The history of basketball can't be written without Jerry Krause

Editor’s note: This column was originally published on March 22, 2017, the day after the death of former Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause.

The sunlight splashed through the glass doors, and his wife, Thelma, warmed a pot of soup on the stove. Outside Jerry Krause’s suburban Chicago home seven weeks ago, the snow blanketed the backyard and patio. Inside, Krause had been going for an hour and a half at the kitchen table now, an old scout telling the story of a lifetime chase.

The recorder finally clicked off, and Krause leaned toward me: “Do you think I’m going to get in?”

He would ask the question often: Do you think I’ll get into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame? At 77 years old, his body crumbling because of an excruciating bone disease, Krause could see the end. He talked about getting into the Hall of Fame as a scout, to represent them all, to honor the bird dogs with whom he chased basketball and baseball prospects for half a century. Few of them ever got the chance to become a general manager, hire Phil Jackson out of the old Continental Basketball Association, draft Scottie Pippen out of Central Arkansas and chase Toni Kukoc to the edges of Eastern Europe. Those old scouts didn’t get six championship parades in Chicago, the way Krause did.

Nevertheless, Jerry Krause always imagined that night in Springfield, Mass., where the gumshoes could symbolically stand shoulder to shoulder at his enshrinement with him.

He passed away Tuesday in the north suburbs of Chicago, within a week of when officials might have notified him of his selection into the Hall of Fame before the formal announcement during the NCAA Final Four weekend.

At the kitchen table several weeks ago, over that bowl of soup, Krause told me, “I just want to be around if it ever happens, but I don’t know … ”

Jerry Krause watches a Bulls game in February 1999. (Jonathan Daniel/Allsport)
Jerry Krause watches a Bulls game in February 1999. (Jonathan Daniel/Allsport)

We had to postpone my trip to Chicago twice, because Krause had been in such agony. He called crying one day, needlessly apologetic because he had taken a bad turn and couldn’t sit for a podcast interview. I never knew Jerry Krause as an NBA executive, only in retirement – through long emails and periodic phone calls. He belonged in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame years ago, but Krause had never been the political animal that he needed to be to gain entrance into the contributors’ wing. He was never one of the boys, and Hall of Fame chairman Jerry Colangelo never made it a priority to expedite Krause’s entrance. Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf was inducted, but never the man responsible for surrounding Michael Jordan with Pippen out of Central Arkansas and Jackson from the Albany Patroons, and bringing Tex Winter and his triangle offense.

Until the end, though, Krause was endlessly intrigued with the modern NBA and asked questions about the general managers and players. Tell me about R.C. Buford and Neil Olshey, Masai Ujiri and Sam Presti, he would ask. After Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City, he started to ask questions about Presti and his Thunder roster. I told Presti about my conversation with Krause, passed along a phone number and it wasn’t long until Presti made a trip to Chicago and spent an afternoon with Krause.

When they were talking, Krause asked Presti: “Have you ever had that feeling when you just saw something — a flash … a glimpse? I call that electrified scouting.”

The thrill of the lonely scouting chase still sparked Krause. On Presti’s visit, Krause brought out files upon files of catalogued scouting reports. “Players I had never heard of, guys who had never made it,” Presti said.

Krause had a story about them all, and wanted to know all about the Thunder’s young players, and how Presti planned to move beyond the loss of Kevin Durant. “He was still curious about everything,” Presti said.

Perhaps no one in the NBA had a closer, deeper relationship with Krause than the Orlando Magic’s assistant GM, Matt Lloyd. As an intern with the Chicago Bulls, Lloyd started soliciting Krause for guidance and advice, and as he moved up into the Bulls’ front office, Tuesday lunches together became a regular staple with Krause. Mostly, these were scouting clinics. Lloyd absorbed it all, scribbling notes for years and years.

And when Lloyd spoke with Thelma Krause on Wednesday morning, Lloyd told her that he had years of old reports that Krause had shared with him, and asked if he should return them to the family now.

Scottie Pippen (R) of the Chicago Bulls eludes Chris Morris of the Utah Jazz 11 June during game five of the 1997 NBA Finals at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. The best of seven series is tied at 2-2.   AFP PHOTO     Paul K. BUCK (Photo by PAUL BUCK / AFP) (Photo by PAUL BUCK/AFP via Getty Images)
Jerry Krause drafted Scottie Pippen in 1987. (Photo by PAUL BUCK/AFP via Getty Images)

Thelma laughed and said, essentially, please do not send them back here. The house is loaded with reports and notes and files, and, well, where in the world would she put them all? Truth be told, Matt Lloyd wants to keep them, and Thelma Krause probably knew how much it all meant to him.

“I share them with our younger scouts, because all of us, we can still learn from Jerry,” Lloyd said on Wednesday morning.

For too long, people never saw the generous side of Krause. He never let them. His insecurities, his social awkwardness and the way Jackson and Jordan tried to turn him into a piñata and a punch line took a toll on Krause. On the morning of Jordan’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony eight years ago, I stopped to see Jerry and Thelma in the concierge lounge of the Marriott hotel in Springfield. Soon, an old Chicago sportswriter walked into the room, Jerry recoiled and clenched up like a fist. The writer greeted him with a hello and a smile, and Jerry turned away from him, starting to tremble and mumble about old slights.

His wife pleaded: “Jerry, calm down. Let it go.”

Krause clung to old grudges far too long, but that all seemed to have washed away in our conversations in these recent months. He was nostalgic and empathetic and remembered all the relationships and successes and joys along the way. Perhaps he was feeling his mortality, perhaps understanding the rare good days of health weren’t worth wasting on all that angst.

Krause left me a voice message on the first morning of March, letting me know that the old Phoenix Suns team doctor had passed away and wondering if I could call him back, because he had a question for me.

When we connected, he asked about the Hall of Fame again, what I was hearing, did I think he was going to get through the final vote and into Springfield. Once again, I told him that I had hoped so, that everyone I respected in the NBA believed he belonged, that merit dictated he was long overdue and deserving.

“I hope so,” Krause told me. “I hope I’m still around to see it. I hope my kids and grandchildren can share it with me.”

He never made it to Springfield, but his imprint, his genius, lives there forever. Whatever the politics, here’s the scouting report on him, now and always: No one can write the history of basketball without the great Jerry Krause.

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