Jerry Reinsdorf's road to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame

Written by Sam Smith of Reprinted with permission from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame

It began for Jerry Reinsdorf with a casual, if fortuitous, dinner with George Steinbrenner. George had been complaining, as usual, about a lot of things, his third place baseball team, his manager, his right fielder, his manager, the Chicago Bulls.

Reinsdorf, who by now was sort of one of the Junior Lords of Baseball as managing partner of the Chicago White Sox, perked up a bit. That was his city, his adopted basketball team, one he’d shared season tickets to watch for the last decade or so. The Bulls hadn’t been very good despite arguably the wealthiest ownership group in American team sports, barons of business like Steinbrenner, Arthur Wirtz, Lester Crown and Lamar Hunt. The owners had so many other interests that coordination was difficult, and Steinbrenner was not good with not only losing games, but losing money.

“George wanted out; he was complaining about losing money, constant cash calls,” Reinsdorf recalled. “I said, ‘Your partners don’t know what they are doing. I’d love to run the Bulls.’ That’s all I said.”

Not own the Bulls.

Reinsdorf, some two years into his baseball reverie, was concerned he could lose his fantasy foothold into sports. The Sox group was bleeding losses more off the field. There was a baseball strike, the ballpark was dilapidated and in disrepair. They'd were low on working capital. Perhaps earn some money by fixing a poorly run Bulls front office and balance sheet. But something got lost in the translation.

A week later, Crown, whose family owned General Dynamics and was another Forbes 400er, contacted Reinsdorf. He said George told him Jerry wanted to buy the Bulls. Lester wanted to stay in. So did Hunt, the sports impresario who founded the AFL among other sporting ventures, and Jon Kovler from Jim Beam. Sensing a synergy with the White Sox and an opportunity, Reinsdorf led a group that took over a Chicago Bulls franchise that since its founding in 1966 had never been past the conference finals, had qualified for the playoffs just once since 1977 and had losing seasons in seven of the previous nine years.

Reinsdorf’s purchase came with a talented shooting guard named Michael Jordan. But Jordan that season was not only the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft, but he was labeled by the team a fine offensive player but not necessarily one around whom to build a franchise. It also took a village, a cooperative and a kibbutz.

That effort produced one of the great sports franchises on the American landscape that not only produced six NBA champions, multiple Hall of Famers and unrivaled thrills, but practically removed the municipal epithet from Chicago as a second class, second city. It made a city and its fans puff out their chests with pride, and they never forgot.

“It's hard to overstate what Jerry Reinsdorf has brought to Chicago and basketball,” said President Barack Obama. “For hometown fans like me, privileged to experience six Bulls championships, the memories are indelible. Night after night, we reveled in Michael's unbreakable will; the long-armed, strangulating defense of Pippen and, later, Rodman; the sly, cerebral leadership of Coach Jackson. Jerry Reinsdorf made that possible. Taking over a struggling franchise in the early '80s, he put into place the pieces for one of the greatest runs in NBA history.

“Yet Jerry has always been content to stay far in the background, ceding the spotlight to the magnificent performers on the floor, the coaches and management,” President Obama continued. “He has done the same on the South Side, where his White Sox brought Chicago its first World Series championship in nearly a century. Few in sports can claim such a legacy. For his achievements, his character and commitment to excellence, Jerry Reinsdorf deserves to be enshrined with the other heroes of the game.”

That comes with Enshrinement Friday at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame when Jerry Reinsdorf joins the Class of 2016.

Reinsdorf will join an impressive Class of 2016 that includes NBA players Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson and Yao Ming, NBA and ABA player Zelmo Beaty, referee Darell Garretson, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, Tennessee State black pioneer coach John McLendon, WNBA player Sheryl Swoops and early 20th Century player Cumberland Posey.

"The Class of 2016 is big in stature, personality and impact," said Jerry Colangelo, Chairman of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Board. "These ten inductees have each contributed to the game in their own meaningful way and we are very pleased to honor them in Springfield."

For Reinsdorf, it’s the pinnacle of a brilliant career in business and sports for a man as unpretentious as his teams have been splendid and memorable. Not only have Reinsdorf’s Bulls organization and teams won six championships in fast breaking to a 1990s basketball dynasty, but they gave first chance jobs to neophyte coaches who became winners, like Phil Jackson, Doug Collins and Tom Thibodeau; became the first NBA team to crack the 70-win barrier; became models of excellence with runs of 14 straight playoffs when Reinsdorf’s group took control. The Bulls have produced league MVPs in Jordan and Derrick Rose, all-league defensive teams led by Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, Executive of the Year winners like Jerry Krause and Gar Forman, citizenships and sportsmanship winners like Luol Deng, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah, Hall of Fame coaches like Jackson and Tex Winter and admirers like Michael Jordan.

Plus, the Bulls under Reinsdorf have been First Citizens of Chicago with millions of dollars of charitable support through Chicago Bulls Charities to organizations like theLurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, the James Jordan Boys & Girls Club, Salvation and Ronald McDonald House. The Bulls also helped establish Chicago Bulls College Prep School. It’s first graduating class in June 2013 had all 165 seniors graduated and accepted to four-year colleges.

“The game and the business of basketball have changed so much during the 30-plus years Jerry has owned the Bulls, and he’s led that change and changed along with them,” said Jordan, who now owns the Charlotte Hornets. “He built a winning culture at the Bulls, and helped bring the league into the modern era.

“It’s not easy to build world championship teams, let alone in two sports,” noted Jordan, who also had a stint playing in the baseball minor leagues for the White Sox. “He’s made a huge impact on the city of Chicago and done so much for so many charities. He sets an example of how teams can be good corporate citizens. Jerry is a very smart businessman and I watched him closely when I played for him. I learned that as an owner, you have to be patient, which is not easy when you’re competitive, demand excellence from your staff and let them do their jobs and develop a winning culture throughout your organization. As a fellow owner, I still watch what he does and I respect his opinion. I know he’s there if I need advice.”

* * * * *

Jerry Reinsdorf’s story is as unlikely as it is encouraging, a Horatio Alger journey. A kid growing up in a Brooklyn apartment building scratching around and working odd jobs. Find the 50 cents to get into a Knicks game or $1.25 to attend a Brooklyn Dodgers game, ride the subway there and usually end up walking home because he didn't have a nickel left. A man who not only went on to a rewarding career in business and astonishing life in sports, but whose path illuminated a handbook for life.

“I think about where I came from; who could even have dreamt this?” asks Reinsdorf. “But success is a combination of a lot of things. It’s working hard, being honest, surrounding yourself with the right people, being lucky, getting help from people. It’s the thing I’ve always agreed with President Obama about: If you’re successful, you didn’t do it yourself. You had to have had help. My whole life I’ve had help and luck.

“Just coming to Chicago,” Reinsdorf notes. “I got mad at George Washington (University) because they reneged on a job offer. That wasn’t a rational decision to pick up and come to Chicago. Then when I got out of law school, the IRS would not let me go back to New York because the rules were you couldn’t work in your home state. So I stayed in Chicago. Then there was the American League turning down Edward DeBartolo Sr. (who had the first offer to buy the White Sox), then the dinner with Steinbrenner.

“People say you make your own luck; I don’t think that’s the case, but maybe you contribute to your luck by recognizing it and taking advantage of it,” Reinsdorf says. “I’ve always believed certain things: You treat everybody nicely because more than anything it’s the right thing to do. And then you also never know when someone will be in position to help you or hurt you. I know I’ve gotten help from a lot of people who said good things about me because I treated them well.

“Be nice to people who are down. Do the best you can at what you doing,” says Reinsdorf. “Don’t tell people you’re smart; let them find out on their own. Always keep your word.

“I’ve always had this realization my success did not come from my brilliance,” Reinsdorf adds. “What if you work hard and don’t get the breaks? I know people as smart as I am, probably smarter, who work just as hard, but they didn’t get the breaks. You can’t believe your own bull. And when you get your shot, take it.”

Putting it that way, Basketball Hall of Famer Jerry West would understand.

“Jerry Reinsdorf is one of the most intriguing owners of all,” West said. “Rarely do you see or hear much out of him. People who are understated and have success, I’ve always been very fond of people like that because it points to who they really are.

“Let’s forget just basketball,” says West, now a Golden State advisor and among the most respected executives in NBA history. “Look at his contribution to the sports enthusiast in Chicago. He’s had a vision and obviously he’s been at the right place at the right time, but he’s done so successfully. The Bulls had great success obviously with Michael, but I can’t say if I even saw him around with all the celebrations. It points out to me what kind of a person he really is, so pleasant, so easy to be around; there’s something about him you just like. He can laugh at himself, which I think is a great thing.

“Anyone who runs franchises and makes those big decisions has to be tough minded and know what they want,” West said. “He’s made controversial and tough decisions. But to me that’s a trait of a good owner, someone not afraid to make controversial decisions and move on. Everyone looks to the days when he had Jordan. He hired Jerry Krause, who did a great job bringing in talent and they needed a coach to organize and they bring in Phil Jackson. That wasn’t easy, but everyone did their job and it’s a tribute to Jerry Reinsdorf that he was able to get through a lot of the minefields that are out there when you have a good team. It’s much more difficult when you have good teams for the general public to understand. His steadiness of ownership, his direction, has allowed him to be viewed as a unique owner and for his teams to succeed.”

Reinsdorf’s story begins in his beloved Brooklyn, his family getting by as his father Max took jobs as a mechanic, driving a taxi and ice cream truck and repairing old machines. When a serious illness struck his dad, Jerry’s mother Marion went to work as a receptionist to support the family with three children. Jerry had jobs making hot dogs at Nedick’s fast food stands (before it was called fast food) and in the stock room at Esquire magazine. His goal was to be successful. At something. Meanwhile, he played baseball and basketball in the playgrounds, where neither playing for or owning a sports team was even a dream.

“If you’re from Brooklyn, everything outside of Brooklyn is Tokyo,” laughs Larry King, the Brooklyn native and longtime CNN host. “Jerry has never forgotten his roots. So he is loyal to a core and it shows in his ownership the way he treats everyone who works there in the office, the usher in the ballpark or best player on the team; everybody is the same to Jerry. His loyalty is unbounded and he is extremely fair. He’s become the senior owner in two sports. When has that ever has been done? And bringing championships to both.

“You can call Jerry in the middle of the night with a problem and he’d be there,” says King. “I find him a remarkable person, a genuine friend, a great sports owner for his city and deep in his heart he still loves the Brooklyn Dodgers. When Edward Bennett Williams owned the Orioles, he would tell me the smartest owner in the league is Jerry Reinsdorf, the best at negotiating, the fairest and most honest. You don’t get that all the time in sports ownership, a handshake is a deal.”

With an aversion to blood (no first choice of Jewish mothers to be a doctor) and an affinity for tax law, Reinsdorf went to George Washington U. Reinsdorf married, had an exemplary undergraduate career and earned a scholarship to pursue a law degree. He was about to start when the school informed him he would have to give up his job at the school to retain the scholarship. Double dipping. Forget it was hard work. He needed the job as well to live. It was unfair, Jerry protested, to change the rules a week before class started. Choosing ideals over expediency, Jerry decided to forgo the scholarship. It was wrong.

In elbowed serendipity.

His wife Martyl's family in Chicago heard about the issue. His mother-in-law, by chance, contacted a dean at Northwestern and they were able to provide a scholarship.

“I always felt if something bad happens, it can be your best opportunity,” says Reinsdorf. “The times I was most depressed turned out to be the best things.”

Reinsdorf wanted to work for the IRS and try cases. But then there was a rule that field offices only handled cases. So he wasn’t able to return to Washington and stayed in Chicago. Still, it was day to day as family helped with groceries and one day he was down to a net worth of $3. Jerry liked to joke his goal growing up was to own a car because it was difficult for the family to afford one, And eventually one without having to make payments.

“I was always really impressed with several qualities of his, a very caring human being about the people who work for him,” said baseball Hall of Famer Tony LaRussa, who managed the White Sox for Reinsdorf. “He takes good care of people, pays attention personally and professionally. He was always ready to take an innovative look at how the team was performing, whether conditioning or preparation or something you might be trying that was unique. He was not afraid to say we were wrong, so let’s try something different. I always thought that impressive because being innovative with good sense you can get an edge.

“He really studied the games,” said LaRussa. “It’s one thing I always enjoyed about being around him and to this day he always wants to learn more about the game. He acquired a lot of basketball knowledge with the Bulls and he brings a lot of sports expertise to his ownership. He lets his people do the job, as good as anyone I’ve been around that way. He has opinions on what offense you run and what you are doing and always wants to learn. The thing he did early on with me with the White Sox was always ask a lot of questions. Not that second guessing and criticizing, but he wanted to learn all the nuances and ins and outs of the game. I eventually realized it was his thirst for knowledge rather than him wanting to criticize the work you are doing. I know he was the most unique owner in the detail information about how the game is played or how you would evaluate a player.”

Even after graduation while working for the IRS, Reinsdorf worked weekends doing the books at a plastic bag factory. But working in tax, he eventually got an idea about setting up personal corporations for doctors. Congressional efforts to disallow the procedure had been disallowed. Reinsdorf went to lobby in Washington. A medical journal wrote about it and suddenly physicians from throughout the country were calling Reinsdorf.

Then they began to say they had money to invest and what should they do with that?

With a friend, Allan Muchin, with whom he by now was in private law practice, he met a real estate syndicator, Bob Judelson. The friendship developed into a real estate partnership. They formed Balcor, which the group eventually sold to American Express for more than $100 million. While that was going on, Reinsdorf answered an ad in the Wall Street Journal to join a group trying to buy a baseball team. Efforts with three teams failed when it suddenly occurred to Reinsdorf—he said, after all, he was no genius—why not be the principal investor?

“There was no satellite, cable TV,” recalls Reinsdorf. “I thought, ‘Why be a minority investor with a team I can’t even watch?’ It dawned on me Bill Veeck was always buying and selling teams. I got a meeting with Veeck and he said he was selling, but he was talking to someone else.”

And, what do you know, Reinsdorf was a real estate syndicator, too. He put together deals to buy buildings. Why not a baseball team? The American League rejected DeBartolo for alleged associations, and the Reinsdorf group was next. They got in for about $20 million. On the field things were great with the 1983 White Sox racing to a division title. Reinsdorf and partner Eddie Einhorn were, "The Sunshine Boys." But there was the ball park to fix and baseball labor problems and then that dinner with Steinbrenner came along. Jerry was at the point where this amazing childhood not-even-fantasy was caught off base and leaning the wrong way. So maybe get a boost by running the Bulls? Steinbrenner apparently misheard that part in his rush to get out of the Bulls.

“I can speak mostly about baseball,” says former baseball commissioner Bud Selig. “I want to say this: He was one of those owners who understood baseball’s best interests transcended his and everyone else’s. And that is a rarity. Whether you would agree with Jerry or not, the fact of the matter is he always had the best interests of the sport at heart. His loyalty to baseball, and in basketball as well, was never in question. Never doubt his wisdom on a subject or where his true feelings are. He is guided by the best interests in the sport.”

Jerry won’t brag about any athletic feats. He jokes how Phil Jackson always used to tell him that the reason he was always asking why the players couldn’t make free throws was because that’s all the little Jewish kids could do. “If I could do it,” Reinsdorf says with a laugh, “why can’t a professional athlete?”

Like Jackson, though, Reinsdorf also was a Red Holzman disciple, a Knicks and Carl Braun fan who believed in defense and ball and player movement on offense. “I wasn’t very good, but I remembered the give and go in the school yard,” Reinsdorf says. “We’d play three baskets and if you lost, you go to the back of the line. I had two friends and we played that way and won a lot against better kids. Then Holzman opened my eyes to defense. When we got the Bulls, everyone said these players were too good, scoring was high and you can’t defend.

“I had met Bill Bradley; he was in the Senate,” recalls Reinsdorf. “I went to see him after I made the deal to buy the team. I said, ‘Everyone tells me defense is a thing of past, that you can’t defend these guys, you have to build great offensive games.’ He said that was not the case. He said these players today are better than we were, but the trick to winning was to take them out of their comfort zone, make a guy shoot from two feet farther out or keep a guy from getting lower in the post. That was how to win. That that convinced me I was right, but I didn’t know what to do.

“That’s when I get call from Jerry Krause,” Reinsdorf related. “He was a scout for the White Sox and a pain in the butt. My first exposure to him was the 1981 White Sox organizational meetings and he won’t shut up. I ask Roland (Hemond, general manager) who the guy is who won’t stop talking and he says he never shuts up. I say get rid of him and Roland says, 'He’s too good.'

“So we make the deal and Krause calls me and says he wants to be general manager,” Reinsdorf says. “I ask him what he knows about basketball and he goes into his history (scout for the Bullets, Lakers, Bulls general manager in the 1970s). He tells me you have to start with defense and he has this offensive genius, Tex Winter.”

And so began a rocky, if rewarding, climb up the steep mountain of NBA success.

“He brought Donnie (Drysdale) and Hawk (Harrelson) in as White Sox announcers,” recalls Hall of Famer Ann Meyers Drysdale, now WNBA Phoenix Mercury vice president and a Suns broadcaster. “I saw the turnaround of the Bulls. They had Michael there, but you have to put the pieces together and judge talent. It’s never easy with change, but Jerry came and made the changes necessary. I saw he had that love for the city and the people and the sport and is someone who gives back. He’s an owner who has been as important to the NBA as a Jerry Buss or Jerry Colangelo.”

There was inheriting Jordan, acquiring John Paxson for $50,000, Krause finding Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant in the 1987 draft, trading for Bill Cartwright and topping it off with the old hippie, Jackson, whom Krause tried to hire a few years previous when Stan Albeck was coach. Jackson showing up in an odd Caribbean beach outfit then was sent on his way only to begin his run of 11 titles replacing Doug Collins in 1989.

“Jerry Reindorf brought a sense of management to NBA basketball,” said Jackson, now president of the New York Knicks. “He was an owner who allowed the professionals to do the work without a great deal of meddling. He kept his space with the players and basketball staff, which lent a sense of professionalism and confidence to the organization. Jerry was definitely the one guy who could manage a group of investors and allow them to enjoy the fruits of theirinvestment and the joys of being part of a winning organization. Basketball had languished in Chicago after the ’75 Bulls began to retire. For about ten years the focus was on baseball and football in the city. He brought about a sense of ownership and pride in their Bulls teams to the city of Chicago.”

And then in 1991, after seven years of he and Jordan and so many others being thwarted, and decades for Chicago basketball fans, the Bulls broke through on the floor of the fabulous Forum. It was that first NBA championship that led to three straight, a break for Jordan, and then three more to establish the Bulls among the few very elite franchises in American team sports history.

“There was a long night of celebrating after the win in L.A.,” Reinsdorf recalls. “As it happens, the baseball owners’ meeting was the next day. I walked in all bleary eyed after maybe three hours’ sleep and they gave me a standing ovation.

“Some people have long term plans,” says Reinsdorf. “Put it this way: If I ever tried to have a long term plan, I wouldn’t have imagined where I'd have gotten.”

All the way to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.