competitiveness, it is also filled with moments such as his relationship with Lett, which highlights the special bond Jordan formed with a select group of people — and how Lett became someone the Hall of Famer needed to have around at all times.

“Gus is a very positive inspiration to me,” Jordan said after the Game 7 victory over Indiana in 1998. “He means a lot to me. When you look at Gus, the game really doesn’t mean as much. He is struggling through something that means a little bit more than playing a basketball game. He is certainly a positive influence for me. I enjoy him being around.”