|Tuesday, April 8
The man Bulls fans loved to hate
By Sam Smith
Special to ESPN.com
There's a scene from the old TV show "Taxi" which always reminds me of the Bulls' longtime relationship with general manager Jerry Krause who resigned/got pushed out Monday after 18 years on the job.
Louie is the short, rumpled, jowly, surly cab dispatcher that the cabbies all despise. So if there's ever a Jerry Krause movie, we know who gets the part. Louie is dating this decent woman, Zina, and everyone is confounded. What is she doing with him? They all wonder.
"It's a good question," she says. "My mother asks me that. My father asks me that. My butcher. My mailman. The doorman."
In real life, Jerry Reinsdorf played the role of Zina, a cigar-smoking, tough-guy Zina if you will, and you can imagine everyone was asking what this power in professional sports was doing with this, well, guy.
Finally, Reinsdorf couldn't answer the question. Yes, it was a little bit health. Krause's health is no good. He can barely climb a flight of steps anymore, fighting asthma and diabetes. So say nothing of a weight problem that would make Shaq blush. Reinsdorf, no close friend of Krause but a loyal boss, long has urged Krause to lose weight, even installing bonuses in his contract. Obviously, they were never met.
So when Krause's health continued to become an issue, the time was right. He really couldn't do the job anymore as well as he would have liked, as well as Reinsdorf would have expected, and he got a gentle push. Jerry Krause isn't the kind to walk away from the dream job of his lifetime, and even as he did, he told Bulls players he'd be back with another NBA team.
Perhaps, though at 64 unlikely.
And leaving perhaps the most unlikely legacy in the history of pro sports.
He was general manager of the team that won six NBA championships in eight seasons, yet he was booed by hundreds of thousands of happy fans at virtually every Bulls victory celebration. How was that possible?
Fans hate owners. Most executives as well. They are the mean ones of sports -- the guys who dare not give their heroes every dollar they want and don't chase the most expensive player available and, when it doesn't work, don't chase the next one. No fan runs his household like he wants the owner or general manager to run the team. Don't raise my ticket prices. What? You're not giving him $20 million when he asked for it.
The howls were huge in Chicago when Reinsdorf and Krause initially balked at paying Michael Jordan $30 million in one season. They were thinking of $20 million. How dare they! For all Michael has done!
So it's not a job that wins popularity contest, since all but one are losers every year.
Krause was a loser even when he was a winner.
You don't get on the wrong side of Michael Jordan in Chicago and become popular. And then there was that wrong side of Scottie Pippen. Not quite so bad. But Phil Jackson. OK, there's something wrong with the guy.
There was. Plenty. Who knows what the childhood was like, but you can only imagine. The short, fat kid wanting to hang around with the jocks and show them he belonged. It was a lifetime pursuit. But you know how the jocks are. Want it too much, and they take it away from you and throw it around and make you chase it. For Krause, it was acceptance.
The more he wanted it, the farther he had to reach.
So he became their boss. And you can imagine how much they liked that. He'd show them. He'd order them to accept him. You can imagine where that got Krause. He hung around in the trainer's room and on the team bus and at practice and he'd want to just chat. So they got their guaranteed contracts and told him to go to Peoria.
Krause actually was a terrific scout. Certainly hard-working, usually to a fault, he spent weeks trailing after lonely prospects. He was also paranoid, so much so that when the kids came into Chicago he'd make them register at hotels under assumed names, sneak them in for workouts after midnight using walkie talkies with team staff to make sure parking lots were clear before he'd arrive. He'd drone on and on with wearying stories of his scouting experiences. He rarely smiled or made eye contact and he rarely greeted employees, walking by with a sharp harumph or just a shrug. He wasn't necessarily being rude. He simply didn't know how to make small talk or simple greetings. It made him uncomfortable, so he ignored people.
You can get by that way as a scout, which Krause was for many years before he got Peter Principled. He was a good scout, so he got promoted to general manager. He had a heck of a plan to present to Reinsdorf when Reinsdorf put a group together to purchase the Bulls in 1985. Krause had been an annoying scout for the White Sox, whom Reinsdorf didn't care for. But the trades Krause proposed and the signings he suggested worked. The heck with looks when you can have results.
So Reinsdorf told Krause to give it a try. He traded away used veterans like Orlando Woolridge and Juwann Oldham and got draft picks, one of which he eventually used to take Pippen. He picked up unwanted free agents like John Paxson, fought it bitterly, but finally took the suggestion of Doug Collins and Phil Jackson to get Bill Cartwright to play the big Eastern centers, like Patrick Ewing and James Edwards.
The Bulls won three titles. Jordan took a break and came back. Krause took a chance on Dennis Rodman, and they won three more.
Did he say organizations win championships and not players? Sort of. He was trying to say everyone in the organization contributes, not just the players. It never came out right for Krause.
He challenged Jordan's right to play in 1986 when Jordan returned from a broken foot. Team doctors said Jordan could be injured again. Krause ordered Jordan not to play, saying he was the boss. You don't win friends and influence people that way. And you don't want Michael Jordan as an enemy.
What should have been a coup became a disaster. Krause was one of the first to see the value in European players and spent a second-round pick in 1990 on Toni Kukoc, who would go on to be a valuable member of the 1996-1998 championship teams. So excited was Krause that he may have put one over on his fellow executives, he talked about Kukoc more than the players he had then, saying Kukoc was the next Magic Johnson. What about Scottie Pippen? So angry were Jordan and Pippen -- who were not always the most mature young men -- they set out to embarrass Kukoc in the 1992 Olympics as a way of showing up Krause.
Krause once threw a writer interviewing Phil Jackson out of practice, embarrassing Jackson, but he could show tremendous kindness, like arranging and paying for multiple operations for Cartwright after he retired to save his voice. He could be a sucker for a kind word, which got him to hire Tim Floyd after Floyd regularly invited him to practices and socialized with him when Krause was the most unpopular guy with the Bulls. Floyd eventually quit in frustration and refused even to acknowledge Krause.
Krause almost openly yearned for a chance to build a team without Jordan as their relationship worsened, and when he got the chance, it didn't work out as he planned. He didn't quite force Jordan out, as no one tells Jordan where and when to go. But Jordan was tired of him and everything else and just left, intuitively knowing what the three-time champion Lakers would experience this season. It only gets tougher and harder to deal with everyone.
So Krause saved draft picks and money, but then the rules changed in 1999 and with a ceiling on salaries, you no longer could pay $1 more. So the free agents went where it was warm and friendly and not where Krause was. His new plan was a bust, so Krause started again. And actually, it appears to be working this time with young big guys like Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler showing promise and young guards Jamal Crawford and Jay Williams providing hope as well. A piece there and a piece here. Who knows?
Krause's departure was welcomed in Chicago. People never quite knew what they didn't like about him, but it was mostly that they didn't like him. Paxson, the longtime Bull, is the most likely successor. Everyone likes him. He's smart and good looking and the team should be successful. Whoever gets the job will wear a suit better, smile more, shake more hands and get more pats on the back. There were questions whether Krause's time had past, whether in the new rules, times of free agency and recruitment, the ways he won with could be repeated. Management doubted it.
But it never will win six championships in eight years again. Krause has that. It will eventually earn him the respect he's always sought, although it'll probably never earn the affection of the guys and the people out there. It's never been clear which he wanted more. He never knew how to get both.
Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.