Every good narrative needs someone wearing the black hat, and in at least the first two episodes of “The Last Dance,” the ESPN documentary about Michael Jordan, that man is Jerry Krause.
Who was Krause? And why did he play such a big, and contentious, part in the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty and Jordan’s career?
What happens in the documentary?
In the opening episodes, Krause is depicted as being hungry to take credit for the work that the Bulls players are putting in on the floor.
“He had a way of alienating people,” the team’s owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, said in the documentary.
The documentary shows scenes of Jordan openly mocking Krause for his weight and details the acrimonious relationship Phil Jackson had with Krause. When Krause’s stepdaughter got married, Krause invited much of the team — but not Jackson.
“His relationship with me had become such a circus there was no chance for reconciliation,” Jackson said.
There was also the case of Scottie Pippen, who was tremendously underpaid compared with his peers and whom Krause openly explored trades for. This led to Pippen demanding a trade, a move Jordan called “selfish.”
“He tried to make me feel so special, yet he was still willing to trade and do all that stuff but never would tell me to my face,” Pippen said. “After you’re in the game for a while, you realize that nobody is untradable, but I felt insulted.”
Multiple Bulls detailed Pippen berating Krause on the team bus. “We had to say, ‘Hey, tone it down,’” Jackson said.
Not everyone criticized Krause though. “Was Jerry Krause a bad guy? No,” said Bill Wennington, a center on the team. “He was a good guy. If you saw him interact with your kids, you knew he was a good man.”
How did Krause come to the Bulls?
Krause was hired as Chicago’s general manager by Reinsdorf in 1985, a year after the Bulls had drafted Jordan. Although Jordan was rookie of the year, the team was under .500 and lost in the first round of the N.B.A. playoffs. Krause was charged with finding a supporting cast to help the Bulls become champions.
He had been both a baseball and basketball scout in his early years, and had a reputation as a hard worker and a shrewd judge of talent. He used those skills to help build the Bulls dynasty.
At 5-foot-6, a bit scruffy and less than fit, he was an incongruous sight at Bulls games, and was never fully embraced by the fans, who were understandably in thrall to Jordan. (Jordan called Krause Crumbs because of the doughnut flakes supposedly always on his face.)
When the team got rings for the first championship in 1991, Krause was the only person booed by the home crowd.
Why didn’t he get along with Michael Jordan? Or almost anyone else?
As part of restructuring the team, Krause traded Charles Oakley, a favorite of Jordan’s, in 1988. The player he acquired, Bill Cartwright, was seemingly not as good, but filled the center role the team needed and was part of the team’s first three championships.
Krause drafted Toni Kukoc, a star Croatian player, in 1990, and for three years sang his praises while trying to lure him from Europe. He finally landed him in 1993, right as Jordan was retiring to play baseball. Krause’s constant hype of Kukoc annoyed Jordan and Pippen, who, after all, won three straight championships without him.
Krause was fairly unfiltered and had a habit of making remarks that seemed to play down his players’ contributions and build up his own, not the best move to gain players’ trust and loyalty. Before the 1997-98 season, he said that players do not win championships, organizations do, a remark that was widely repeated. He later claimed he had been misquoted.
At the same time, he was forcing out Jackson, who coached all of the Bulls’ championship teams, telling him that he would go after the 1997-98 season no matter how well the team did. After duly winning title No. 6 in 1998, Jackson went on to win five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. The Bulls are still waiting for a post-Jordan title.
In 2011, Krause said that he no longer spoke with Jackson and that the reason was personal, not professional.
Getting good press was difficult for Krause, in part because he tended to be contemptuous of the news media. “He treats us like we’re morons,” Sam Smith of The Chicago Tribune said.
Doesn’t Krause get any credit for the Bulls’ success?
Krause was the architect of six championship teams, from 1991 to 1993 and 1996 to 1998. But hardly coincidentally, the years in between were the ones in which Jordan left to try baseball.
Still, his scout’s nose contributed to acquiring Pippen, Kukoc, Steve Kerr, Dennis Rodman, Ron Harper and other key Jordan teammates.
He traded center Olden Polynice to move up three places in the draft to land Pippen, a product of a small college, Central Arkansas, who went on to a Hall of Fame career as Jordan’s most important teammate.
He also had some misses, including the top draft pick Brad Sellers and Dennis Hopson, acquired in a trade.
Krause should be lauded for hiring Jackson as an assistant coach in 1987, after he had made his name mostly in the obscurity of the Continental Basketball Association. He also had the foresight to dismiss Doug Collins, a respected coach, and promote Jackson to head coach in 1989.
What happened after Jordan left?
Krause spoke boldly of building another winner in Chicago — organizations win championships, after all — but the Bulls were terrible for the next few years and never got close to .500 in his five post-Jordan seasons.
Krause quit under pressure in 2003. Krause haters seemed to be vindicated, although in postcareer interviews he never entirely lost his combativeness in defending his record.
He died at 77 in 2017.