Why Jerry Krause is more than just a ‘Last Dance’ villain

More than half a week has passed since the first two episodes of “The Last Dance” aired, and I still feel bad for Jerry Krause.

The Krause psychological profile is well-worn: the short, fat kid who was bullied all his life, the only Jewish student at his high school, where they delighted in reminding him of that with racist taunts. He spends his adult years craving some tonic of acceptance and revenge. Mostly, he wants control.

He was a passionate sports fan, so he infiltrated the dungeon of jocks by chasing every edge that does not require athleticism — living on airplanes, trolling tiny gymnasiums and European outposts, scribbling notes obsessively and secretively, guarding all insights close to his chest — and became one of the best scouts in NBA history. Chicago Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf hired him as GM in 1985, a year after the team drafted Michael Jordan.

Guys like Krause can sneak in, but once they do, survival usually requires contrition.

Not so for Krause, who, despite standing 5-foot-6, flaunted his accomplishments over his players. He never realized how lucky he was, perhaps because admitting he was lucky would mean relinquishing some credit. His need for credit eventually drove him to the delusion that the front office was more responsible for success than Jordan, the Hall of Famer who is at the center of ESPN’s 10-part documentary following the final season of the Bulls’ dynasty.

On Sunday, when the first two episodes aired, 6.1 million viewers — many of whom were not familiar with the details of the dynasty — watched Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson get a victory parade, while online Krause was compared to a Monstar from “Space Jam” by an entirely new generation.

I feel bad for Krause because even three years after his death, the thing he wants most — credit — eludes him. I feel bad for him because he didn’t know how to appreciate success, which is a more common affliction than those at the top would be willing to admit.

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

In the series, we meet Krause through a shot of his open mouth. Then he awkwardly ambles through a parking lot and fidgets with his keys before sneaking into his car. Jordan set the stage in practice, when a reporter asked him what the team’s biggest challenge would be heading into the season, and he looked up at Krause’s office window. After squabbling with Jackson over a contract extension, Krause makes it clear that this season will be Jackson’s last. Jordan backs his coach: If he’s gone, I’m gone, too. Jackson, perpetually in search of a story, found one in the fued, turning the tension into a fissure and baking in it an identity: us vs. them. Krause is decidedly the villain trying to break up the team. Never mind that Jackson was contemplating taking a break from coaching anyway, or that the famously thrifty Reinsdorf — who had the power to fire Krause and hypothetically bring back the gang but didn’t — wouldn’t have wanted to pay to keep a team on the downside intact.

I feel bad for Krause because he couldn’t get out of his own way. I feel bad for Krause because he didn’t have the grace, the confidence, to let go of his accomplishments, and being the villain in your own success story is a harsh punishment for lacking grace.

According to Sports Illustrated, “In 1988 Reinsdorf put a clause in Krause's contract offering him $50,000 for losing 50 pounds and keeping it off for a year. Krause won't do it. Why not?” Krause said: “Maybe deep down in my heart I want to prove you don't have to be pretty to win.”

I feel bad for him because after making this bet, Krause won six times but not enough to realize he had proven it, that he was a winner, that he did have a ton to do with the Bulls’ success, that he didn’t have to go out chasing bigger scouting scores and wringing all the credit he could from victory and all the dollars he could off the bottom lines of his employees. He rejected his own success. In time, it evaded him. He was always chasing something better, alienating what was in front of him: Jordan, Pippen and Jackson among others, constantly getting into conflicts he couldn’t win, losing more self-esteem, more patience, picking up more motivation to engineer a way to move on from the architects of the dynasty.

Krause alienated the fans, who booed him through multiple ring ceremonies. He was eligible for 14 years before being nominated to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, an accolade he always craved, one week before he died. In the end, he never got to have his moment, because he wanted it too badly.

I feel bad for him because in another way, he made that bet and lost. Krause couldn’t win. Not the way he wanted to. He couldn’t win the way athletes do, the way Jordan did.

We love great athletes because alongside artists, they’re among the few people who can make winning look pretty, graceful, balletic, energetic, pure. Kevin Garnett could bark and hiss and bang his head against the stanchion before every game because if he won, it would all be justified after the fact.

But for the most part, winning looks ugly. Krause’s job was to perpetually search for replacements and try to pay his stars the least amount of money. That kind of winning is important, but it isn’t glamorized. The Jordans of the world fill seats.

The best GM’s know: don’t cower in the face of every demand — one must keep his spine, after all — but understand the star runs the show, that part of the price of riding his coattails is enduring the occasional ribbing or tirade. You may think you’re paying their salary, but really, they’re paying yours. Got an issue with that? Keep it to yourself. Credit, by the way, starts with the players and then goes to the coaches, while the front office picks up the crumbs.

Ironically, if Krause stuck to the script, he would have reaped plenty of credit.

But now he’s known less for discovering Jackson in the coaching backwaters of the CBA and more for driving him out.

Krause was one of the first NBA scouts to key in on Pippen. On draft night in 1987, he sent Olden Polynice and future picks to Seattle in exchange for the right to pluck Pippen from Central Arkansas with the fifth overall pick. Krause could have embraced what he had in Pippen. Instead, he chased Toni Kukoc, a 6-foot-11 ball-handling shooter from Croatia. That’ll really show them. Now, Krause is remembered less for drafting Pippen and more for trying to trade him.

I feel bad for Krause because he will be remembered for destroying something great rather than helping build it, though he had a hand in both. I feel bad that I feel bad, because he deserves better than pity. I feel bad for Krause because while he’s not a hero, he isn’t quite a villain either.

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