originally published March 22, 2017
One of the all-time great NBA architects has died. It is a sobering reminder of how quickly time passes in sport. Jerry Krause was just here. The Bulls were just in the spotlight. But time waits for no man. The world turns. Krause built a dynasty and then destroyed it. His narcissism and ego burnt the Michael Jordan house down.
Jerry Krause was one of the top scouts and masterminds in NBA history. He was a relentless worker. But his ego, his bitter Jackson feud, his Scottie Pippen conflict overshadowed exactly how brilliant Jerry Krause was at his job, a job that became his obsession.
He built from scratch a team that won 6 titles. Never one to believe in humility, Krause wanted all the credit. He seethed when Jordan was lionized in the media for bringing the Bulls a championship. No one seemed to recognize that Krause built this team with his intellect, guile and instinct. He did the quiet, difficult things. No one gave him much applause or acknowledgment for his effortless toil. It was Jordan 24-7. Or, it was nothing.
Arrogantly boastful, narcissistically nauseating, Krause said something he could never walk back and it haunted him for the rest of his career although what he said was 100% true: organizations win championships. When he said it, it was perceived to be a diss at Michael Jordan who coined Krause with the nickname Crumbs Krause because of his aversion for paying players what they were worth. Jordan made a point to say about Krause, “we keep our distance” even as he lampooned him at every opportunity.
Slyly, Jordan never hid his disdain for Krause and was always upfront in his barbs and critiques to the point that Krause could be a sympathetic figure. Jordan would mock the overweight GM on the team bus as he sat in the rear. Jordan didn’t think Krause ever gave him the credit he deserved, so immersed in his own brilliance. Jordan, didn’t respect Krause as a scout, one of the best in NBA history, nor did he like him shafting players out of money they earned, and he hated that Krause traded one of his best friends, Charles Oakley.
Enmity was Krause’s friend too. He hated the contradiction of the NBA star culture. Whenever the Bulls lost, the barbarians stormed the gates out for blood. Krause was the villainous Hannibal Lecter. But when the Bulls won he was overlooked, disregarded, invisible. Michael Jordan was toasted and feted like a king.
Even as Krause struggled with acceptance and external approval, it didn’t change his love for Chicago, the city he was born in.
“It would mean something special to me to win a championship ring in this town. I grew up here. I have a father lying in a grave here. I want to win one for him. I want to win one for Jerry Reinsdorf who gave me a chance. I want to win one for all the old scouts who never got the chance.”
In 1987, Scottie Pippen was a long and lanky forward from the state of Arkansas playing at a NAIA school no one ever heard of, Central Arkansas. Before the draft, Krause was in love with Pippen for obvious reasons. Pippen was athletic, could score and rebound, had soft hands and a mature demeanor and a toughness, a requirement in the Michael Jordan world. Jordan could reduce players to tears with his punishing rebuke and searing critiques. He was demanding and intolerant. He didn’t suffer fools.
Krause was a gifted scout. He spotted talent like others breathe air. He didn’t waste energy. It was not talent for talent’s sake he could identify but talent who could thrive in an NBA culture.
The Bulls had the number 8 pick which Krause traded to the Sonics for the #5 pick. In the deal, he traded the next year’s  second round pick, and a first round pick in 1989. He gave up Olden Polynice. He received the Sonics first rounder in 1989 along with the rights to Pippen.
Michael Jordan finally had a hyper-talented wing player who could defend, rebound, make shots and wasn’t afraid of him. The only unanswered question was chemistry.
Six years later Krause devalued the player he was so enamored with and traded for. Like dumping your wife for your mistress, Krause had a new romance: Toni Kukoc. Whether he thought Kukoc was better than Scottie Pippen was irrelevant. Perception was reality.
With a smooth jumper, Kukoc, who went by the name the Croation Sensation, was ahead of his time. He was a stretch four before that term existed. He hit the three, he rebounded, he could run the floor, he was athletic. But Krause, not known for his shyness, kept propping up Kukoc particularly when he was in a war with Pippen over money, as if an untested Euro could do what Pippen did, already a two-time Finals winner.
Kukoc was stashed in Italy, had yet to appear in the NBA, though Krause repeatedly interjected his name in discussions as if he was already an All-Star.
Toni Kukoc knew none of the Pippen drama, how Krause was using him as a prop to delegitimize Pippen, how Pippen was bitter about the comparison. When Croatia met the US team in the Olympics, Toni Kukoc was Croatia’s Michael Jordan. He was anticipating the matchup, playing against two of his future teammates. He was excited. Until Scottie made his life hell.
Annoyed and bitter at just hearing the name Toni Kukoc one more time, Pippen was out for blood. When it was time to match up on the court, Pippen volunteered to take Kukoc out the game, to play NBA Finals defense. All Pippen’s anger poured out of him as he humiliated Kukoc on the court in a way he never would one of his NBA peers. This was personal. It was the Olympics, sure. But to Pippen this was all about Crumbs Krause. He was on the court. Kukoc didn’t matter. Pippen wasn’t guarding him. Pippen was guarding Krause.
Kukoc had 4 points. His demoralization was witnessed worldwide on national television.
“I was anxious before the game. I wanted to shut him down and embarrass him. I can’t put Krause out on the court. I shook [Kukoc’s] hand before and after the game. There’s no bad blood between us. … Now I guess [the Bulls] see he’s not ready for NBA competition.”
But because the NBA is nothing but theater, Kukoc-Pippen took on another dramatic twist in the playoffs two years later. Jordan was gone, playing baseball. The Bulls were in a tough series with the Knicks. End of game with 1.8 seconds left. Bulls were behind and Phil Jackson designed a play for Kukoc and rightly so. Kukoc was a knock down three point shooter who had made game winners that season. Seeing the play as it was being drawn up, and aware that it wasn’t called for him, Scottie refused to enter the game. He reportedly said, “I’m tired of this”, worn down by the Kukoc love fest.
Pippen was angling for more money that season and was ignored. To further the Pippen animosity were the details. In Kukoc’s contract was a stipulation that he could be the highest paid Bulls player, not Pippen. Scottie saw red.
So it all came full circle in a playoff game, that one moment of Pippen insurrection when he refused to enter. All the Kukoc romanticism, the money negotiations, the Krause bitterness. Disgusted, Pippen let his emotions get the better of him in a moment of stress, unaware that his petulant behavior made Krause look like a genius. With Pippen sulking on the bench like a four-year old on time out, Toni Kukoc hit the game-winner.
Three years later, Krause prevented Pippen from playing in his own charity game saying it was forbidden per his contract. Pippen had enough. He asked to be traded.
“I don’t feel Jerry Krause respects me. I don’t feel the organization respects me. After all I’ve done for this organization, they should be happy. I’m giving them an opportunity to get something in return because I don’t plan on playing another game for the Chicago Bulls.
Pippen wasn’t traded. He left Chicago as a free agent in the summer of 1998.
By 1997, after 5 NBA titles, whatever friendship existed between Phil Jackson and Jerry Krause was over. When Krause’s stepdaughter got married all the Bulls, even the assistant coaches, were invited to the wedding. Everyone but Jackson.
Jackson signed a one year deal and Krause, as was his way, had the last word with the media. He told Jax, “I don’t care if it’s 82-0 this year, you’re F—– gone.”
The Bulls didn’t go 82-0 but they won their 6th title, their second three-peat. Still, Krause made good on his threat. He had spread rumors all year about Jackson’s arrogance. He didn’t care that Phil won 6 rings. He didn’t care that Scottie and MJ were attached to Phil. He didn’t care that the Bulls could be the first team since the hallowed Celtics of the ’60’s to win four titles in a row. Phil was his was enemy. You slay your enemy. You mutilate him.
When Phil Jackson left the building in 1997, when he left the city he had elevated to champion, so did Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Dynasty over. Jerry Krause over too.
Beginning in 1998, Krause took a stab at rebuilding but failed dramatically. He drafted good players like Elton Brand and Jamal Crawford but no Scottie Pippen was laying in the weeds. The scouting game had changed, was very sophisticated. Krause wasn’t an outlier anymore.
In 2001, he traded his best player, Elton Brand, for the number one pick in the draft, Tyson Chandler, a high schooler. In that same draft, he drafted Eddy Curry, another high schooler. With the two kids Krause would have what he called “fireside chats” as a way to foster a relationship except Chandler was mature, polished and sophisticated and Curry was the opposite. Both eventually left the Bulls after Krause, who retired in 2003.
Krause could never escape the narrative that he murdered the Bulls. He alone poured gasoline on the fire and watched it burn. Krause, always obese, always burdened by health problems, was an obscure figure after the Bulls glory years. He worked in baseball as a scout as late as 2011, working as a special assistant in the scouting department for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He passed away due to health problems.
He was far from perfect in the area of relationship building. His ego was bigger than his body mass. But Krause built the Bulls and they won 6 titles. He hired an unknown from the CBA, Phil Jackson. Rumors persisted that Krause engineered the coup that had Doug Collins fired and Phil installed as head coach, that he stabbed Collins in the back by feeding negative stories to owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
Krause drafted Horace Grant, Stacy King and B.J. Armstrong. He signed Dennis Rodman and Steve Kerr and John Paxson. He was the architect. He had a vision. He won Executive of the Year twice. He was right. Organizations do win championships. They have to scout and draft the right players. They have to have a plan and an identity. They have to have the talent for the job and a minimum of two superstar Hall of Fame players on the payroll. Krause checked all the boxes, though he didn’t draft Jordan.
But his failure was in understanding symmetry. Organizations also have to invest in relationships, care about players, have a philosophy of teamwork, dedication and commitment. The men you pay must respect you. Otherwise, you have dynasties that end too soon and the blame game gets passed around like a hot potato.