Scouting roots fueled Jerry Krause as he built Chicago Bulls' championship rosters

Former GM engineered litany of moves to keep Bulls on top throughout 1990s

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner NBA.com

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Mar 22, 2017 12:41 AM ET

 

CHICAGO – Jerry Krause didn’t look like the NBA. In fact, had he been the Jerry whose silhouette was turned into a logo, it might have been used by the fraternal order of shoe salesmen, of which Krause’s father had been one.

Krause didn’t market like the NBA, either. In a league in which schmoozing and networking can keep a guy employed twice as long as his talents, he was secretive and suspicious. If your signature wasn’t on his paycheck, his inside info was off-limits to your eyes and ears.

Krause, who died Tuesday at age 77, was best known for his work as the Chicago Bulls’ general manager during the Michael Jordan/Phil Jackson run of six NBA championships in eight seasons. The 18 years Krause spent in that position are what (over)qualify him to be a finalist for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame -- sadly now, if he is among this year’s class when it’s announced at the NCAA Final Four, it will be one of those posthumous honors no one wants to receive.

Even his Bulls’ GM tenure, though, fails to capture the full arc of Krause’s professional lifetime in sports.

'The heart and soul of a scout'

He was, at his core, a scout. Not just of talent in basketball but in baseball as well, in a double-threat career that stretched across more than 50 years. Krause was as comfortable camped in minor league ballparks for the likes of the Cleveland Indians, Seattle Mariners, Chicago White Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks as he was sitting in the bleachers of college gyms on behalf of the Baltimore Bullets, Phoenix Suns, L.A. Lakers and Bulls.

For 12 years, in fact, he worked at both jobs, managing to wrap up his hoops scouting for the NBA draft in time to get his work done for MLB’s version.

In rare interview about six weeks ago with “The Vertical” basketball Web site,  Krause said he felt most deserving of HOF enshrinement for his work not with Jordan, Jackson, Scottie Pippen and the rest in Chicago but as a scout. He acknowledged almost five years ago, in a story in the Chicago Tribune,  he already had the inscription for his tombstone written: Here lies the heart and soul of a scout.

Jerry Krause (bottom left) was GM of the Chicago Bulls during their run of six titles over eight seasons.

Krause brought those same sensibilities to his highest profile gig, too.

Scouts don’t deal with reporters? Krause never liked or was good at that. The media work in direct opposition to scouts, trying to spring loose insights that only have value when they’re secret.

Scouts hardly ever get noticed? The short, squat, frequently disheveled Krause never was comfortable in the spotlight. He didn’t care for one nickname, “The Sleuth,” hung on him by longtime NBA exec (and early Bulls co-worker) Pat Williams and surely didn’t appreciate another bestowed by Jordan and Chicago’s other “cool kids” on the team bus. Owing to what they claimed was evidence of Krause’s lunch frequently coming back to the office or the practice facility on his apparel, Jordan derisively dubbed him “Crumbs.”

Like a lot of people around the Bulls and the city, Jordan knew all too well that Krause had gotten lucky in one considerable way. He had inherited Jordan as the team’s bright light when he was shifted over from his baseball gig when White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf added the Bulls to his portfolio in the spring of 1985. (By the way, Krause was an advocate behind the White Sox’s trade in December 1984 that brought shortstop – and future World Series-winning manager – Ozzie Guillen to Chicago.)

So no, Krause did not draft Jordan, who fell to the Bulls and then-GM Rod Thorn at No. 3 when Portland notoriously picked Sam Bowie one spot earlier in 1984.

All Krause did, though, was assemble every other piece around Jordan. Twice.

Architect of a historic NBA dynasty

Krause’s obituaries will chronicle the achievements: Drafting Charles Oakley to watch Jordan’s back in a far more physical NBA. Engineering the franchise-pivoting deal with Seattle to land Pippen in the first round in 1987, five picks before deferring to coach Doug Collins and his staff to pluck Horace Grant rather than Joe Wolf.

“If we had not kept the Scottie Pippen thing as quiet, it never would have happened,” Krause said in The Vertical interview, as if enjoying his under-the-radar move all over again. “That alone is worth keeping a secret for.”

Krause considered himself a loner and wasn't comfortable dealing with media.

Krause hired Phil Jackson to his first NBA coaching job, boosting him from the Continental Basketball Association’s Albany Patroons to Collins’ staff. Soon thereafter, he promoted Jackson to his first head coaching job to replace Collins. Krause flipped Oakley when the Bulls were ready to win big for center Bill Cartwright, convinced by Jackson and mentor Tex Winter that the Knicks’ skilled big man was just what their triangle offense needed.

It was Krause who found and stuck with Toni Kukoc, no matter how savagely Jordan and Pippen mocked Krause and attacked Kukoc on the practice court. In the early days of the NBA’s reach for talent across international waters, the Bulls GM committed to a  Croatian who would become a prototypical “stretch four” so common today. And it was Krause who greenlighted the move to acquire Dennis Rodman, confident -- at least relatively so -- that the team’s strong personalities and culture would reign in Rodman enough to grab rebounds and defend.

There were, of course, salary squabbles and ego clashes and Jordan’s 15-month “first” retirement during Krause’s run … sandwiched between two remarkable three-peats, something not done since the Boston Celtics’ dynasty in the 1960s.

 

Chicago picks up its sixth NBA title by defeating Utah in the 1998 Finals.

At some point in there, Krause made a comment that in his mind emphasized the team aspect – from executive suite down to ball boys and vice versa -- that he always loved. “Players and coaches alone don’t win championships, organizations win championships,” he said.

Except that some versions of the quote, repeated and repeated, only used the final three words. And that, too, rankled Jordan, Jackson and others.

So Krause took heat for that as well. With Jackson an expert in the coach’s game of walling off even his own front office by rafting an “us against them” attitude within his team, with Jordan feeling no need to answer to anyone, with Pippen almost instantly regretting any contract he ever signed, the GM wound up isolated in the midst of all that winning.

A hard-working, yet lonely, grinder

Having grown up in Chicago as something less than the popular kid, however, the ever-eager plugger immersed in sports fandom, Krause had known isolation. He even made it work for him.

"I'm a loner," Krause had said in a Chicago Reader story in 1990, before the champagne flowed for the Bulls.  "All those years on the road, I stayed to myself and didn't make a lot of friends. I had a job to do. I can't worry about what people say. People are fickle. When we're winning, I'm skinny. People come up to me and say, 'Jerry, you look good, you're losing weight.' But when we're losing, I'm the 'fat little son of a bitch.' You know something? I weigh the same. I haven't gone up or down six pounds in years.

"That's just the way people are. I can't let it distract me from my goal, which is to win a ring. It would mean something special to me to win a championship ring in this town.”

Well, they did and he did, times six. And Jerry Krause got booed anyway, by Bulls fans at first Chicago Stadium, then United Center. He failed in his attempt to rebuild the Bulls first around Elton Brand, Jamal Crawford and overmatched college coach Tim Floyd, and failed again after abruptly switching gears for Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler and Jalen Rose.

Reinsdorf stayed loyal (and said upon his own induction last year that Krause should have beaten him into the basketball Hall), but by 2003 Krause had stepped down. He reinvigorated himself by again beating baseball’s bushes for that rare five-tool prospect, filing reports for the Yankees, the Mets, the White Sox and the Diamondbacks at various points until his health began to flag.

“It’s what I was born to do,” said the self-described “scout at heart.”

Krause didn’t make a lot of NBA friends during the Bulls’ successes, and Chicago fans predictably sided with Jordan, Jackson and the team’s other visible heroes in any dispute.

But the sports talk shows in the city crackled Tuesday with voices expressing a newfound appreciation for the man’s work. There’s a banner in the United Center rafters bearing his name and tenure, hanging near the ones hoisted for titles and jersey numbers.

And now there’s a tombstone to inscribe, in a way that would make the man proud.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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