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The son of Michael Jordan’s swaggering, perm-haired security guard knows exactly what his dad would say about his newfound fame were he still alive.
What did I tell you?
For years, John Michael Wozniak’s eldest son begged him to ditch his outdated hairstyle. Nicholi Wozniak would tell his dad, “Get with the times!” and encourage him to imitate 90’s icons Pat Riley or Steven Seagal if he wanted to grow out his hair.
The elder Wozniak ignored his son’s pleas and kept his curly mullet. John Michael explained to Nicholi, “It’s like a lion’s mane. This is my look, my mark. One day people are going to know me because of it.”
John Michael’s promise posthumously came true Sunday night. Only four months after John Michael died of colon cancer at age 69, the basketball world marveled at his show-stealing cameo in Episode 6 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance.”
The scene begins with Jordan and Wozniak wagering on a game of pitching quarters prior to the tip-off of a 1998 game at the United Center. When Wozniak beats Jordan and collects his money, he celebrates by mimicking Jordan’s trademark shoulder shrug.
Video clips of Wozniak instantly appeared on social media Sunday night and Nicholi soon began receiving a deluge of calls and texts from friends of his dad. Even those close to Jordan took great joy in seeing his longtime friend and security guard receive some unexpected screen time.
“RIP John Michael Wozniak,” Estee Portnoy, Jordan’s manager, tweeted Sunday night. “He passed in January and I’m sure he has a front seat watching this from heaven!”
Before he became part of Michael Jordan’s inner circle, John Michael Wozniak was a U.S. Army veteran and decorated Chicago narcotics officer. People in his precinct knew him as “Hollywood” because of his flashy Corvette, fearless attitude and distinctive appearance.
Around the same time that Jordan joined the Bulls, Wozniak took a side job working security at the old Chicago Stadium. Wozniak and fellow Chicago narcotics officers Gus Lett and Clarence Travis quickly impressed Jordan with their work ethic and integrity.
Among Wozniak’s responsibilities was parking the players’ cars when they arrived at the arena. Wozniak once accidentally shattered the back window of Jordan’s SUV when he did not account for the spare tire hanging on the vehicle’s rear.
“My dad felt like s---,” Nicholi said. “He went to Michael and said, 'Hey, I'll give you my check to pay for this. I'm so sorry.’ Michael laughed and said, ‘Don’t worry about it. They'll give me a new one tomorrow.’ ”
Gestures like that helped Wozniak gain Jordan’s trust. He, Travis and Lett soon were among the only security guards Jordan allowed to escort him at the arena.
When Jordan left the Bulls to pursue professional baseball in 1993, he asked Lett, Wozniak and Travis to quit their jobs at Chicago Stadium and work security for him. The Bulls rehired all three men to be part of Jordan’s personal security detail after he returned to basketball two years later.
Lett was the “General” of the group, always stern and organized. Jordan often referred to him as a second father after the 1993 murder of his own dad.
Wozniak was the youngest member of the security team and became a friend to Jordan. He’d razz Jordan relentlessly anytime he won a game of pool or cards against the notoriously competitive NBA star.
“One time during a Christmas party, my dad beat Michael at pool,” Nicholi said. “He kicked my dad out of the Christmas party.”
Jordan trusted Wozniak enough to ask the police officer to escort his wife and sons to events. That arrangement inspired plenty of ribbing from Lett and Travis, who reminded Jordan of the plot of “The Bodyguard” and warned him that Wozniak could pull a Kevin Costner on him.
In reality, Wozniak cherished his relationship with Jordan. He tattooed a Jumpman logo on one of his arms and “23/Dog” on the other. Wozniak viewed himself as Jordan’s guard dog, Nicholi explains.
Nicholi became so accustomed to Jordan’s presence throughout his childhood that he admits he didn’t view the Bulls legend with the same reverence he did other star athletes of the era. To most Chicago kids of the 1990s, Jordan was a basketball icon. To Nicholi, Jordan was just his dad’s friend.
“I took it for granted,” Nicholi said. “At the time I was a huge Dallas Cowboys fan. If you'd asked me Deion Sanders or Michael Jordan or Emmitt Smith or Michael Jordan, hands down I'd have gone with the Cowboys.”
As he grew older and became an adult, Nicholi became more appreciative of Jordan’s role in his father’s life. Sensing that Wozniak was short on cash after he and his wife went through a messy divorce 15 years ago, Jordan paid his friend a generous salary to handle security at his Highland Park property in the Chicago suburbs.
That arrangement persisted even after Wozniak’s colon cancer diagnosis. Nicholi said that Jordan urged John Michael not to come to work, but the elder Wozniak kept pushing himself until the last days of his 18-month battle.
“He'd be doing rounds of chemo, losing weight like crazy, and he'd get in the car and drive to work,” Nicholi said. “He was a grinder just like Michael.”
When John Michael died in January, Jordan texted condolences to Nicholi and sent flowers to the family. Nicholi has since exchanged a handful of texts with Jordan, including one last month before the first episode of The Last Dance aired.
“You’re going to break a bunch of records. I can hear my dad telling you to put on a show,” Nicholi wrote.
Responded Jordan, according to Nicholi, “I love it. Your dad, CT and Gus will always be in my heart.”
Nicholi knew the producers of “The Last Dance” had asked his father to do an interview, but his appearance Sunday night came as a pleasant surprise. A Chicago narcotics officer turned security guard received more airtime than Barack Obama and Justin Timberlake combined.
What Nicholi believes would have brought his father the most joy was the attention that his unusual hairstyle received. John Michael kept his signature look his entire adult life, even after chemotherapy left his graying locks thin and wispy.
“All of this that's happening, he said that would happen,” Nicholi said with a laugh. “If he was still around, I wouldn't hear the end of it.”
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