2017 Hall of Fame: Jerry Krause, GM during Chicago Bulls' dynasty, carved own path to Hall
Steve Aschburner Sep 7, 2017 10:54 AM ET
Known as 'The Sleuth' for his secrecy, Jerry Krause was named NBA Executive of the Year in 1988 and '96.
If Jerry Krause were around to give his enshrinement speech at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Friday, his oratory technique could have told so much of his story.
All Krause would have had to do was cup one hand in front of his mouth and whisper, the way he so often did.
“I ain't sayin'. If I told you it wouldn't be a secret," he was fond of saying.
Krause’s induction as a member of the Hall’s Class of 2017 is no secret, nor is the unfortunate fact that the former Chicago Bulls general manager and longtime scout in both the NBA and Major League Baseball died at age 77 on March 21, 2017 -- 11 days before he was named for enshrinement in Springfield, Mass., as a contributor to the game.
Certainly, there was no hiding the six NBA championships in eight seasons Krause helped the Bulls win, with a pair of three-peat titles in 1991-93 and 1996-98. Krause’s masterful work in building champions not once but twice from the studs up -- only Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen participated in all six -- shouted on behalf of his professional reputation, as did the pair of NBA Executive of the Year awards he won in balloting of his peers in '88 and '96.
Still, there so often seemed to be a “Pssst!” implicit in talking and dealing with Krause, as if he were terrified of letting anyone know what he really had planned or was thinking. Sports reporters? Fuhgeddaboudit. Krause’s contemporaries, of course, were rivals and competitors first, and even some of the folks with whom he worked had trouble prying bits of intellectual property out of him.
Jerry Krause's ability to blend superstars and role players helped Chicago thrive.
A nickname that fit in every way
“He was very aggressive, very thorough, very secretive,” said Pat Williams, the Orlando Magic exec who, upon being named Bulls GM in 1969, promptly hired Krause as the team’s chief scout. It wasn’t long before Williams bestowed a nickname on his relentless and somewhat paranoid talent bird dog.
“Thus the nickname, ‘The Sleuth,’” Williams said recently. “Jerry would hide out. He always scouted alone -- he was never with anybody. If you were with him, even in the car driving somewhere, he would whisper about this or that player.
“I would say, ‘Jerry, there’s nobody else in the car. You can speak in a regular voice.’ But he’d always have his hand up over his mouth, talking behind his hand. He didn’t want anyone to overhear.”
Said former Cleveland GM Wayne Embry, who competed with Krause in the 1980s and ‘90s: “He believed in what he did. He loved what he did. And I would say, he outworked most of us. He really enjoyed scouting, evaluating talent, and he was good at it.”
He never stopped talking till he got what he wanted. ... He laid it all out and told me exactly what, in my own mind, I knew needed to be done. That’s why I hired him. He won me over.
Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, on Jerry Krause
Krause, a native of Chicago who caught for his Taft High School baseball team and attended Bradley University in Peoria, toyed with the idea of a sportswriting career and worked briefly in sports management (he was running the Portland team in the Pacific Coast League when he had his first contact with Williams, then with a Phillies farm club in Spartanburg, S.C.). Soon enough, though, he got into scouting for the Baltimore Bullets, the Phoenix Suns and the Philadephia 76ers before landing in Chicago. Krause often has been credited with discovering Hall of Fame guard Earl Monroe for the Bullets.
Krause got washed out in Chicago when that franchise’s first successful run -- featuring Bob Love, Chet Walker, Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier and coach Dick Motta -- faded and was scouting for the Chicago White Sox when Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn purchased the club in 1980. When Reinsdorf led a group that bought the Bulls in 1985, here came this unkempt and unpolished baseball guy, looking to make yet another crossover move.
John Paxson, a role player Jerry Krause signed in 1985, helped clinch Chicago's third NBA title.
“He approached me and said he wanted to be general manager of the Bulls. I had all I could do to keep from laughing,” Reinsdorf said in a phone interview. “I knew him only as a White Sox scout, where quite frankly he had a tendency in meetings to be a pain in the [butt]. He never stopped talking till he got what he wanted. I knew he had scouted basketball but I didn’t know how serious he was. I said, ‘OK, tell me what you’re gonna do.’
“He laid it all out and told me exactly what, in my own mind, I knew needed to be done. That’s why I hired him. He won me over.”
A championship squad takes shape
The team Reinsdorf bought and Krause took over already had Jordan, arguably the greatest player in NBA history and one heck of a building block. But every other piece of what became the first team since the Bill Russell-Red Auerbach Boston Celtics to win three consecutive titles was acquired by Krause.
Phil Jackson was an eccentric coaching the CBA Albany Patroons, but Krause had scouted him as a player out of North Dakota and had stayed in touch, becoming impressed with Jackson’s basketball savvy. Pippen was a sleeper in the 1987 Draft that Krause snagged in a below-the-radar maneuver with Seattle, convincing the Sonics to select the future Hall of Famer and swap him for Olden Polynice and a pair of future draft picks.
Jerry Krause surrounded Michael Jordan with the pieces that helped create two championship three-peats.
It was Krause who upset Jordan by trading forward Charles Oakley, his best friend, for Knicks center Bill Cartwright to serve as middle man in the Bulls’ triangle offense (installed by assistant coach Tex Winter, another Krause hire). The GM found or scrounged other pieces, including power forward Horace Grant and guards John Paxson, Craig Hodges and B.J Armstrong.
After Jordan’s first retirement in 1993, Krause shored up the team around Pippen, finally bringing over 1989 draft pick Toni Kukoc and reaching the Eastern Conference semifinals the next two years. When Jordan came back, Krause had or added new teammates such as Ron Harper, Luc Longley, Steve Kerr and Bill Wennington, then gambled successfully on wild child Dennis Rodman.
The Bulls went 72-10 in 1995-96 with Jordan, Pippen and Jackson providing guard rails for Rodman’s attention-seeking behavior. They didn’t look back until after completing the second three-peat by beating Utah in 1998.
Michael Jordan and the Bulls won their last and most recent NBA crown in 1998.
That leads directly to another reason some folks might suggest whispering about Krause’s enshrinement: somebody could decide to revoke it.
Krause, Chicago had flawed relationship
Krause’s popularity and image had been battered enough during the Bulls’ championship run. Jordan picked on him for his appearance and raggedy demeanor, calling him “Crumbs” for the alleged food remnants Krause might have on a tie, a shirt or a jacket. The Bulls' superstar especially resented a comment the GM made that “organizations win championships,” despite Krause’s claim that the snippet was taken out of context.
Pippen had his own reasons to resent the man who negotiated his salary -- the great two-way player routinely signed long contracts that fell below market value, opting for front-loaded security. Reinsdorf held him to the deals but it was Krause whom Pippen blamed.
As for Jackson, the "Zen Master" seized on a dynamic of circling the players’ wagons and pitting the team against Chicago management. He later repeated that tactic in Los Angeles, famously order Lakers legend Jerry West out of the locker room one night.
Jerry Krause and Bulls coach Phil Jackson were often at odds with each other.
None of that meant Krause didn’t bring on his own grief during the peak years of his career.
“There often is a certain tension between players and management,” said Reinsdorf, who was voted into the Hall last year and said at the time that “the other Jerry” should have gone in first. Reinsdorf will serve as Krause’s presenter at the ceremony.
“Look, what Jerry had working against him was, he was fat. He was secretive, even with the players,” the Bulls owner said. “He had a tendency to talk about the great players he’d had with him before. I think Michael and Phil thought, here was a guy we could make into an ‘enemy’ and win ‘in spite of’ this guy.' ”
Said Williams: “Jerry wanted to be front and center, and that was a mistake, I think. He wanted to travel with the team, he wanted to be included in the coaches’ world. But Phil Jackson did not want him around, did not want him traveling, did not want him visible. ... Wise are the GMs who leave the coach alone.”
In a 1990 interview with the Chicago Reader, during the early days of criticism, Krause said: “I'm a loner. 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.”
Krause’s reputation took even greater hits once the Bulls’ Jordan-Jackson era ended.
Never mind that the dynasty unraveled on its own: Jackson chose not to return for one more season, Jordan decided he didn’t want to play for a new Bulls coach and retired again, and Pippen and several supporting cast members hit free agency. Also, Jordan had cut a tendon in his finger during the 1998-99 labor lockout and wouldn’t have been ready for the shortened 50-game season. But a lot of it got laid at Krause’s doorstep over speculation that he itched to rebuild again, this time without the big-name cornerstones.
Reinsdorf long has disputed that the Bulls left a seventh championship on the table. (He doesn’t think, either, that they might have won eight in a row had Jordan not retired the first time.)
“That team had come to the end of its run,” said the owner, who is known with both his teams as backing front office execs to the hilt and rarely, if ever, intervening on behalf of players or coaches.
Krause ran into trouble when he seemingly got too clever with his third and final roster makeover. He plucked unproven coach Tim Floyd out of Iowa State. Then he traded 1999 co-Rookie of the Year Elton Brand to build around high school big men Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler. The Bulls went 96-282 over what would become Krause’s final five seasons with the team, and take another two years after that to return to the playoffs.
Jordan returning to play in Washington in 2001 and Jackson winning three consecutive titles in L.A. reinforced the notion that the Bulls had driven away their greatest player and greatest coach with gas left in both their tanks. And Krause never had much cover from media folks, whom he had disregarded in the best of times. His wife, Thelma, had stopped reading the Chicago papers during the first three-peat; she definitely didn’t pick them up near the end.
'He was a character'
And so the kid with the lifelong inferiority complex slipped away in April 2003. He went back to scouting baseball prospects for the Yankees, the Mets, the White Sox and eventually the Arizona Diamondbacks before health issues sidelined him last year.
The statement Jordan issued upon Krause’s death in March -- “Jerry was a key figure in the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990s...” it said in part -- could have gone a long way toward improving relations and boosting Krause’s image had he ever said something like it during their years together.
Or as Kerr once said: “You win six championships, you don’t deserve to be blamed for anything.”
“His track record with the Bulls is really unrivaled other than Red Auerbach,” Williams said. “He was a character. He was ‘Damon Runyon’ all the way. There never will be another one who looks like Krause and acts like him. He never was going to dazzle you appearance-wise. He was a short, stubby guy who spent a lifetime being teased and mocked.
“But from the very first time I met him, he was talking about being a GM. He would say, ‘When I get my own club...’ He had his coach picked out and his secretary picked out, and he knew exactly who he was going to hire.
“If he caught on to a player, that was his baby. And nothing could dissuade him. And if he was in your corner, whether as a coach or an executive or a player, he was yours for life.”
Now Krause gets a little bit of immortality, even if it comes at least one year too late for him to enjoy or even know about it. That job falls to Thelma, to their children Stacy and Davis and to their grandchildren Colette, Josh, Mia and Riley.
“He wanted to be in the Hall of Fame very badly,” Reinsdorf said, “but he didn’t want to be in there for himself. He wanted to be in for his grandchildren. And his grandchildren are going to get the enjoyment that he wanted them to get.”
No need to whisper about that.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.