Jerry Reinsdorf is a Basketball Hall of Famer

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By Sam Smith | 4.5.2016 | 11:05 a.m.

Young Jerry Reinsdorf was like a lot of kids growing up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn in the 1940s, pretty much devoted to stickball and the Brooklyn Dodgers. His dad was an itinerant salesman and tinkerer and his mom taking care of the kids. There was extended family around in a crowded household where life was the front stoop and nearby Ebbets Field. Jerry was average in most ways, a good field, no hit second baseman at the cavernous, fenceless Parade Grounds fields, a good but not great student, fastest only when hustling for an early time to the ballpark.

Everyone knows how those high school graduations go. They give out dozens of awards for all kinds of things, citizenship, math club, chess club, most popular, service, orchestra, debate, English (a foreign language in Brooklyn), and you have to sit through applause after applause. The New York City public schools were like college campuses with thousands of students and graduating classes well over 1,000. The great majority just waited for the quick walk across the stage.

So they’re finally walking home after the seemingly endless procession at Erasmus High School and Marion asks Jerry, like only a Jewish mother can with so much guilt to share, “Couldn’t you have at least gotten one?”

She was proud; she likely would have been even more so as Reinsdorf Monday was among those selected for enshrinement into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

Reinsdorf will be enshrined as a contributor to the game in September along with some of the true legends of the game, like Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal, Yao Ming, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, WNBA star Sheryl Swoops and ABA star Zelmo Beaty.

Reinsdorf was among those interviewed Monday morning by ESPN in Houston after the announcement. He was humble, as honorees generally are, and suggested he was maybe not the most deserving. His comments were in an earlier story on Bulls.com.

I’ve heard Reinsdorf tell that story about his high graduation day with typical self deprecating humor. For a modern sports franchise owner, a lord of the realm as we are told, the paradox of Jerry Reinsdorf is the Machiavellian legend versus the practical reality.

No, I didn’t have to write this story even though I write for the Bulls web site. And, yes, I have smoked the occasional cigar and dined with Jerry, though I prefer the blintzes with sour cream to his Gefilte fish. And I, too, am from Brooklyn.

I do not have my own airplane.

However, I do have a better car than Jerry’s old, dark Cadillac. I ask him why he doesn’t get a new one and it’s always something like he’d just gotten the seat right. But it comes down to that it works and when you grew up in Brooklyn in the Depression you just didn’t throw away anything that worked. It’s a tough habit to break.

Jerry noted that he doesn’t play or coach or dunk or do those things of Basketball Hall of Famers, but he is deserving. He probably feels he’s more connected to Major League Baseball, which he is, as similar chief of the Chicago White Sox. He has been famously more active in baseball, from the labor battles to his innovative ideas with baseball’s web site that made it one of the elite in sports.

He stopped going to a lot of the NBA meetings compared to baseball, and when asked he’d quip, “David Stern doesn’t let us make any decisions.”

Yes, Stern did run the NBA like few commissioners who, in theory, were working for the owners.

The Hall of Fame listed this description on its web site for Reinsdorf’s qualifications for induction: “Reinsdorf is a remarkably successful lawyer and businessman who followed his love of sports to purchase the Chicago White Sox and in 1985, the Chicago Bulls. Under his leadership, the Bulls won six world championships and became one of the most iconic teams in the history of sports. Reinsdorf has done extensive charitable work to benefit the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Park District and was awarded the Jefferson Award for Public Service for leading the philanthropic outreach of the White Sox and CharitaBulls Charities.”

The statistics, as contributors goes, makes Reinsdorf a long overdue candidate, especially when owners like the Pistons’ Bill Davidson along with Phoenix’s Jerry Colangelo and the Lakers’ Jerry Buss have been enshrined.

The Bulls six championships stand out along with starting the coaching career of Hall of Famers like Phil Jackson, resurrecting the principles of Tex Winter toward the Hall of Fame and guiding the franchise into a fourth decade.

Though it’s more than just the trophies, which is the tiebreaker.

The Bulls were a struggling, lost franchise before the Reinsdorf group purchased control. They were perennial losers, once in 20 years beyond the second round of the playoffs, eight coaches in eight years before the wealthy ownership group that included George Steinbrenner sold to the Reinsdorf consortium. Chicago Stadium echoed with desolation. There were few season ticket holders, virtually no sales staff or amenities. A overweight fan in a Bulls cape ran around during timeouts. That was entertainment.

It obviously helped immensely that before the Reinsdorf group took over, the Bulls drafted Michael Jordan. Or as then coach Kevin Loughery famously told general Rod Thorn in training camp, well, at least you didn’t screw up this draft.

Reinsdorf acknowledged his debt to Jordan in his remarks Monday morning as he did to general manager Jerry Krause, who studiously assembled the pieces to fit around Jordan and eventually found the right coach to make it all work.

“BBALL HOF for Jerry Reinsdorf!! One of my favorite Jerrys ever. Mensch, congrats, a deserved honoree,” Jackson wrote on his Twitter after the announcement.

I contacted Phil later and he added this: “My association with Jerry Reinsdorf was a short introduction when I joined the Bulls staff in 1987. The next time I was in his company was at the team’s postseason meetings; the GM, coaches and scouts all took part in a discussion about the team’s personnel and future direction, an open forum. He listened and smoked a cigar from time to time and then thanked the staff. He was present at the draft and then poof…he was a presence, but not present. We were fortunate to have his direction, but never felt he was interfering with the direction. When he asked me to consider coaching the Bulls, he had two requests: He considered defense the one key to the makings of winners; make it a priority. Second, can’t these pros just make their free throws? On
the playground one has to make free throws to get in the game.”

Reinsdorf would always tell the story of relating that to Jackson. He’d say Jackson would wear his wry expression and say that’s what the little Jewish kids always said because all they could do was make free throws.

No, Jerry Reinsdorf wasn’t getting into any Halls of Fame as an athlete.

But there are many significant ways to impact your sport.

Michael Jordan hasn’t played for the Bulls for almost 20 years. Granted, there have been no championships since. You need a special player, and that’s often the luck of the draw, lottery balls or coin flips back then. But the Bulls have been a perennial success both on the floor and off. Perhaps not the ultimate success on, though only a fraction are.

But the Bulls did not have to become one of the model franchises in pro sports the last 30 years.

They were hardly so their first 20.

What changed was, as we like to say now, the culture. More culture for sure, and much more fun, though we still do wince on occasion about some of the halftime acts. I love the lady balancing platters while on a unicycle, but wasn’t as enthralled by the dribbling act from the Yeshiva.

Reinsdorf didn’t make the baskets; he didn’t call the plays or set up the trades and drafts, sell the tickets or arrange the concessions, which are pretty amazing in their variety.

But he did what only Hall of Fame management can do, which is put the people in place to do so, and as Jackson alluded, to let them do their jobs and supply the resources. It’s how all great corporations, and countries, work, or should. The buck has to stop somewhere.

The Bulls became one of the models for NBA franchises with game presentation and the entertainment experience in addition to the basketball and customer service. They built their own arena and practice facilities. They became one of the premier charitable partners with the community. They were in many respects the anchor for development in the near West Side of the city. They consistently put out a competitive team, making the playoffs going into this season every season starting in 2004-05.

It’s often serendipitous how these things occur.

Reinsdorf went to law school at Northwestern, went to work for the IRS, ironically initially assigned to a tax case involving White Sox owner Bill Veeck. He got into real estate investments, which he with partner Bob Judelson turned into a business, Balcor, eventually and successfully sold to American Express. He agreed with a friend to invest in a group trying to buy into baseball, which failed in attempts for the Giants, Indians and then Mets. Why not be the decision maker, he eventually decided. A Reinsdorf group was the favorite for Major League Baseball to purchase the White Sox in 1981.

Immediately with grand investments avoided by the underfunded Veeck, the White Sox went on to the playoffs. But baseball labor set back the group, and there even was a rare cash call. Reinsdorf wasn’t even sure his group with partner Eddie Einhorn could hang onto the White Sox when fellow baseball owner George Steinbrenner one day was complaining to him about the bad investment his group had in the Bulls. Initially. Reinsdorf discussed just running the team for them, which led to a 1985 purchase. There’s a man who really knew the art of the deal.

The Bulls changed from that day with modern business and marketing, aggressive personnel changes under Krause and the basketball rebirth first with Doug Collins and onto Jackson, Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the titles, the history making records and championship rallies.

Reinsdorf completed his own personal and community home run with the Chicago White Sox World Series championship in 2005.

One owner; championships in multiple sports. You don’t see that.

Though perhaps as illustrative of the business model under Reinsdorf was the executive actions built around rectitude.

Reinsdorf was long condemned for his aggressive stance in baseball negotiations toward economic equality for management alike. Many fans faulted him at the time of the 1994 stoppage, which perhaps hurt the White Sox more than any team as they seemed poised for a breakthrough post season. It would be delayed a decade. Self interest was the accusation, but the paradox was it played out as the opposite.

The self interest was to play. The world, and certainly in sports, is governed by self interest.

An economic conservative and social liberal, Reinsdorf ceded to the best interests of baseball. The game transcended the individual. The game and the sport’s best interests always do, if you truly are a patriot. Revenue sharing and luxury taxes that grew from those ideas have produced baseball at its healthiest now with an expansion of teams capable of winning a championship.

Similarly in basketball.

In the last labor negotiations, one of the principal issues was to level the playing field with revenue sharing. The big L.A. and New York markets wanted no part of it. When the votes were cast, it was Reinsdorf who made the case to enable Milwaukee and the others. It might not be best for the Bulls, but it was the right thing to do for the game, to level the playing field in the name of competition. Make the sport stronger, and everyone would benefit, especially the fans.

Be honest, loyal, charitable and have integrity; then you won’t have to worry about trying to remember a lie.

Reinsdorf is as competitive as Jordan; he just can’t jump. Well, neither can Jordan anymore, but that’s another issue.

As much as he’ll deny it in what he says are his placid years of understanding, Reinsdorf still has trouble sitting and watching the last, tense seconds. Of either of his teams.

His passions remain a good joke, a good cigar, a good deli and his teams.

Loyalty to his staff is legend around sports, even as some say to his detriment at times. He paid Jay Williams his salary after he violated his contract and effectively ended his NBA career in that motorcycle accident. He paid Jordan his basketball salary when he went to play minor league baseball. He got Jordan started with cigars. “A symbol of celebration,” he explained to Jordan at the 1991 championship. It’s become a Jordan totem. When Reindorf’s son, David, died unexpectedly two years ago, Jordan was the first to call.

Other NBA owners laugh about a league meeting during the labor negotiations a few years back. Charlotte owner Jordan sits next to Reinsdorf. It’s alphabetical order. Reinsdorf has proposed an amendment which commissioner Stern opposed. Jordan was uncertain, but when the vote came to him he said he wasn’t sure, but said if Jerry believed in it is was good enough for him. Stern bristled. Jerry later compromised.

In the best interests of the game.

Mazel tov, Marion, your boychick did good.