Thirty years ago today, Jerry Reinsdorf assumed the position of chairman of the Bulls when the group that he led purchased controlling interest in the franchise.
As Reinsdorf, who also serves as chairman of the Chicago White Sox, looked back on his three decades overseeing the organization in a phone interview on Thursday, he explained that despite a majority of NBA teams failing to be profitable in those days, he saw potential in the Bulls.
“I thought that the Bulls were an undermanaged, underoperated team and that it could be a very successful franchise if run properly,” Reinsdorf said.
Of course, having Michael Jordan, a rookie when Reinsdorf formally stepped in, didn’t hurt. But Reinsdorf is the first to admit he had no idea how special the 21-year old from North Carolina would be.
“While we closed the transaction in March, the deal was actually agreed upon in September of the prior year, when Michael hadn’t played yet,” Reinsdorf acknowledged. “None of us knew what we had in him.”
As Reinsdorf aimed to get the Bulls out of the red financially, he believed that improvement on the basketball floor would do just that.
“The Bulls were losing money and that’s one of the reasons they were sold,” Reinsdorf explained. “I had been a basketball fan growing up and I felt that if we brought in the proper coach and we played basketball the old fashioned way – where defense is paramount and offense involved movement off the ball and movement of the ball – we could build a winning team and Chicago would respond to that.”Reinsdorf said that a significant step in the right direction came less than two weeks later when on March 26, 1985, the Bulls released general manager Rod Thorn and brought in his replacement.“It started with hiring Jerry Krause. That was the first major decision,” noted Reinsdorf. “I hired him because we both had the same vision in terms of what you had to do to build a winning basketball team.
“It took us a few years to find the right coach,” Reinsdorf continued. “Doug Collins set us on the right path and he instilled a winning attitude in the players. Phil Jackson was the right guy to take us the rest of the way.”
While Reinsdorf lists Chicago’s six world championships won during the 1990s as the organization’s greatest accomplishments, there was also the construction of a new arena and two practice facilities. Additionally, the Bulls have played a critical role in the ongoing development of the neighborhood that surrounds the United Center, none of which Reinsdorf could have envisioned happening when he took over as owner.
“When I bought the team, I wasn’t thinking about a new arena,” said Reinsdorf. “But obviously I’m very proud of the contributions that the Bulls franchise has made to the community between Chicago Bulls Charities and the re-development of the West Side with the United Center being the catalyst.”
Winning has always been a top priority for Reinsdorf’s Bulls, but so has being a good neighbor.
“It’s just been a natural thing,” explained Reinsdorf. “You get into sports with the idea that you want to win. If you aren’t trying to win, what’s the point in being involved? Once you do get involved, you realize the team draws so much from the community and it would be nothing without the support of it. You’ve got to give back. It needs to be a two-way street. A team is supported by the community and a team must support its community.”
Reinsdorf’s fondest memory of owning the team came well before there was talk of the dynasty. Not only was it an iconic moment for a young superstar, but it propelled the Bulls into eventually being champions.
“It has to be Michael Jordan’s shot on Craig Ehlo,” said Reinsdorf of Jordan’s first round series-winning jumper against the Cleveland Cavaliers on May 7, 1989. “That’s really what got us started. It was a very unlikely win and an extremely important playoff series victory.”Known simply as “The Shot”, Reinsdorf was among those in the stands as Jordan and the Bulls celebrated the victory.
“We were jumping up and down. All of a sudden, I looked around and remembered where we were,” laughed Reinsdorf. “I said to Jerry Krause, ‘We better get out of here.’ So we ran down to the court.”
At the end of the day, though, it’s not a moment or even the championships for which Reinsdorf is most proud.
“I guess if there is one thing it is that the Bulls are a worldwide brand now,” Reinsdorf stated. “When I got started, the Bulls weren’t even that popular in Chicago. The Chicago Sting, the indoor soccer team, was outdrawing the Bulls. Now you can travel all over the world – Europe, Far East, Africa, wherever – and you see people with Bulls memorabilia or merchandise. It’s incredible and the one thing I never could imagined accomplishing.”
While still very much involved on the basketball side, at 79, Reinsdorf is no longer actively involved in the Bulls day to day business activities. He leaves that to his son Michael, who in 2010 was named the team’s president and chief operating officer. But when asked about his future and how long he plans to oversee the team, it’s clear he is in no hurry to make a change.
“If I could tell you how long I will live, I could answer that question,” said Reinsdorf. “I’ve got every intent to continue as long as I can.”