How Jerry Krause built an NBA dynasty with the Chicago Bulls

Dec 6, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; A view of the Chicago Bulls logo on a pair of game shorts at The Palace of Auburn Hills. The Pistons won 102-91.Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 6, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; A view of the Chicago Bulls logo on a pair of game shorts at The Palace of Auburn Hills. The Pistons won 102-91.Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports /

"“Players and coaches don’t win championships; organizations win championships.” — Chicago Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause"

That one misguided, misunderstood, misconstrued quote would unfortunately come to define the legacy of former Chicago Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause, who passed away early this week at the age of 77.

The quote, which Krause later clarified, was meant to give credit to the litany of Bulls’ behind-the-scenes personnel. Instead, it resonated with basketball fans for all the wrong reasons. It would later be used as a point of contention during Michael Jordan’s Basketball Hall of Fame speech; used to represent the gall of a man who dared take credit away from Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson, Dennis Rodman, Horace Grant, John Paxson and the numerous pieces built around No. 23 that helped the Bulls become one of the NBA’s most preeminent dynasties of all-time.

The quote was met with increased laughter as the Bulls, under Krause, struggled in the post-Jordan era — not only to return to the playoffs but in many cases win 20 games.

The quote, like Krause, was often taken at face value. It didn’t “look” right.

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Krause never looked like a “basketball” guy. Krause never played in the NBA. He was nicknamed “Crumbs” by Jordan for his sloppy eating habits and obesity. He was often referred to as “the fat guy in the blue shirt” whenever reporters talked to Jordan. When he ascended to the top of the Bulls organization, he was known more for his acumen as a long-time baseball scout than his ability to build a formidable basketball team.

It was that baseball scouting background, that drive and desire to consume game film, travel to exotic lands and do the “dirty work of scouting” that made Krause so successful. It was as a scout for the Chicago White Sox that Krause discovered 19-year-old slick fielding shortstop Ozzie Guillen. Krause pressed Sox general manager Roland Hemond to acquire Guillen, no matter the price:

"“He’s our man. I think we should move fast.”"

The Sox traded former Cy Young winner LaMarr Hoyt for Guillen, bringing the Venezuelan to the South Side of Chicago. It was Guillen who would lead the White Sox to a period of success throughout the 1990s before returning to the team as manager for their World Series win in 2005.

That would be one of seven titles Krause helped bring to the Windy City.

Krause inherited the best building block of all-time with Jordan. A wiry, high-flier the likes of which the NBA had never seen. However, building around a player like Jordan and building a successful, sustainable dynasty around someone 6-foot-6 wasn’t as obvious as it seems to current NBA observers. Look no further than where Jordan was picked in the 1984 NBA Draft — famously passed over by both the Trail Blazers and Rockets in favor of centers Sam Bowie and Hakeem Olajuwon. The NBA was still a big man’s league. Even the successful of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson hadn’t done enough to change the narrative that winning teams were built from the inside out.

Building around Jordan was a tremendous risk, but those types of risks would come to define Krause’s tenure. In Jordan’s first two healthy seasons, the Bulls won 38 and 40 games respectively. Little by little, Krause disassembled the ragtag Bulls team he inherited, a team known more for their drug habits than their play on the court. During that time, he scouted every corner of the world for talents to add to his team, talents that would complement his emerging star. In the 1987 NBA Draft, Krause found not one but two of those complements in Clemson big man Horace Grant and University of Central Arkansas product Scottie Pippen.

Pippen, who walked onto the Central Arkansas team as a point guard, emerged from the school as a 6-foot-8 raw but projectable dynamo.

Krause, in a draft deal trade, acquired Pippen from the Supersonics for Olden Polynice, once again bucking the trend of big men, particularly centers being at the heart of a dynasty.

It was during this time that Krause began assembling the coaching staff that would come to define the Bulls as much as the players on the court. Former Knicks player Phil Jackson was added to head coach Doug Collins’ bench. Tex Winter, an old friend of Krause back to their days in Kansas State, was also brought in as an assistant. Alongside Winter and Jackson was former college coach Johnny Bach, hired as a defensive wiz.

In 1989, Krause and Bulls took one of many offseason risks, jettisoning the successful Collins for a great unknown in Jackson:

"“We know this will be an unpopular decision, but we truly believe this will be in the best interests of all parties.” — Bulls team owner Jerry Reinsdorf"

As would become a theme that offseason, Jordan was unhappy with the move:

"“It’s something between management and Doug Collins. I don’t know what happened and the reason for it, but my job is to perform on the basketball court and let the rest of the guys do their jobs.”"

Krause and the Bulls made their star unhappy once again when they dealt his best friend on the team and the Bulls enforcer/answer to the Pistons’ vaunted “Jordan Rules” defense, Charles Oakley.

"“We’re giving up the best rebounder in the league. How are we going to replace that?” — Michael Jordan"

In the trade, the Bulls acquired Bill Cartwright, a stout defender and more well-rounded scorer than Oakley. More importantly, the trade of Oakley opened up a spot for Grant in the starting lineup.

Jordan, was not as enamored with Cartwright:

"When the Bulls let Charles Oakley go and brought in Bill Cartwright, Jordan resented the loss of his friend and took it out on Cartwright, calling him “Medical Bill” and intentionally throwing impossible-to-handle passes at him in practice to draw attention to what he perceived to be his bad hands."

These moves, along with the draft day acquisitions of Stacey King and B.J. Armstrong turned the Bulls into an immediate powerhouse, winning 55 games in the 1989-90 season. The result, however, was all the same: a playoff loss to the Pistons.

Jordan, upset at yet another defeat at the hands of the Pistons, told reporters to once again “talk to the fat guy in the blue shirt.”

Everything came together in 1990-91 as the Bulls swept the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals and defeated the Lakers and Magic Johnson in the NBA Finals. The emergence of the Bulls’ defense (seventh in the league in defensive efficiency) was thanks in large part of defensive coach Bach and the Bulls’ newly-christened “Doberman Defense.”

You know the rest of the story: The Bulls won the next three NBA championships before Jordan took a hiatus from the game to pursue a career in baseball.

Krause, to his credit, had built a contingency plan in 6-foot-11 Croatian Toni Kukoc. Drafted by the Bulls in 1990, Kukoc remained in Europe until 1993, debuting after Jordan had already left.

However, Jordan and Pippen were well-aware of Kukoc prior to his arrival. The duo famously went out of their way to embarrass Kukoc and Team Croatia in the 1992 Summer Olympics.

Pippen especially took it out on Kukoc as the Bulls had been saving money under the salary cap to pay the Croatian once he was ready to make his debut. Pippen, who was hoping to renegotiate his contract, was denied by Krause who wanted to save the money for Kukoc.

Finally in November 1993, Kukoc debuted and was all he was advertised as. The Bulls even without Jordan still won 55 games thanks to Kukoc, Grant and Pippen. The Bulls would win 47 games the next season as Jordan returned to the game with two famous words: “I’m back.”

It was during this offseason that Krause once again took another massive risk, trading reliable big man Will Perdue to the Spurs for the brash, outspoken and often troublesome Dennis Rodman.

"“You have to take risks in this business. We know what we want to accept. We’re going to go down the road, the straight and the narrow in this particular case.” — Bulls head coach Phil Jackson"

Rodman was one of the NBA’s best defenders and rebounders but his antics had wore out their welcome in both Detroit and San Antonio. The Spurs in particular were prepared to leave him unprotected in that year’s NBA Expansion Draft.

Krause, never afraid to go for the home run, took the risk of all risks, bringing Rodman, a former foe of both Pippen and Jordan in his Pistons’ Bad Boy Days, into the fold.

It worked. The Bulls won 72 games and cruised to their fourth NBA title of the decade. They would follow up with two more before it all came crashing down.

Jackson, Pippen and Jordan left after the 1998 season. Narrative has it the Bulls — and more importantly Krause — “blew up” the dynasty. In actuality, it was going to end whether Krause wanted it to or not. All three had one foot out of the door. Jackson’s contract was expiring and all signs pointed to him leaving the organization. Jordan was in the final year of his contract as well and hinted at a second retirement, particularly if Jackson was not his coach:

"(Jordan) made clear that under no circumstances would he play for the Bulls again unless Jackson were coach."

Pippen, whose body began breaking down, remained unhappy about his contract. Krause pushed to trade Pippen to the Celtics for a package of draft picks. According to Chicago Tribune reporter Sam Smith, Krause wanted to use one of Boston’s high picks picks on 18-year-old Tracy McGrady. In the end, Pippen was done right by the Bulls and Krause. Dealt to Houston in a sign-and-trade, Pippen was finally able to get the big money he always wanted, with the Bulls ensuring that Pippen received the max.

Before that happened, the Bulls won their sixth NBA championship of the decade, their second three-peat and then in the blink of an eye, it was over.

Eager to preside over a rebuild, Krause immediately got to work. The Bulls selected Duke big man Elton Brand as the No. 1 overall pick two years later. In short order, Krause built what he thought would be the next great Bulls team. On-court success didn’t follow but in those few post-Jordan years the collection of talent assembled by Krause speaks for itself: Ron Artest, Jamal Crawford, Brad Miller.

In 2001, Krause changed course — arguably his biggest swing (and miss) — trading his young star Brand for unproven high school talent Tyson Chandler. In the draft, Krause selected Chicago-area center Eddy Curry. The goal was to team up the two 7-footers and dominate the NBA much like Tim Duncan and David Robinson were doing in San Antonio.

It didn’t work. Curry became a serviceable player but never the explosive scorer many, Krause included, projected him as. Brand continued to play well with the Clippers and years later led them to a relatively deep playoff run. Chandler, who initially looked overmatched in the NBA, emerged a handful of years into his NBA tenure becoming one of the NBA’s best big men and a key cog in the Mavericks’ 2011 NBA championship.

Krause, unfortunately, would never be able to reap the benefits of his young nucleus; he retired in 2003 amid another losing season for the Bulls. Years later, Krause would return to his roots as a baseball scout working with the Yankees, White Sox and Diamondbacks.

Krause, whose health had become an issue in recent year, will someday make the Basketball Hall of Fame. That he won’t be able to cherish the moment is one of the great tragedies of his loss. Krause had always had a contentious relationship with the Hall of Fame, refusing to attend any events until Winter, the patriarch of the triangle offense, was included.

In 2011, Winter was finally inducted and Krause, a man of his word, attended the event. It was there he reunited with former coach Jackson. The two, who had a rocky relationship in their final years, buried the hatchet and united over Winter’s inclusion.

That it’s taken Krause’s death for us to honor one of the NBA’s greatest general managers of all-time is a real shame. Krause was instrumental in bringing six NBA championships to Chicago, instrumental in building Jordan as one of the NBA’s all-time legends, instrumental in helping the NBA emerge as a world powerhouse, instrumental in the growing NBA front office (Krause famously hired a salary cap expert to help him maneuver the NBA financially). Krause was a revolutionary, a one-of-a-kind scouting talent and one of the NBA’s most revered talented evaluator.

That the nickname “Crumbs” and the “organizations win championship” quote comes to mind when people think of Krause is a great tragedy. Hopefully in the years that follow Krause gets his due and hopefully someday soon Krause will be posthumously inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Hopefully, one day, Krause will get his due as one of the legendary figures in NBA history.


If you’re interested in learning more about NBA history, check out my NBA history podcast, Over and Back, and the rest of our great podcasts hosted on The Step Back.