Trail of Crumbs leads Jordan to Hall's doorstep

The Vertical
Yahoo! Sports

Looking back, Jerry Krause still believes creative tension delivered a greater good to the dynasty. After all, history remembers old champions, not old chums. In the spring, he read Bill Russell’s memoir about his devotion to the Boston Celtics’ patriarch, Red Auerbach, and naturally it made Krause rewind to those days with Michael Jordan when winning came with isolation, without the joy of Jordan's embrace.

As time passes, Krause, the great general manager of the Chicago Bulls, still lives with the gulf between him and Jordan, with a relationship that perspective never bridged, that the years never mended. Maybe they were too stubborn, he says now. Maybe they were just wired too wrong.

“It would’ve been nice to have that, but it wasn’t going to happen,” Krause said by phone from his suburban Chicago home. “And it’s probably better that it didn’t, because I don’t think we would’ve won as consistently. Michael was a different cat, and it was a different era of basketball.

“All the differences were created by unusual circumstances. We weren’t friends, and I still can’t call him a friend by any means. But I have a tremendous respect for him as an athlete and a competitor.”

Jordan needed enemies and slights to keep his edge – real and imagined – and Phil Jackson fed that with a cold-hearted manipulation. Krause was the easy target. Us against them became us against him. He was the slovenly scout who never looked the part, the GM whom the coaches and players were convinced wanted too much credit for the championship run. Jordan could be vicious, and forever spared no indignity with Krause.

Krause didn’t give Jordan everything, but he gave the most. He delivered Jordan history’s greatest coach in Jackson. He gave him Tex Winter and an unstoppable triangle offense. He gave him a Hall of Fame running mate, Scottie Pippen. Jerry Krause gave him a championship cast for three titles, and when Jordan returned from baseball, the GM reshaped the roster for three more championships. Jordan couldn’t do it alone, and never did. Whatever Jordan wants to believe, no one in basketball has ever given more to his greatness than Jerry Krause. No one.

Jordan owes him a deep debt of gratitude in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech on Friday, and the Hall of Fame owes Krause a bid on the wall in the class of 2010. It’s a disgrace that Krause has never made it past the screening committee – never mind as a finalist. Krause doesn’t issue statements when he’s slighted and doesn’t enlist his famous pals to campaign for him. Truth be told, he excused himself as a member of the voting panel in 2004. He despised the process and became disillusioned he couldn’t sell Winter’s Hall candidacy as a contributor.

“I said that I would never step foot in that Hall of Fame again until Tex gets inducted, and I haven’t,” Krause said.

Sure, it’s strange. He says a telephone call from Jordan wouldn’t have moved him to Springfield, but Jerry Sloan would’ve tempted him. Krause drafted Mr. Bull as a scout for the Baltimore Bullets, as well as Wes Unseld and Earl Monroe. Yet, Krause made himself a Hall of Famer for his work with the Bulls. Rod Thorn drafted Jordan in 1984, but even Thorn will tell you: That was the easy part.

“When we got there, it was Michael and 11 other guys that I didn’t want,” Krause said.

Krause transformed the roster. He surrounded Jordan with rebounders, defenders and shooters. He hired Jackson out of the Continental Basketball Association to work on Doug Collins’ staff, and elevated him when he believed the Bulls became a championship contender.

“We hired Phil when nobody would hire him in the NBA,” Krause said. “He was getting ready to go to law school and get out of basketball. … We got along fine until some contractual things flamed up. Phil’s a great coach. Phil’s the best coach ever with good players.”

Jackson let Winter install the triangle offense, which allowed Jordan to score everywhere on the floor. He became unstoppable in the post and a willing passer to his teammates. Most of all, Krause used Olden Polynice to get him the draft rights to Pippen. In the GM's mind, Krause and Jordan could see the game – the possibilities – through an agreeable lens.

“Michael was great at identifying things,” Krause said. “Would Pippen have been great someplace else? Michael absolutely killed Scottie in practice every day for his first two years. Mike just tore Pip up. He made Pip learn how to compete and forced him into playing hard. Had there not been someone to challenge Scottie like that, I’m not sure what would’ve happened to him.”

They would win three titles to start the 1990s, and soon Jordan would lose his father, James, to an unspeakable murder and lose his good name to gambling debts with shady characters. It wouldn't be long until Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf sent a messenger into the stands of a White Sox game late in the summer of 1993 and hustled Krause to his office. Michael is retiring, he told him.

“We won 55 games and it was the year [1993-94] that maybe I was the proudest of with the Bulls,” Krause said. “I appreciated that team. We ran the triangle better than any other team. We shared the ball.” The Bulls would lose to the Knicks in the Eastern Conference semifinals on Hue Hollins’ phantom foul call in Game 5. Had Jordan never walked away, Krause insists, “I think we would’ve won eight straight titles.”

As Krause reshaped the roster with Toni Kukoc and Dennis Rodman and Ron Harper, the Bulls won three more titles. Krause became an object of ridicule on the team buses and in the newspapers. When Krause was famously quoted – misquoted, he still insists – about organizations winning championships, his coach and superstar twisted those words into an affront of their greatness.

“What I had said was that coaches and players alone don’t win championships, that organizations do, and Michael and Phil went a little nuts not knowing what I said,” Krause said. “I do believe organizations win and lose.”

He was right then, and he’s right now. After leaving the Bulls in 2003, Krause returned to his first love, baseball scouting, working for the Yankees and Mets. This winter, he left baseball, and this is the first time in 47 years that he doesn’t have a job. He’s working out. He’s lost 36 pounds. “I needed to take care of myself,” Krause said.

For once, Jordan needs to take care of him. He should stand up for Jerry Krause now, the way that he never did as a Bull. Older and wiser, Jordan should be more than a little humbled over how hard it is to build a championship basketball team. Krause never drafted Kwame Brown(notes) and Adam Morrison(notes).

As much as anything, Jordan should understand that his journey to Springfield, to immortality, would’ve never been complete without that rumpled man he called Crumbs.

Jerry Krause will be home, watching on television and the game’s greatest player needs to take a moment out of his speech to honor Krause in a way he never did in the days of the dynasty. He doesn’t owe Krause everything, but he owes him a thank you. He owes Krause that bully pulpit to bless a deserving Hall of Fame candidacy, to honor the architect of the greatest dynasty since Red and Russell’s Celtics with a fitting ending for that frumpy old man.

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