Presented as 'Last Dance' villain, Jerry Krause brought more to Bulls' championships than (almost) anyone

Sporting News

ESPN’s “The Last Dance” docuseries comprised nearly eight hours of screen time, but it didn’t even take 13½ minutes from the start of the initial episode for Michael Jordan to appear on camera, in a clip taken from a Chicago Bulls practice session before the 1997-98 NBA season, dashing off a double-barreled insult to team executive Jerry Krause.

“So those are those pills you take to keep short,” Jordan said. “Or are those diet pills?”

Short. And fat.

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Jordan reminded Krause that’s what was thought of him.

MORE: Michael Jordan's six Bulls championships, ranked

Curiously, the filmmakers use this as part of the device to establish the hero and the villain of their opus, and the hero is the guy splaying the gratuitous insults. Krause is heard periodically throughout the film but is not around to defend himself. He died March 21, 2017. He had been treated for osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone. He was 77.

Krause did not live to see two of the greatest days of his life. Ten days after his death, his election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame was officially announced. On Sept. 8 of that year, a taped speech from his widow was played during the Hall’s induction ceremony, and immediately after she appeared briefly on stage with Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf to acknowledge applause from the audience at Springfield Symphony Hall.

Yes, the man disparaged through so much of “The Last Dance” is a Hall of Famer. And he earned it. Krause has been vilified for decades for words he never said, that organizations win championships, not players. What he actually said: “Players and coaches alone don’t win championships; organizations do.”

Krause’s work after being installed as the Bulls general manager in 1985, one year after Jordan had been drafted by the team with the third overall pick, provides a mountain of evidence verifying this statement’s accuracy. Actually, two mountains.

Krause built the championship team around Jordan that claimed three consecutive titles from 1991 through 1993. Then, as Jordan left the NBA and spent 18 months pursuing a baseball avocation, Krause completely reconstructed the roster and positioned it for a second run of three straight from 1996 through 1998.

Krause began his career in professional basketball as a scout for the Baltimore Bullets, and that was his calling for much of his career. It was how he defined himself, in a sense. His job was to see the potential for greatness in others, whether it be a basketball player such as Earl Monroe, a baseball player such as Greg Luzinski or even a coach such as Phil Jackson.

“I was born to evaluate,” Krause told basketball journalist Adrian Wojnarowski during a fascinating interview on “The Woj Pod” in February 2017, six weeks before his death.

Their conversation rolled on for more than 90 minutes, and during its course Krause revealed his rationale for the decision to dismantle the championship machinery as the 1997-98 season approached. There was a profound logic to it, albeit potentially flawed — and reasonably superseded by Jordan in a press conference comment that was included near the start of “The Last Dance” Episode One: “We’re entitled to defend what we have until we lose it,” he said.

That is a statement rooted in both logic and passion. The persistent enmity for Krause evident through so much of “The Last Dance,” though, has its basis in neither.

It was Krause who’d chosen to make Tex Winter one of his first hires with the Bulls, later contending that Winter was the best basketball man he’d ever encountered. It seemed logical after Winter helped Jackson claim 10 NBA championships with the Bulls and then the Lakers, but Krause hired Winter after he’d compiled seven losing seasons in his final 10 years as an NCAA Division I head coach.

MORE: Ranking Michael Jordan's Bulls championship teammates

It was Krause who first chose to hire Doug Collins as head coach in 1987, after Collins completed an excellent playing career in the NBA but just a few years as a college assistant. The Bulls made significant progress under Collins, and he was a popular figure in Chicago. Krause was uncertain, though, that the team could win a championship without a change.

It was Krause who’d brought Jackson to the Bulls as an assistant, after he’d coached primarily in the Continental Basketball Association and in Puerto Rico’s summer league. And it was Krause who made the controversial but wildly successful decision to remove Collins and install Jackson as Bulls head coach in 1989, not long after they’d reached the Eastern Conference finals and pushed Detroit’s “Bad Boys” to a six-game series.

Two years later, the Bulls won their first title.

The players on that team? Future Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen, who Krause had discovered at Central Arkansas and maneuvered to draft through a trade with the Seattle SuperSonics. Future All-Star Horace Grant, selected with the 10th pick in that same draft. Bill Cartwright, acquired through a controversial trade for Charles Oakley, who wound up being an essential component of the first three title teams. John Paxson, signed as a free agent in 1985. B.J. Armstrong, a future All-Star drafted in 1989 with the 18th overall pick, which was acquired in a trade.

When Jordan returned from his baseball hiatus late in the 1995-96 season, he found a team altered by the retirements of Cartwright and Paxson but enriched by the free-agent signings of Steve Kerr and Ron Harper and what turned out to be a one-sided trade that brought center Luc Longley in exchange for power forward Stacey King. There was also the emergence of second-round draft steal Toni Kukoc, whose pursuit Jordan openly resented.

To that group, in advance of the 1995-96 season, Krause correctly judged Dennis Rodman, who had become incorrigible during his time in San Antonio, would suppress his outlandish behavior and commit to a team structure out of respect for Jackson and, especially, Jordan. Krause got him for backup center Will Perdue. That call helped lead to three more titles and a Hall of Fame entry for Rodman.

Of the players who were involved in the six championship teams, only Jordan was not acquired by Krause. None was attracted as a high-priced free agent.

Krause built it all, and he and Reinsdorf ultimately chose to let it expire. They didn’t blow up the Bulls roster so much as allow it to disintegrate. For Krause, it wasn’t personal — it was business, and perhaps too strictly.

He insisted to Wojnarowski that Jackson did not wish to return for the 1998-99 season because the Bulls, regardless of whether Jordan and Pippen remained, were about to fail. The Bulls quite obviously did not want to pay Jackson what he thought he was worth, but Krause said on the Woj Pod, “Phil wanted to get out. … He knew we couldn’t win.”

GREER: Breaking down the flaws in "The Last Dance"

As the Bulls progressed through the 1997-98 season, Krause said, he was told by the team’s medical officials that neither Rodman nor Longley would have much to offer the following year. Neither appeared healthy enough to last. Krause decided he wouldn’t be able to acquire a decent center or power forward with Jordan counting more than $30 million against the salary cap and Pippen due, if he remained, a dramatic raise.

He was right about the two Bulls bigs. Rodman played 35 games combined over the next two years. Longley played 39 of 50 games the following season, appearing for only 51 of a possible 144 minutes of the Suns' first-round playoff loss. Krause was wrong, though, about how and when to move forward. He believed by pulling the plug on the dynasty instead of allowing it to expire of natural causes, he could avoid the sort of malaise that has endured with the Knicks for two decades.

That didn’t work out, and so he is remembered not as the man who built the Bulls dynasty but as the one who burned it. He is remembered better as “Crumbs,” the derisive nickname Jordan assigned to him for occasionally having leftovers from lunch on his chin, than as one of the shrewdest evaluators of talent the basketball world has known.

The dialogue in “The Last Dance” so often impugned Krause, but the subtext of the series has been an affirmation of his enduring contributions to basketball and the Bulls. There was more than one giant of the game in this film.

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