Huff’s Hoops: Jerry Krause destroyed the Bulls, not Michael Jordan


Beth A. Keiser | Associated Press

In this June 16, 1998, file photo, NBA Champions, from left: Ron Harper, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan and coach Phil Jackson are joined on stage by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, second from right, during a city-wide rally in Chicago to celebrate the Chicago Bulls 6th NBA championship. Jordan described his final NBA championship season with the Chicago Bulls as a “trying year.” “We were all trying to enjoy that year knowing it was coming to an end,” Jordan told Good Morning America on Thursday, April 16, 2020.

By Jarrett Huff

“The Last Dance,” a long-awaited ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, premiered Sunday with its first two of 10 episodes, and it became clear from the jump that deceased Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause was designated the antagonist.

Krause, who died in 2017, is obviously unable to defend himself in the wake of the series’ release, which may appear unfair, but it’s not — the man was protected by Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and some of the media for the past 22 years. “The Last Dance” is changing that, essentially turning him into the Carole Baskin of sports documentaries.

Krause was the architect of the ’90s Bulls teams that won six NBA titles in eight seasons. He was responsible for hiring Head Coach Phil Jackson, making the trade on draft night in 1987 to land Scottie Pippen, drafting important role players like Horace Grant, BJ Armstrong and Toni Kukoč, retooling the team in 1995 for another title run with Ron Harper and Dennis Rodman and the trade for Bill Cartwright in 1988 to finally put Chicago over the hump. He was a great GM that did his job; making the Bulls a title contender, but he just couldn’t get out of his own way.

By 1997, Krause was done with Jackson and many of the Bulls. He was jealous of the players and Jackson for receiving most of the praise and credit from the fans and the media.

Huff's Hoops: Jerry Krause destroyed the Bulls, not Michael Jordan
Frank Polich | Associated Press
In this May 19, 1998, file photo, Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan looks at the MVP award presented to him before the Bulls-Indiana Pacers playoff game in Chicago.

As seen in the documentary, immediately after the Bulls won their fifth title in 1997, Michael Jordan and Pippen began fielding questions about Jackson possibly being fired and trade rumors from the media. This is unprecedented in the NBA, as Krause made it very public he wanted to rebuild the Bulls — the team fresh off its second straight NBA title.

Jordan made it clear he wasn’t going to be part of a rebuild, because they were still winning and that rebuild would not include Jackson. Krause had been publicly grooming then-Iowa State coach Tim Floyd for Jackson’s job, bringing him to games and inviting him to events with other Bulls personnel, except for Jackson. He even told Jackson that he wouldn’t return to the Bulls even if he won all 82 games during the 1997-98 season, according to the documentary.

Krause was quoted saying “players and coaches don’t win championships, organizations do.” While he claimed it was taken out of context, the message was clear; he didn’t believe he needed Jordan, Pippen or Jackson to win. Those words stuck with Jordan, as he felt insulted. They were a focus in his 2009 Hall of Fame speech, and he made a point to have those words included in the documentary.

1998 rolls around and the Bulls win another title. Floyd was hired as head coach for 1998-99. Pippen, upset over not having his contract restructured in 1997, agrees to a sign-and-trade deal between the Bulls and Houston Rockets. Rodman isn’t asked to return. Jordan, bitter over Jackson not returning, held out until early January 1999 during the NBA’s lockout before retiring for the second time, severing any ties he had with the Bulls. Kukoč and Harper were left to lead the defending champions with four other returning players to a 13-37 record. Krause had destroyed the NBA’s hottest brand at the time.

In the time after that, Krause allowed Jordan, Pippen and Jackson to be scapegoats for the demise of the Bulls, when in reality, it was Krause’s ego that destroyed the team. He couldn’t handle not being part of “the club” or “one of the guys.” The players never saw him that way, as he never fully appreciated what they did for the organization and his career.

Huff's Hoops: Jerry Krause destroyed the Bulls, not Michael Jordan
Michael S. Green | Associated Press
In this June 10, 1998, file photo, Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan reaches high above teammates Dennis Rodman (91), left, Scottie Pippen (33), and Scott Burrell (24) for a rebound against the Utah Jazz in the second half of Game 4 in the NBA Finals in Chicago.

Floyd resigned from his job in December 2001 after leading the Bulls to a 49-190 record in his time in Chicago. Krause whiffed on several draft picks and trades after the fall of the Bulls, and ultimately resigned from his post in 2003, returning to the MLB as a scout.

After he left, many of the players he brought in to Chicago during the rebuild flamed out, and some of the ones he traded away during that time like Ron Artest, Elton Brand and Brad Miller went on to become All-Stars elsewhere. The Bulls returned to the playoffs for the first time since the 1998 NBA Finals in 2005.

With the documentary airing, the notion that Jackson, Jordan and Pippen destroyed the Bulls will likely go away: it needs to. It was Krause’s ego that tore apart one of the greatest dynasties in sports history — the greatest in Chicago’s history. This team was in position to be competitive in the early 2000s as it’s unfathomable what Jordan could’ve done had he played during the 1998-99, 1999-00 and 2000-01 seasons.

Jackson went on to coach the Los Angeles Lakers and lead the franchise to five titles — three by the end of 2002. Imagine if he had spent that time in Chicago.

Pippen became an important player on the early 2000’s Portland Trail Blazers teams before injuries finally robbed him of his impact, returning to the Bulls for 2003-04 as a shell of himself.

Could the Bulls have won a seventh or an eighth title? Could the Bulls have bridged the gap between 1998 and the Derrick Rose era in a more natural way that did not lead to the drought that was the Baby Bulls era? Would Jordan and Jackson have a relationship with the Bulls organization to this day?

We’ll never know, and that’s Jerry Krause’s fault.