The year 1949 was a turning point in the life of 13-year-old Jerry Reinsdorf. In the Jewish religion, a boy has his Bar Mitzvah at age 13. It is considered the time honored traditional age of manhood, when by Jewish law being responsible for your actions passes from the parents to the child.
Young Jerry realized there also was an auxiliary element to the cultural event.
“A Bar Mitzvah,” Reinsdorf Friday night offered to an audience at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony, “is the time in his life when a Jewish boy realizes he has a better chance of owning a team than playing for one.”
It became true for Jerry Reinsdorf and worked out as better than anticipated for Reinsdorf in the Springfield Symphony Hall. He joined the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Yao Ming, Sheryl Swoops and Tom Izzo in being inducted in the Hall of Fame Class of 2016. It was an entertaining evening as O’Neal wrapped up the program with a speech that ranged from high comedy to touching family consideration. Iverson offered a unique glimpse into his life with a meandering and emotional journey through his many trials and tribulations and even Yao Ming had some fun joking about Iverson’s famous avoidance of practice.
Reinsdorf was somewhat in the background in the epochal class headed by O’Neal and perennial All-Stars like Iverson and Yao. But it perhaps also was appropriate and symbolic in the professional career and sports ownership of the unpretentious Reinsdorf. He often stayed in the background, out of the public view, allowing his players and managers to reap the acclaim of six NBA championships with the Bulls in the 1990s and a long history of producing award winning players and coaches and playoff teams.
But it also was his low key leadership and appealingly supportive management mixed with good humor and honor that enabled the Bulls over three decades to become one of the most iconic names in sports and a leader in the Chicago philanthropic community.
“Aside from the championships,” Reinsdorf said in his speech, “I am most proud of the Bulls’ many contributions to our community, which is a testament to the awareness of our players and our entire staff that there is an obligation to give back to the city which has supported us during lean years as well as the good years. We recognize that we are only caretakers of the franchise. The real owners are the fans.
“I am also proud that more than 10 former players are still associated with the team,” Reinsdorf said.
“Players alone don’t win championships,” Reinsdorf told the large audience. “It takes an entire organization. Someone has to acquire the players, someone has to coach them, someone has to generate revenue to pay them. But at the end of the day, the players are the ones who put their minds and bodies on the line to win. Not only did we have the greatest player of all time in Michael Jordan, who was drafted by Rod Thorn, but we also had all time greats in Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and players like John Paxson, Toni Kukoc, Bill Cartwright and Horace Grant. They were outstanding players in their own right, but they also understood that their greatest value was in complimenting Michael and other future Hall of Famers. Jerry Krause was brilliant in identifying and signing those players. The only two players of both threepeat teams were Michael and Scottie. Jerry also signed two of the greatest basketball minds, Tex Winter and Johnny Bach, as assistant coaches. I would not be standing here tonight if not for Jerry Krause. John Paxson and Gar Forman have been worthy successors to Jerry.
“Perhaps the most satisfying thing occurred when Michael Jordan became a team owner and said to me,” Reinsdorf continued with a laugh, “’I owe you a lot of apologies. It’s a lot harder to run a team than I thought.”
Reinsdorf devoted much of his efficient 12-minute talk to his personal history, from a Knicks fan in the 1940s going to games for 50 cents to leaving Brooklyn in 1953 for George Washington U. to pursue his goal of being an attorney. He married there and is closing in on 60 years married to Martyl. He moved to Chicago after graduation from Northwestern U. law school and then spent four years working for the IRS. Then it was starting Balcor, a real estate investment company, which was sold to American Express in 1982. He said in 1980 on a hunch he contacted Bill Veeck about purchasing the Chicago White Sox baseball team and headed a group to purchase the team in 1981. In the summer of 1984, he related about a dinner with fellow baseball owner George Steinbrenner, who was a Bulls part owner. They wanted to sell. Reinsdorf put together a group that purchased the Bulls in 1985. Some part owners, like Lester Crown and Lamar Hunt, remained in the new group.
He said Hunt, a veteran team owner and sports league president, had good advice: “Do whatever you think is best and don’t worry about what anybody else thinks.”
“A kid named Michael Jordan had been drafted by the Bulls but hadn’t played yet,” Reinsdorf said about when his group completed the initial purchase agreement in September, 1984. “At the time he was drafted, Bulls management said, ‘He’ll be a fine offensive player. You are not going to build a franchise around him.’ That’s what I thought, too, as did everyone else. By the way, Michael was born in Brooklyn.”
Reinsdorf said he consulted Bill Bradley, who endorsed his notion that defense and team play were essential to success. He told the story of the unexpected and surprise hiring of Krause and the evolution of coaches through Doug Collins to Phil Jackson that kept the Bulls on the right and upward path. Reinsdorf and Collins remain close and Collins was at the Hall of Fame Friday for the enshrinement along with former Bulls players like Kukoc, members of the basketball and front office staff numbering close to 100. Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen were ceremonial presenters on stage for Reinsdorf.
Reinsdorf also laughed that when he fired Collins, “I was so unpopular that one night I drove up to a Motel 6 and they turned the lights out.”
Reinsdorf also credited Steve Schanwald for the marketing success and business partners and associates like Allan Muchin, Bob Judelson, Howard Pizer, Dennis Gilbert, Andy McKenna, Tony LaRussa and the late Sandy Takiff. Dozens of Reinsdorf’s Family members, friends and current and former Bulls and White Sox staff were in attendance, including Bud Selig, Jim Thome, Kenny Williams, Paxson, Forman, LaRussa, and Dennis FitzSimons.
“No one succeeds in life because of his or her own ability,” Reinsdorf emphasized. “You have to be helped by others. I have been blessed by many without whom I could not have succeeded. There is my wife, Martyl, who worked to put me through law school, put up with my insane work schedule and raised our kids. The rest are too numerous to mention in their entirety. I have been blessed with a bunch of great kids, grandchildren and daughters-in-law. It’s been a great life. I know I am probably in the fourth quarter, but I am hoping for triple overtime.”