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Paul Sullivan: Thelma Krause’s viral moment during the Chicago Bulls Ring of Honor ceremony becomes a lesson for local sports fans

John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — One of the worst moments for Thelma Krause could have a happy ending.

It didn’t take long for social media to react to the booing of Thelma’s husband, late Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, during the Ring of Honor ceremony Friday at the United Center.

The loud and prolonged booing brought Thelma to tears. The scene was not only shown live on NBC Sports Chicago, but she suddenly appeared on the video boards at the United Center. The sight of Thelma crying apparently was too much to take for the crowd, and a smattering of cheers for Jerry was heard as she was being consoled by Ron Harper.

But it was too late.

The ceremony quickly moved on, though the booing is what will be remembered most on a night meant to honor the people who helped make the Bulls a successful, internationally known franchise.

Bulls TV analyst Stacey King and Golden State coach Steve Kerr were the first to publicly denounce the actions of fans, while Bulls president Michael Reinsdorf soon released a statement supporting Jerry and Thelma, though he failed to criticize the fans who participated in the booing.

Harper, the hero of the moment, had no such qualms.

“We don’t boo Jerry Krause,” Harper told NBC Sports Chicago after the game. “The man’s done a lot of great things here. He may not be your favorite person, but we cheer and we respect the man. I didn’t really appreciate that part.”

Within 24 hours, almost everyone had offered their opinion of the booing Bulls fans. Thelma received a massive dose of sympathy, something her husband rarely got when he was alive, and Chicago fans got a black eye.

KC Johnson, a longtime friend and currently the Bulls insider for NBC Sports Chicago, spoke to Thelma on Saturday and said on the pregame show that “she is in a remarkably good place because of the overwhelming support she has received today from people all around the league, around the franchise.

“The word she gave to me was ‘I’ve had so much support I can’t help but focus on the positive not the negative. Sometimes good things come from bad instances.’”

Hopefully, this is one of those instances and Thelma can move on.

Anyone who knew Jerry Krause knew of Thelma, even if they had never met her. Whenever I ran into Krause in spring training, when he returned to being a baseball scout after leaving the Bulls, he would go on and on about how happy he was in his post-Bulls life, getting to spend more time with Thelma and the grandkids. I’d never seen him so relaxed.

Krause died in March 2017 at age 77, only 10 days before the news that he would be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Three years later, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Krause was made out as a villain in “The Last Dance,” the documentary on the end of the Bulls’ dynasty.

He was not alive to defend himself, of course, and the narrative that he was responsible for the breakup of the team gained traction. Krause’s acquisitions of key players like Harper and Dennis Rodman and the drafting of Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, were mostly overlooked.

That’s Hollywood. You need heroes and villains to make a story work.

But Krause was a two-time NBA Executive of the Year and a Hall of Famer. Obviously his peers understood his role in building two three-peat champions. And a baseball scout, he helped bring to the Sox Ozzie Guillén, Julio Cruz, Ed Farmer, Tom Seaver, Greg Luzinski, Ken Williams and Greg Walker, among other stars of the early ‘80s teams.

“He had a hand in seven championships, being that he scouted Ozzie and myself and counseled us in the early years of some of the things we had to go through in our general manager-player relationships,” Williams told me after Krause’s death. “He’s probably telling his friends up there right now he actually has seven (rings).”

Williams said if people knew Krause’s “softer side” and could hear some of his storytelling “maybe he would’ve gotten a break he probably deserved.”

Krause wasn’t warm and cuddly to outsiders, and didn’t get many breaks from fans, or his own players, including Pippen. He chalked it up as part of the job of being a general manager of a high-profile franchise in a sports-loving town.

Some have blamed the Friday booing on millennial fans who weren’t even around when Krause was building the Bulls. Others wondered whether Chicago was turning into Philadelphia, where booing is part of their fans’ repertoire.

But this episode was not really something new.

A similar incident happened 17 years ago at the United Center, when fans booed during a pregame memorial for former Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz, who had just died. As soon as Hawks analyst Dale Tallon delivered the line “William Wirtz was a true Chicagoan,” the boos rained down from the third level and continued for well over a minute.

Even the moment of silence for Wirtz was disrupted by fans ripping him. Like Krause, Wirtz was vilified for decisions that led to some fan favorites leaving.

The Wirtz family members who sat through the rude display can no doubt empathize with Thelma, though at least their faces weren’t on the video board for everyone to see their pain.

Harper put it best when he said Krause “may not be your favorite person, but we cheer and we respect the man” when he’s being honored.

If you can’t find it within yourself to applaud someone’s accomplishments, at least do the right thing and remain silent. In the end, it’s just sports.

Thelma Krause’s viral moment can’t be erased. A week ago she was mostly anonymous, and now everyone in Chicago knows her name.

But now that the tears have dried, at least she can be consoled somewhat by the virtual group hug she’s received.