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.