“He said, ‘Organizations win championships.’ I didn’t see organizations playing with the flu in Utah. I didn’t see organizations playing with a bad ankle.” That’s how Michael Jordan talked about Jerry Krause in his (in)famous Hall of Fame speech. While most people are humbled and talk about everyone who supported them on their way to the Hall of Fame, Michael Jordan spent most of the time talking about his doubters.
MJ’s most protracted basketball conflict wasn’t with Isiah Tomas, Clyde Drexler, Dominique Wilkins, or Stockton & Malone. It was with his General Manager Jerry Krause. “The Last Dance” set up Krause as the villain, and almost every episode has a moment in which MJ mocks and insults Krause. It was because Jordan never could run the Bulls like LeBron does his teams. He never became Jordan GM, and Bulls fans should feel good about that. What ticked off MJ more than anything was Krause saying things like this.
“The one thing I would say, and I say it from Jerry Reinsdorf on down, this is a great organization. This organization is special. It starts with Jerry [Reinsdorf] and goes all the way down to Joe Lee, our clubhouse guy who’s been here 25 years. It’s an organization thing, and that’s what it’s all about. The team is great, but the organization is one of the all-time great, if not the greatest organizations ever. That’s what I’m so much proud of.”Jerry Krause, The Last Dance
Both guys are right – you need a great organization and a Top 5 player to win it all, a Hall of Famer to win a few, and one of the greatest to win six times. This tension of who gets how much credit was constant between Krause and Jordan. Given what MJ said about Krause during his Hall of Fame speech, it never stopped.
Phil Jackson had the delicate task of balancing between the two, making Jordan and Krause co-exist in relative peace. Jackson was loyal to both – Krause gave him his shot in the NBA, believed in him, and promoted him to Head Coach. Jordan trusted Jackson to implement the triangle and trust the system. That puts Jackson in a unique position to have insight, and be as objective as someone with so much insight can be.
After leaving the Bulls, Jackson’s next stop was in one of the NBA’s greatest franchises. Eleven titles in LA, five in Minnesota. For almost their entire time in Los Angeles, Lakers fans expected titles. If you were born in LA in the 1940s and started following basketball as a kid, there were only a few years in your entire life that the Lakers didn’t have one of the best NBA players on the roster: Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and now LeBron James.
What Phil Jackson learned upon coming to LA was that Jerry Krause might’ve been wrong. If the Lakers were your case study, “great organization” isn’t so important if you are in Los Angeles. That created particular problems for Jackson at the start of his tenure with the Lakers.
“I had to temper what to say when I was in LA. I couldn’t say, ‘The Bulls wouldn’t do things this way.’ The Lakers felt they knew how to do things even though they were 10 years behind Jerry.”Phil Jackson, Bulls.com
As Jackson explained it, the Bulls were a top-notch organization while Krause was in charge. They had a system of recording all NBA games installed in their practice facility before it was a standard procedure. Krause hired an internist to “process players’ needs as a whole player and not just (a specialist).” The Bulls were one of the first franchises that had a trainer, Al Vermeil, develop an off-season workout programs for every player. “A day or two after we lost to Detroit (in 1990), there were 10 players working out as a unit.” Jackson probably didn’t expect all this was lacking with one of the greatest franchises in NBA history.
“We had a psychologist available; all these things when I went to L.A. were not in place, video, medical, therapist, massage therapy. One season with all those four in five nights, we had no injuries, one player all season on a 10-day contract. He was ahead of the curve I’d say by 10 years in a lot of the things we did for the whole person, a players’ total being.”Phil Jackson, Bulls.com
All this explains why Jerry Krause kept saying the Bulls were a great organization and annoying Jordan in the process. Jordan’s play on the court, and the media machine glorifying his every move, put everything else in the shadows. Krause felt like his contribution, and everything the organization did to put the Bulls in a position to win 6 titles was not talked about enough. I suspect he might’ve had a point there.
You can imagine how Jordan had a tough time accepting something that’s a fact. That “short fat guy” understood how to build a basketball team much better than MJ did. You can see it when comparing moves Jordan wanted the Bulls to do, and what Krause did. You can see that by comparing Jerry Krause and Michael Jordan as GM’s.
Basketball is covered differently nowadays, and we have a lot more information about the internal situations of almost every NBA organization. That made us value the importance of good ownership and management. For sustained success, you need an owner that will accept a long-term plan from the right GM and stay the hell out of the way, a coach that has time to build a culture and develop a system and a top-level player.
It’s hard to imagine a parallel universe in which Michael Jordan doesn’t win a ring or two. But six? Jerry Krause and the Bulls have to get some credit for that. My guess is, if MJ mentioned Krause and the Bulls in that light from time to time, and still got most of the credit, he would talk about Jerry Krause the same way he does about Phil Jackson. If Krause just got a little respect and public acknowledgment, he wouldn’t point out the organization and probably throw a lot more praise MJ’s way. So why didn’t Jordan talk about Krause that way?
“The mistrust Michael had with management, specifically with Jerry Krause, was he believed that they violated the most fundamental aspect of sport. Of, I would argue, the most fundamental aspect of the way Michael conducted his life. You do it at the highest level, and you do it to win all the time. From that moment on, Michael’s relationship with ownership and management was deeply soured. That never went away.”Al Vermeil, The Last Dance
This is a quote from Episode 2, the time MJ had to sit out the final seconds of a game vs. Indiana because he was on a minutes restriction. Jerry Krause did something all 30 NBA teams would do in a heartbeat today, including the Hornets, but Jordan wasn’t mature enough to get over it. From that point on, Krause was just a “short fat guy” that took basketball away.
There’s a long history of evidence that it takes a lot less than this for Jordan to resent you for the rest of his life. That moment started a never-ending spiral, and for every Jordan’s low blow, Krause would talk up the Bulls organization. More similar than different, both guys chasing acclaim they didn’t get as kids.
The funny thing is, MJ is on almost everyone’s perfect team list. The more we learn and are reminded of all the great moves Jerry Krause did, he has to be in the conversation as a member of your front office dream team. If only they dared to appreciate each other more. Maybe that was the price both had to pay to be a part of one of the best NBA organizations of all time. Who gets how much credit is a decision we all have to make for ourselves.