It wasn’t quite up there with Potsdam, Yalta, the Missouri Compromise or Jefferson’s dinner with Hamilton that established the national economic structure and the District of Columbia. But that day in Jerry Reinsdorf’s office was perhaps the most consequential meeting in Chicago sports history.
Because that was the day longtime mostly baseball scout Jerry Krause persuaded the new managing partner of the Chicago Bulls that he was The Man with the Plan for the Chicago Bulls.
Krause proved to be that Man.
Six years later the Bulls began the greatest dynasty in Chicago sports history, one that was responsible for six members to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson, Tex Winter and Reinsdorf.
And how there is the seventh, Jerry Krause.
Krause’s selection for the Hall of Fame was announced Saturday at the Final Four in Phoenix. He will be enshrined posthumously in Springfield, Mass., the birthplace of basketball, September 8.
Krause died March 21 at 77 after a long illness.
“It’s bittersweet because on the one hand I am really happy for Jerry’s family and it’s going to be a great thing for his children,” Reinsdorf said. “But I wish it would have happened when he was alive so he could have enjoyed it.
“It would have meant a lot,” said Reinsdorf. “It would have been, for him, a validation of his work. He had a lot of critics while he was active, like many general managers, and while he would have liked people to think it didn’t bother him, it did. That’s just human. Jerry was very human. Had he lived to see this he would have felt validated in that his work was being recognized. That meant so much to him.
“But not just for himself,” said Reinsdorf, who was perhaps closest to Krause in working together directing the Bulls for 18 years. “While he is getting in for what he did as an executive, a large part of what an NBA general manager does is scouting. Krause always considered himself a scout at heart, identified with scouts. I think he would have looked at it as a symbolic recognition of the little guy who stays in the background, not corporate, not famous, not with the fancy suit or the fancy words, but without whom the team wouldn’t have the right players.
“He talked a lot about how scouts were not properly recognized, the fact the baseball Hall of Fame doesn’t recognize scouts and how unfair that is,” said Reinsdorf. “He would have been beaming, so proud.”
Krause’s contributions to basketball, the Bulls and Chicago are the stuff of legend, taking over one of the most underperforming teams of the previous decade, slowly, methodically, like a scout, chipping away a piece here and a piece there and then building it back up to where it was a near invincible skyscraper of a franchise.
Then Jordan went away and no one, certainly not Reinsdorf or Krause, believed he was going to be back. Krause began assembling the pieces once again, almost an entire new team to greet Jordan upon his return. And then winning three more titles with that group. Not quite the same Jordan physically, either, but certainly in a similarly dominating style. Not exactly the same way, as little could be with Dennis Rodman. But the staff Krause assembled, perhaps the greatest and most knowledgeable in basketball history, remained to be the backbone of the next championship iteration.
Not much of that team reflected the reticent scout, a traveling sports party never before imagined or likely to be seen again. So, of course, there were built in and inevitable rivalries and disputes. Krause endured it all as the wizard behind the curtain. You don’t always get the renown for pulling the strings, but it’s necessary.
“We inherited Michael Jordan, which many held against Jerry, but not a lot else,” Reinsdorf pointed out. “We had good guys, but not a team. I don’t believe there was anyone from that first team when he took over who was on the championship team and then just Jordan and Pippen the only ones on the second three-peat team who were on the first three-peat team. He really built two completely different three-peat teams. Think of that.
“Jerry also recognized you had to make some changes every year even if you won a championship,” said Reinsdorf. “You had to keep fresh, keep moving forward, never be satisfied and sit back or you would fall back. He was always working. That was Jerry.
“Not every decision he made was perfect, but he had so many good ones,” recalled Reinsdorf. “Look at someone like Brian Williams in 1997, so many like that, a key guy here and there paying big dividends at important times in the playoffs, the Finals, players let go elsewhere who could delicately fit in. It’s really a unique art to have that eye for the whole. It wasn’t easy, which anyone who tried knows. But in taking time to build we were generating community interest and making progress every year. The shot on (Craig) Ehlo (to beat Cleveland in 1989). Then we go to beat New York the next round, lost to Detroit in six, then seven the next year; there was progress, always progress. He knew we had something in Scottie and Horace, young thoroughbreds; it was getting better and the final piece was Bill Cartwright. The criticism and disappointments just made Jerry want to try harder. He never gave up; he was relentless. He never stopped trying and then in Jordan’s seventh season it happened and then what a run.”
Yet, it was all so unlikely, Krause the voluble baseball scout Reinsdorf would see in meetings, always ad advocate of someone, but just another guy brought in by Bill Veeck whom he’d inherited. He’d ask Roland Hemond who the guy was. Then Reinsdorf would put together a group to purchase the Bulls after a fortuitous dinner with one of the Bulls’ owners, baseball’s George Steinbrenner. Perhaps some synergy with two teams, Reinsdorf figured as well. Reinsdorf didn’t know anyone in the NBA, but he knew a little bit about the basketball he liked to watch. But not how to go about producing it in a market known as a graveyard for pro basketball.
Hey, Krause, thought, I can do this. So Krause called Reinsdorf. That most fateful meeting was planned.
“Had he not come and asked for the job I never would have thought of him,” Reinsdorf admits. “I don’t want to imagine what would or could have happened. He came and asked for a meeting and said he wanted to be the general manager of the Bulls. I had just bought the team. I knew I needed to make a change. It had to be a break with the old. I knew what I wanted: Red Holzman basketball. I had no idea where to go for it. I really didn’t take him very seriously. Just as a matter of courtesy I asked him his credentials.
“I didn’t remember him running the Bulls,” said Reinsdorf about Krause’s short lived tenure as personal director of the mid-1970s. “I never knew the Ray Meyer story (about how Krause was set up to recruit Meyer to coach the Bulls and lost his job over it). I didn’t know about the Zephyrs and all the other professional NBA) teams he was with (as a scout). He told me. I said, ‘OK, go on what are you going to do?’
“So he starts telling me he wants to build around defense and he wants to bring in this guy, Tex Winter, who I never heard of. He explained to me Tex’s offense, which was the kind of thing that was on my mind. I’m not a basketball expert,” Reinsdorf acknowledged. “So I couldn’t quite explain it myself. But it’s one of those things you know it when you hear it. The triangle is just one of a number of offenses that involve movement of the ball and off the ball. Then he talked about defense and had this guy Johnny Bach he wanted to bring in.
I thought to myself, ‘He’s talking about everything that I believe in. I’ll give him a shot.’”
So Krause began to dismantle the building so he could replace it, stronger, better, brighter. One of the principal foundations Krause understood, that is so overlooked and especially today, Reinsdorf says, is the value of teachers. It’s why Winter was first on the list and soon Bach.
“There’s no question these were career teachers,” said Reinsdorf. “They had been head coaches, but most of their lives were teaching, and it’s something Jerry understood and recognized because he also was a student of the game and always believed in learning, that there was more to learn every day. It was an incredible thing we had. It’s unfortunate that it’s hard today to find teachers like Tex and Johnny who just want to teach. It’s like in baseball. You emphasize fundaments; you have to understand fundamentals.
“I remember Michael always saying the games are easy, that the practices are hard and that’s the way it was with the Bulls, with North Carolina,” said Reinsdorf. “You practice hard, focus on fundamentals, the right things to do and then when you play the game it’s easy; you just use your muscle memory from practice. Michael was probably the best practice player of all time. Michael could never please Tex; or at least Tex would never let Michael know he would please him, which was another of the strengths we had with veteran teachers like that. Jerry understood and they were his true connections with the players.
“There was Jerry’s ability to evaluate talent and his ability to evaluate coaches, Phil Jackson, Doug Collins, guys no one recognized who went on to become elite in the field,” Reinsdorf pointed out. “Jerry also had this great ability to absorb. He’d seek out people who knew more than he did and he was like a sponge; a lot of these guys he idolized, like Clarence “Big House” Gaines, Slick Leonard, Dean Smith, Red Auerbach. He never thought he knew it all. He always was looking to learn from people he felt knew more than he did.
“Then he wanted to pass it on to younger people,” noted Reinsdorf. “John Paxson tells the story of after Krause left and John took over how Krause tried to help him. Here was the guy taking his job. Matt Lloyd (now assistant general manager in Orlando) spent countless hours with Jerry even after he left the Bulls.”
Reinsdorf knows there were many difficult times, especially the early building years, and even during the winning years, conflicts, jealousies, an inevitability in most administrations. Everything wasn’t Jerry’s idea, Reinsdorf acknowledged. But Jerry, though rigid, wasn’t intractable.
“Like with Rodman,” Reinsdorf recalled. “He said he’d never play for the Bulls. Then a year later he backed off. He was stubborn, but he could be talked out of something. Like trading (Charles) Oakley, because he also understood what was essential for success.
“Once he developed the core we weren’t going to change,” said Reinsdorf. “At the same time, getting Horace (Grant) enabled us to trade Oakley; he loved Oakley, didn’t want to trade him. But he knew what we needed in the guy who could help put us over the top (Cartwright). Winning meant everything. Here was this guy, overlooked, physically small who wasn’t popular—not a lot of general managers are—and now he was executive of the year. That meant a lot to him, winning twice. That was a vote of his peers, the people who most knew the game.
“It was a little bit of a screw you to everyone who never believed in me,” Reinsdorf said with a laugh. “He deserved it. Firing Doug (Collins) contributed to him being unpopular; he had a lot of negative things written about him. He wasn’t able to turn a phrase or be a candidate for the cover of GQ. But we could see the progress we were making, that he was the right man for the job.”
Reinsdorf knew that wasn’t always popular in the community or even in his board room.
“I remember one of my partners came to me and said Krause doesn’t know what he’s doing and we have to make a change,” Reinsdorf recalled. “I explained that I believed Krause, that he was doing the job and we would get there. It was Larry Levy. He said he wanted out. So I bought him out.
“To Levy’s credit,” said Reinsdorf, “and he’s a guy who deserves respect for that, years later he asked Jerry to speak at a YPO, Young President’s Organization, function. So he introduces Jerry and tells that story, about how wrong he was.”
Jerry would have enjoyed the last laugh.
Jerry Krause, Basketball Hall of Famer.