Jerry Krause Deserved Better in 'The Last Dance'

'The Last Dance' was entertaining and gave us a glimpse inside Michael Jordan and the 1998 Chicago Bulls. But when it came to Jerry Krause, the documentary could be downright cruel.
Author:
Publish date:

Just a few more months, that’s all Jerry Krause wanted, just a few months to find out if his dream of enshrinement into the Basketball Hall of Fame would become a reality, to get the recognition Hall voters had for so long, bizarrely, denied him. It was the spring of 2017 and the architect of the Bulls dynasty, his body ravaged by a bone disease, waited, hoping to get the call he had earned several times over. He never got it. Krause died in March 2017, just days before the call came informing his wife, Thelma, that Krause had made it, months before he could be feted in front of his peers.

He died feeling slighted, but really—isn’t that the way Krause lived? The Last Dancethe 10-part documentary on the Bulls' dynasty that wrapped up on Sunday night—was endlessly entertaining and incredibly insightful. But when it came to Krause, the Michael Jordan–backed series could be downright cruel. A generation of teens and twentysomethings too young to remember the Bulls' six-title run came away from the doc with a deep understanding for what Jordan would do to win. They also likely left with the belief that Krause was little more than a caretaker along for the ride.

dCOVkrause_V

It’s nonsense, of course. Krause was one of the keenest basketball minds of his generation, an ex–baseball scout turned NBA general manager who inherited a team with Jordan and proceeded to build out a roster around him. It was Krause who pulled off one of the great drafts in league history, in 1987, when he acquired Scottie Pippen in a draft-day trade with Seattle and scooped up Horace Grant a few picks later. It was Krause who pulled Jackson from the basketball bushes, plucking Jackson out of the CBA in ’87 to work as an assistant to Doug Collins, elevating him to head coach two years later. And it was Krause who used a second-round pick in 1990 on Toni Kukoc, nabbing a playmaking, sweet-shooting European big man years before NBA teams started scouring the globe for them.

Krause had a healthy ego. In a 1993 SI profile he called his ability to identify talent as a “gift,” one that was “God-given.” He refused to acknowledge the singular greatness of Jordan, infamously declaring that organizations win championships, not players and coaches. He dispassionately told Jordan he couldn’t play through a foot injury in 1985, a cold decree that stuck with Jordan forever. For decades he warred with local media, even when Jackson pleaded with him not to.

Jerry-krause-interview-bulls

Krause was driven to better the Bulls, though, and for that he was belittled. There was Jordan, asking Krause if he took diet pills and mocking his height by suggesting he could lower the rim. There was Pippen publicly embarrassing Krause for having the audacity to make Pippen live up to his contract. Players referred to Krause as “Crumbs,” a reference to frequent donut shavings on Krause’s lapel. Asked about Krause in 1997, Jordan said, “Jerry does his job, whatever that may be, and we do ours.”

Krause is widely blamed for the end of the Bulls dynasty, but even that requires closer examination. Certainly there were things Krause could have done differently. His feud with Jackson was foolish, as was his fawning over Iowa State coach Tim Floyd while Jackson was still on the bench. He did everything he could to sabotage the ’97-98 season, airing out his issues with Jackson and showing little interest in Jordan’s feelings on them. He let Jordan get away while still at the peak of his power, passing a chance to win another championship that Jordan is convinced they could have won.

But could they? In an excerpt from an unpublished memoir on NBC Sports Chicago, Krause details a July 1998 meeting when Bulls brass objectively evaluated the roster and determined that age, injury and the salary demands that come with building a title team made another unlikely. As Chicago rose to power in the early ’90s, Boston fell, its own dynasty succumbing to age and injury. It was a path the Bulls didn’t want to be on.

And there’s merit to that. In the final moments of The Last Dance, Jordan argued that the relationship with Jackson could have been salvaged, that the Bulls band could have been brought back on short term deals. A Jackson return was possible, sure, but when the ’99 lockout was lifted, Chicago agreed to sign-and-trade deals for Pippen, Steve Kerr and Luc Longley, with each securing career-high paydays. It’s unlikely any—particularly Pippen—would have settled for anything less. Dennis Rodman left Chicago, and two years, two teams and 35 games later, his career was over. Krause’s failure wasn’t breaking the team up, it was his inability to rebuild it again.

jerry-krause-bulls-phil-jackson

Still: The Bulls aren’t the Bulls without Krause, a fact not fully reflected through Last Dance’s Jordan-approved lens. It was Krause who flipped Charles Oakley for Bill Cartwright, a deal that secured Chicago the center needed to compete in the East. It was Krause (with the help of assistant GM Jim Stack) who had the foresight to flip Will Perdue—Will Perdue!­­—for Rodman, a trade that transformed the Bulls interior defense overnight. As The Last Dance wound down, even Pippen begrudgingly admitted that Krause was arguably the greatest general manager in the game.

He deserved more, from everyone. From the Hall of Fame, which kept Krause on the outside looking in for years for reasons that felt more personal than professional. From Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls owner who entrusted Krause with the future of the franchise but at times didn’t seem to fully support him. From Jordan and Pippen, because unwavering loyalty to a roster is not what wins championships. From The Last Dance, more than fat jokes and archived footage, because while Krause is no longer with us surely someone could have spoken for him. He deserved more than, say, just a few crumbs.