Some thoughts on a complex figure whose impact on the Chicago Bulls can't be simplified into cheers or jeers
On January 12, 2023 the Chicago Bulls hosted the Golden State Warriors. NBA games in January are usually pretty unremarkable as many consider this time the “dog days” of the NBA season, where players, coaches, and fans alike are just trying to get to the All Star break. But during this game, we were supposed to see a small slice of history with the unveiling and announcement of the Chicago Bulls Ring of Honor. The Ring of Honor showcases legends of Chicago’s basketball team from players to coaches to executives.
The game against the Warriors was meant to be a celebration of these people and great teams in Chicago sports history. Names you would expect such as Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen, and Bob Love were all there. But the event turned ugly when former Bulls general manager and executive Jerry Krause was honored and his widow (Krause passed away in 2017) Thelma Krause came on to the United Center floor on his behalf. It was at this point that she was booed mercilessly by Chicago fans, who did not approve of the way that Krause handled the end of the Bulls dynasty (something that was likely rekindled when The Last Dance aired). But that is the true conundrum of Jerry Krause. He constructed one of the best dynasties in sports history but also is blamed for its demise. In the wake of his induction into the Bulls Ring of Honor, perhaps we need to re-examine the complex and layered legacy of Jerry Krause.
Assembling a Champion…Twice
To understand what Jerry Krause accomplished as the general manager of the Bulls, it is important to understand what he was walking into. Most GMs prefer to have a sort of clean slate when they take a job, to be able to construct a team on their terms. Krause was named general manager ahead of the 1985-86 season. This was the year after Michael Jordan’s rookie season where the team finished 38-44, making the playoffs for the first time in 4 years. Jordan was the catalyst of this success and averaged over 28 points per game, played in every game, and was the NBA Rookie of the Year.
Where most GMs are looking to find talent that will take them to the next level, Jerry Krause already had the most important piece of the puzzle at his disposal. But the rest of the roster needed an overhaul. In fact, of the players on the 1986 team, only Jordan and point guard John Paxson remained when the team won its first championship 5 years later. The moves he made were significant and made the Bulls a better and more competent basketball team. He traded Charles Oakley (a move Jordan didn’t approve of, Oakley was his best friend on the team at the time) to the New York Knicks for center Bill Cartwright. He drafted Horace Grant, and traded the draft rights of center Olden Polynice to the Seattle Supersonics for the rights to Scottie Pippen. With these moves, Krause ensured the core of the first part of the Bulls dynasty.
Krause also identified Phil Jackson as a great coaching talent and replaced head coach Doug Collins with Jackson, another move that Jordan did not approve of initially. The results of all these moves are well documented. The Bulls went on to win three championships in a row and established themselves as a dynasty in the NBA. Then Michael Jordan retired from the NBA to play baseball. Despite that, the Bulls had enough of a strong nucleus in place thanks to the pieces assembled by Krause (including the signing of European sensation Toni Kukoc) and were able to remain a playoff team until Jordan returned for the later part of the 1995 season.
During the time that Jordan was retired, Krause brought in Luc Longley, Dennis Rodman, and Steve Kerr in addition to Kukoc and Pippen. This became the foundation of the next three championships that the team would win when Jordan returned from retirement. Krause as a result of these moves and success of the team would win the NBA’s Executive of the Year award twice. Krause’s ability to identify unknown and unheralded talent cannot go unnoticed. He identified Scottie Pippen as a potential elite player while he was playing at Central Arkansas. He found excellent complementary players in Horace Grant, Steve Kerr, and others that fit perfectly with Jordan and Phil Jackson’s triangle coaching philosophy. That is the good side of Krause. But there is always another side. And for Krause, he suffered from the same thing that ails many smart basketball people: ego.
Building a Team in Your Image
The happenings of the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls season is one that is well documented through various Chicago reporters and the ten part documentary “The Last Dance”. The documentary in particular, paints Jerry Krause as a sort of irrational villain. A comment that Krause made that started the fracture between him, the players, and coaches was his assertion that players and coaches alone don’t win championships, but rather organizations as a whole win championships. It is a quote that likely wouldn’t have been a huge deal if Krause ran a baseball or football team. But in the game of basketball, superstar players and high profile coaches can make or break the success of a team.
The Bulls success in the 90s and the reason why they haven’t been as successful since he left is that they had Michael Jordan and they haven’t had a player of his caliber since then. The NBA is a league of stars. So much so that outside of the 1979 Seattle Supersonics and the 2004 Detroit Pistons, teams without a superstar player have not won the NBA championship. Krause did have a point that organizations win titles, having a poor GM with great players will likely not lead to a championship. However, the two entities are not created equally. The lion’s share of credit is usually heavily weighted to the players on the court. And it seemed that this upset Krause, so much so that he wanted a team in his own image.
He had that briefly when Jordan retired to play baseball. But when Jordan came back and won three more titles, it became clear to most that it was Jordan’s magnificent play rather than Krause’s adept scouting and team building that won all those championships. In 1998, tensions between Jordan, Krause, and Phil Jackson reached a boiling point leading to Krause famously saying that Phil Jackson would not be the coach of the team after 1998 even if he went 82-0. Jackson and Jordan were a package deal, so if Phil was gone so was Michael.
After the 1998 season, Krause got his wish of building from scratch. He ended up with young talents like Elton Brand, Ron Artest (now known as Metta World Peace), Jamal Crawford, and Tyson Chandler. Those players, all carved out more than respectable NBA careers. But he also drafted players like Eddy Curry, Jay Williams, and Marcus Fizer who all had limited success as NBA players. Krause eventually resigned from the Bulls in 2003 before seeing this rebuild to its completion, which then resulted in the implosion of what he had built. This rebuild is what many have used as ammunition against Krause as an architect of destruction. The idolization of Jordan and Krause’s inability to state his case have led to the vitriol towards Krause, whether fair or unfair.
As someone who grew up in the 1990s, Michael Jordan’s second three peat is something that I remember well. Jordan for people that grew up in my generation was a god, a larger than life figure that was synonymous with excellence. And I grew up in New York City, his mythology was even greater in Chicago. He revived basketball in Chicago and elevated the Bulls as a franchise of note in the NBA. It can also be argued that Jordan helped to take the NBA to new heights from a global marketing perspective as he was a great pitchman and was an integral part of the 1992 Olympic Dream Team spreading the game of basketball on an international stage. We know that superheroes are not real, but in the 1990s Michael Jordan was as close as we got to a superhero.
It is that superhero status and mythology that has allowed so many people to be defenders of Jordan even today. The greatness of LeBron James, for example, is often put into question because he simply isn’t what Michael Jordan was. The late Kobe Bryant was often spoken about with a qualifier because he emulated Jordan but was not as dominant as Jordan. There is a fierce tribalism that comes with defending Michael Jordan, a tribalism that Jerry Krause could not ever hope to overcome.
That is why his widow was booed. Because Chicago fans watched “The Last Dance” like we all did during quarantine and they were reminded of when the Bulls were on top of the world. They watched for 10 weeks as they were reminded how Jerry Krause was the villain that ended the Bulls dynasty. As a result they discounted the reasoning that Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Ron Harper, Steve Kerr, and others were approaching the decline of their abilities and that building towards the future may have been prudent. But most people will see that they just completed winning three titles in a row, and they should keep the team together as long as possible.
It was wrong of Bulls fans to boo a woman that had nothing to do with either the rise or the fall of the Bulls dynasty. They were reacting to seeing someone that represented a person that they felt robbed them of a 7th championship, and it is impossible for a fan to see logic in that scenario. Jerry Krause helped build the Bulls and he should be applauded for that. But he also had a hand in their destruction, which will always be a part of his legacy. But to paint him with the broad brush of a dynasty destroyer without also acknowledging that he was a part of their success is disingenuous at best. When we think of the dynasty in Chicago, he needs to be a part of the conversation whether Bulls fans want to admit it or not.