“Players and coaches don’t win championships; organisations win championships.”
These are the infamous, supposedly self-interested words of former Chicago Bulls GM Jerry Krause, the villain of Netflix’s ongoing 10-part documentary, The Last Dance. At the time of writing, two more episodes remain of the ultra-popular basketball documentary; and while public favour of former Bulls star player Michael Jordan seems to be at an all-time high, the same could probably not be said of MJ’s front office counterpart. At a time when people have more reason than ever to engross themselves in television, Krause’s infamy in pop culture is currently matched only by Tiger King protagonist Carole Baskin. If you aren’t familiar with the NBA or the documentary, here are a couple of tweets to give you an idea:
Throughout the series, Krause is portrayed as jealous, greedy and bitter. On multiple occasions he is openly mocked by Michael Jordan, mainly in reference to Krause’s stature. On one occasion, Krause is shown swallowing medicine while standing on the sidelines during a practice session. Jordan, without missing a beat, sarcastically remarks: “So those are the pills that keep you short! Or are those diet pills?” It was Jordan, the most decorated player in NBA history, who immortalised Krause’s nickname, ‘Crumbs’, in reference to the doughnut crumbs which Krause was often said to leave on his suits. Despite being ostensibly the boss of the team, Jerry Krause was at the very bottom of the Bulls’ social hierarchy. He sat by himself on the team bus, he was the butt of every joke, and he was critiqued – publicly and privately – by the Bulls’ playing and coaching staff.
Of course, some of this criticism was entirely fair. When Scottie Pippen, Jordan’s brightest co-star and a perennial all-star player in his own right, asked for a contract which didn’t even remotely come close to other players of his calibre, it was Krause who stubbornly refused. Pippen would become renowned as the most criminally underpaid player of his generation. And when the Bulls did win their sixth championship in eight years in 1998 – spoiler alert – it was Krause who seemingly inexplicably dismantled the team, losing four of the team’s starting five players and replacing long-term head coach Phil Jackson. The prevailing diagnosis for this decision has, for the guts of two decades, been that Krause simply could not stand being out of the limelight. That his jealousy simply overrode his professionalism and steered the Bulls into the (mostly) mediocre two decades which followed in his absence. I, however, would like to offer up a defence.
It is not easy to win a battle of public opinion against a man like Michael Jordan. In today’s age of ultra-accessible celebrities enabled by social media, it is simply impossible to quantify the scale of Jordan’s ethereal fame in the 90s. Between commercials with Nike, McDonalds or Coca-Cola, Jordan would win a record 6 MVP awards and find the time to star in Space Jam, which at the time was the highest-grossing sports movie ever which didn’t have a bloke called Rocky in it. Suffice to say: Jordan speaks, people listen. And, in The Last Dance, he speaks at great length – usually at the expense of Jerry Krause.
But here’s the problem: in the NBA, general managers aren’t supposed to engage in wars of public opinion, and Krause was dragged into a public trial which he never wanted any part of. One of his more complimentary nicknames was ‘The Sleuth’, earned due to his renowned ability to keep secrets and do his work outside of the mass media horde. The team Krause inherited in 1985 consisted of what Jordan himself compared to “a travelling cocaine circus”, and The Sleuth transformed this into the most successful team in the history of the sport within 15 years, winning three championships in a row on two occasions. For those unaware, the NBA operates on one crucial egalitarian principle: each year, the teams with the worst record in the previous season receive the first choices in the following year’s NBA Draft, consisting of the best prospects from colleges throughout the country and elsewhere. If you’re a good team, that means you have to try exceptionally hard to find diamonds in the rough if you are to achieve any modicum of longevity, given every other worse team are being given the best young players in the world year upon year – and as it happened, diamonds in the rough were Jerry Krause’s speciality. In one famous example, he travelled to Yugoslavia to personally scout young forward Toni Kukoč, who would go on to be drafted as late as 29th overall in 1990, and ended up being an integral part of the team as the Bulls won their second ‘three-peat’.
Other than Jordan, there was not a single player on any of the Bulls’ championship-winning teams in the 90s who hadn’t been hand-picked by Jerry Krause, and yet the Bulls faithful and general public have painted him as the villain at every turn. The Last Dance and its long full-feature interviews with Jordan and Pippen do not help to soften this depiction. “[Krause] would rather destroy an institution than see it thrive,” seethes one of the aforementioned tweeters off the back of another episode of the documentary, but in my view this anger is misplaced. Jerry Krause orchestrated arguably the most successful period of sporting dominance of the last 30 years and initiated a rebuild of the team when it appeared as though that era was coming to an end. Krause died in 2017 and wasn’t able to be interviewed by the producers of The Last Dance. Perhaps if he had been, the unfortunate narrative which continues to shroud his legacy could have been reversed.