Honoring the Architect

Sam Smith reflects back on the career of Jerry Krause, who passed away March 21 at the age of 77.

By Sam Smith

No one is ever quite what they seem or what we expect. Or certainly want. There are multiple layers to everyone, good days and bad, fine traits and less so. There are paradoxes and complexities while we try always to simplify, trying to glean a clear picture from a bed of quilt squares. Sometimes you have to step way back for it to come into focus.

Good guy. Bad guy. Pretty, ugly. Someone’s brilliance is another’s conceit. Few embody this more than Jerry Krause, the Bulls general manager who died Tuesday at 77, the architect of the team’s six-title dynasty, one of the greatest ever in sports, a man who was often reviled and denounced while enjoying—and you hope he did—his team’s greatest achievements.

When someone dies we feel regret, sadness for them and their family, but also some guilt and relief. After all, you get to go to the funeral. So you want to say nice things, and people should be remembered for their decency and excellence. Jerry Krause had plenty of both, a devoted family man and loyal company man whose name hangs on a banner atop the United Center for his contributions to the Bulls, and whose name likely will one day be included among those in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Along with everyone experiencing the joys and despairs in life, there are raw emotions, biases, deprivations and disappointments. It’s the range of the human experience.

Jerry was difficult for us to know and appreciate in the media, and by extension the community we corresponded with, because Jerry believed we were an obstacle to doing his job appropriately. That is not an unusual sentiment for people in power.

Jerry was a scout. It’s said the two most important days in someone’s life are the day they are born and the day they realize why. That was the day Jerry understood, perhaps at Bradley, maybe earlier at Taft High School or with his dad at a Cubs game or later with the old Chicago Zephyrs or Baltimore Bullets, and eventually with several Major League baseball teams, that his was the heart and mind of a scout.

Someone to find and help nurture talent, a vital responsibility in our society, if less important in sports.

But there was the love for the games that many of us have. So sports, then, baseball and basketball.

It was truly an amazing career for Krause, the Bulls championships the pinnacle, if just a small part that included managing the Bulls back in the mid-1970s, scouting for a half dozen NBA teams, more in baseball until recently concluding his active career with the Arizona Diamondbacks. It’s perhaps the biggest reason he hasn’t made it to the Basketball Hall of Fame for his Bulls accomplishments; Krause spent as many years in Major League baseball, though at a less visible level.

That really suited him best for as an NBA executive once told me, Jerry viewed the job as a covert operation. It’s how then Bulls general manager Pat Williams, who later went on to run the Orlando Magic, named him ‘the Sleuth.” Jerry literally wore a long rain coat and sometimes would hide behind a post watching a game. He’d counsel his scouts, like Billy McKinney, B.J. Armstrong and Jim Stack, not to sit with other scouts and share notes. Make up your own mind; watch carefully. Don’t run with the pack. You can’t find special talent that way.

Just leave him alone, his nature, anyway, to settle into a seat and watch carefully, for the size of someone’s hands or length of their arms. It was no coincidence his recreational passion was fishing, sitting quietly, alone, stalking that elusive prey.

We’d joke about Krause taking trips to see how a young player’s mother looked, the size of her hands or shoulders to imagine his growth. He lived in the tiny details, which could be fodder for amusement. Though to Krause it was no joke; scouting was his passion, his religion.

Many of us were the obstacles, media, fans; players, also. People wanting to know what the Bulls were going to do, why they were doing it. It was the classic conundrum for people in a public business trying to do private work. Where was the allegiance?

Krause’s business card read loyalty. He’d talk relentlessly about a mentor named Jim Enright, a onetime basketball official and sportswriter for the old Chicago American. None of us could carry his pencil; we were dirt compared with him. Krause didn’t always understand subtlety and social convention. Repeatedly telling newspaper writers they were trash compared to someone they’d barely heard of was not necessarily an endearing characteristic. But Enright helped and guided Jerry, and that was enough. That’s what mattered, what you lived by.

He’d apply the same standards to others, and invariably they’d let him down, which led to estrangement with Doug Collins and Phil Jackson. After all, what would Phil Jackson have become without Jerry Krause? And Krause did have a point as Phil was basically out of professional coaching when Krause rescued the hippie from the CBA. Did that merit a lifetime of fealty? Why not? Krause exhibited it to Jim Enright, to Dean Smith, to others. Not that Phil ever sold him out or condemned him. Life and people move on. Jerry wasn’t always comfortable with that.

That eye for basketball talent extended to the coaches as well. Jerry hired Collins when he was a broadcaster and briefly Arizona State assistant, Phil after being rejected by everyone in the NBA, including his beloved Knicks. He brought Tex Winter back from the depths at Northwestern, which got Tex to the Hall of Fame and revealed his brilliance that was once confined mostly to Kansas. He cultivated great sporting minds.

Of course, Jerry also screamed at me when I wrote once the Bulls were scouting Gheorghe Muresan. Rival GM's knowing Jerry’s reticence and mystery, loved to tweak him. They’d call me before the draft with obscure players they thought Jerry was chasing. Of course, he also fooled a lot of them on many, Toni Kukoc among them, Scottie Pippen certainly. After that draft, Krause confronted me and told me I’d ruined the future of the franchise. Yes, Jerry certainly was passionate.

No one incident or event describes anyone, of course, and whatever story told about Jerry is merely another point of light.

None among us were ever really close with Krause when he was working the gyms, though we’d have our moments. He was furious with me after publication of the Jordan Rules book, and though it certainly didn’t depict him well with the ongoing friction that season when the team was actually teetering and then won the title, Jerry, I later learned, was upset I’d left him out of the acknowledgements. I’d written something on everyone, but given the haze of our relationship I’d left him out. He felt hurt.

I’d spent some evenings with Jerry on the beat back in the mid-80s when the Bulls were of not much interest to many around the NBA or Chicago. Michael Jordan was, but not others.

This was in Portland, Ore., where Jerry had run a minor league baseball team. We went out to dinner and then he said he wanted to drive by his old ballpark, which he did, lovingly telling me stories of third string catchers and little neighborhood dives hanging out, guys telling wars stories, hard drinking, macho stuff. Did he? It doesn’t matter. Then we went back to the hotel and I watched as he changed his room about six times because he didn’t like the mattress. He seemed often like that, endearing and needy and then confrontational and infuriating.

I’d done my media psychoanalysis on Jerry and he seemed to fit the profile of the kid who probably was bullied. You know, not the athlete who was at the same time desperate to hang out with the athletes, anxious for acceptance and trying too hard, which only pushed him farther away. Then he becomes the boss, and then they had to like him, but again in your need you can also becoming alienating. Jerry’s job was being a businessman; he had to make tough decisions regarding players, trades, bringing in a substitute. His loyalty to the organization demanded it. You can’t also be beloved and accepted by the jocks at the same time; again, rejected by the people he so admired, whose acceptance he sought.

It was a frustrating tangle of emotions that always seemed to bewilder him. Look what he’d done for them; how could they treat him this way? In many ways, Krause for all his experience was wanting in understanding the human dynamic. Yes, join the club.

He caught the eye of Slick Leonard, the NBA player who was coaching the ill-fated Packers/Zephyrs in the early 1960s and then become better known as a Pacers’ broadcaster. Slick took him along when the franchise fled to Baltimore as a scout/gofer/pr. Yes, Jerry Krause, public relations. Given NBA teams had about 10 employees then, it was something. Jerry was in, and he’d work his way up.

He got his dream job and came back to the Bulls, but clashed with imperious coach Dick Motta, which did put him in a large club. Motta came to condemn Krause, often dismissively saying Krause was the guy who talked him out of taking Tiny Archibald. Of course, then Motta did the scouting and gave one the biggest contracts in franchise history to Howard Porter. The flesh market is tough to read. Though Krause did warn Motta to stay away from Porter.

But Krause did it better than most, finding gems like Cliff Ray, thwarted in his relentless desire for the team to draft Robert Parish. When Ray got to the Bulls and saw Krause, he asked if he was that guy always following him around campus. Krause left no detail unexamined. Typical of Krause, he’d never forget and eventually bring in Parish late in his career for a Bulls title team and when he had a chance to start again went first after Brent Barry, whom he’d lost in an earlier draft. Krause clearly was no politician, and got sunk in Motta’s Machiavellian machinations.

Eventually, Krause got caught in the middle of an embarrassing episode in which he either did or didn’t offer the head coaching job to Ray Meyer. DePaul headed it off, everyone ran away from fault and Krause was left with holding a bad newspaper story and no job. He drifted off to baseball and Bill Veeck recruited him back to Chicago and that seemed enough.

For a secretive soul, Krause talks a lot and after leading a group to purchase the Bulls in 1985, Reinsdorf got a note from Krause saying he could run the Bulls. Reinsdorf didn’t know anyone in basketball, anyway, though he had consulted Bill Bradley about the team. Reinsdorf wasn’t even sure who Krause was. He was told it’s that guy who pretty much never shuts up in those scouting meetings. But Krause said he’d been personnel director once for the Bulls, so Reinsdorf listened.

And Krause outlined a strategy of defense and team play that to Reinsdorf, a basketball neophyte, sounded a lot like his favorite team, the early 1970s New York Knicks. OK, he’d give him a chance. Yes, Reinsdorf and Krause inherited Jordan, but also a mess of a roster with rampant drug use and indifferent, if talented, players. Krause had a plan: OKP (our kind of people; you build with character and commitment) and addition by subtraction: You’d get better with fewer of these guys.

It was a slow and painful process, especially for someone in so much of a hurry like Jordan, who walked into a title basically as soon as he got to college.

It’s simple and a cheap second guess to rate executives after the fact. No one hits all the time, or even often. But Krause did so enough, working more a like a patient angler, fishing around the edges for just the right catch to fill out the jigsaw, sacrificing more of the present, to the regret and condemnation of fans and Jordan, for the future. It eventually would mean his end with the Bulls, but it delivered their greatness.

He had Juwan Oldham, a top shot blocker. The Knicks, always desperate for the now, gave him a draft pick. Krause eventually flipped that pick to Seattle for Scottie Pippen. In that same draft, Krause got Horace Grant and a future was beginning to become clearer.

Though Brad Sellers still started to Jordan’s dismay.

It’s not that Krause necessarily wanted Grant. He was set to select Joe Wolf from North Carolina. One Krause idol, Dean Smith, was pushing his player, begging Jerry to take him. Jerry hated to disappoint his idols. The coaches, Collins, Jackson, Winter, almost as a group, were lobbying for Grant, the athlete. Reinsdorf told Krause he could select whom he believed in. He was general manager. Krause went with the board of directors, which is the point about being CEO. It’s not always your idea. Which is OK. The buck stops there. Krause was a big admirer of Harry Truman, often visiting his presidential library.

Similarly with the trade of Charles Oakley, his first draft pick, and the trade for Dennis Rodman. Krause went along and there would be six championships in eight seasons. Organizations do win championships. All voices matter. A leader sometimes has to subsume his ego.

A certain amount of creative friction is not unusual with success, and the Bulls had much amidst winning those six championships. Krause, the boss who yearned for acceptance by the cool kids, often became a villain. He still found players like Kukoc, though condemned at the time for not paying more attention to his current players. It remained the perpetual dilemma; how to serve your organization and satisfy the masses. Rarely do people accept things that will be best for them in the long run.  His natural competitiveness often didn’t help his own case. And, no he didn’t dream for the days he could create his own masterpiece without Jordan’s image.

But it came, as it had to, and though Krause had the right plan, he had the wrong guys. It made sense to have an aggressive college coach, Tim Floyd, for a rebuilding project with kids through the draft, as he’d once done. Though things were changing in the NBA. And Floyd had designs on veterans and winning now. Elton Brand could only get you so far, and a combination of kids, inside/outside seven footers with the game’s big men on the way out made sense. But they were much too young and unprepared and everyone else too impatient.

And so for Krause in 2003, there was a parting with the Bulls. Health reasons were cited, and Krause had suffered for years with various illnesses. It also doesn’t help your mood at times. Krause went back to baseball to scout, for he always was doing that, spending time with the Yankees, Mets, White Sox and Diamondbacks before retiring last year.

Yes, Jerry you made it; everyone hopes you knew.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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