Bulls

/ by K.C. Johnson
Presented By Bulls Insider
Bulls

In this final excerpt from Jerry Krause's unfinished and unpublished memoir, the Bulls' general manager pulls back the curtain on the end of the dynasty.

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“There’s Jerry Krause, the guy who broke up the championship dynasty.”

“There’s Jerry Krause, the guy with the huge ego who wanted to build a championship team without Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson, the guy who thought he was more important than the players and coaches.” 

If I’ve heard or seen those quotes a thousand times in different publications and venues throughout America, you can be sure there were thousands of them said to which I wasn’t privy.

Up until now, as you read this, nobody outside of Jerry Reinsdorf, myself and a few select people in the Bulls organization really knows what happened in the aftermath of winning our sixth world championship in eight years.

Did we break up the winning team so that we could satisfy our own egos and win without those players and coaches? Do you really think that people who worked for so many years to win and then win again and again would be dumb enough to let egos get in the way of trying to win again? 

Do you think that an organization built with one single purpose, from its chairman on down through the lowest-ranking member of the front office — to win championships — would easily give up that thought?

During the last championship run in 1998, cracks in the foundation of the teams we’d built began to alarmingly show up at inopportune times. To the adoring public, the age that was showing on Dennis Rodman, the lack of movement by Luc Longley, the slowdown in efficiency after playing over 100 games per year in two of the previous three seasons, was not apparent. The lack of recovery time in the summer, where beaten-up legs could have enough time on (strength and conditioning coach) Al Vermeil’s summer program to gain back the strength they’d lost in playing far longer than any other team in the league, never struck the fans or the media. The fact that winning titles meant drafting last each year in what at the time were poor draft crops meant nothing. We’d gotten lucky in 1990 in that most NBA people did not think that Toni Kukoc would even come to the NBA, and he’d fallen to early in the second round where we had a pick.

But to the fans and media, we had Michael Jordan and he could overcome anything. He could play without a center and a power forward for a capped team with little or no flexibility and still win by himself. Or Scottie Pippen, with two operations in the previous two years, could rise to the occasion and win with Michael and a declining supporting cast.

We had the finest coach in the game in Phil Jackson, whom the public did not know didn’t want to coach a rebuilding team and who’d informed us before the season that he wanted to ride off to Montana and take at least a year off.

I’m now going to take you to a place no Bulls outsider has ever been, a meeting in early July 1998. It was attended by Jerry Reinsdorf, myself, (assistant general manager) Jim Stack, Al Vermeil, the team doctors and surgeons, (VP of finance) Irwin Mandel and (assistant to the GM) Karen Stack. Vermeil knew more about the condition of the players’ bodies than even the medical people. He had continually tested them in and out of season during the entire championship run. We had asked then-trainer Chip Schaefer to submit a written report on the team’s health. Phil had made his decision (to leave) eight months before the meeting.

The first question I asked was how much did people think we could get out of Luc Longley, a free-agent-to-be who we’d had to rest periodically over the last few years because of unstable ankles. Al and the doctors thought he would break down quickly.

Next question: Rodman? Each person in the room was concerned that Dennis’ off-court meanderings had caught up with him, that he was playing on fumes at the end of the season.

OK. No center, no power forward, very little (cap space) to sign anybody of any quality to replace them. Who defends in the middle if Jordan and Pippen do come back? Who rebounds?

We go to Pippen. He’s had two major surgeries in two years, one of them late in the summer to purposely defy our instructions to do it earlier and not miss regular-season time. He wants to rightfully be paid superstar dollars. Is he worth the risk, especially if we can’t find a center and a power forward, and he and Michael have to carry the load for a new coach? I seriously doubt it.

Can Michael continue his greatness without a center, power forward and possibly Pippen? Could Bill Russell, the greatest team player ever, have won without great players around him?  No. Michael has said publicly that he will not play for a coach other than Phil. Phil has told us he’s gone. What does Michael do? 

The important role players like Steve Kerr and Jud Buechler are free agents who can get more money from other teams than we can give them under the cap rules.

Could we get Phil to coach without a proven center, power forward, probably Pippen, a basically new bench and crazy expectations that “in Michael we trust” can win without help? Not a chance.

Put yourself in our shoes as we walk out of that room. What would you do? Did we break up a dynasty or was the dynasty breaking up of age, natural attrition of NBA players with little time to recuperate and the salary-cap rules that govern the game?

One thing we did do was make sure no information got out of that meeting that could hurt any player’s chances of getting a quality contract. Phoenix gave Longley lifetime security in the form of a five-year deal at huge dollars. Three years later, having been dumped by Phoenix on an unsuspecting Knicks team, Longley was retired in his native country.

Rodman played 35 more games, never able to regain his previous form.

As the summer wore on and players were locked out of the training facilities by the league — that would mean the NBA season would not start until late January — things got even worse. Michael sliced a finger on a cigar cutter that would’ve prevented him from playing an entire season. To his credit, he could have stiffed us and signed a huge contract. But he was honest and we were well informed what the condition of the hand was. He didn’t want to play on a rebuilding team, and he stuck to his word.

In January, when the league was about to resume and free agents could be signed, Pippen’s agents asked us to do Scottie a favor. By doing a sign-and-trade with Houston, Scottie could get more than $20 million more than he could by just signing a straight-out contract. Jerry and I gave him his going-away present. I called Steve and Jud and told them the situation and to take the first good contract they could because we were not going to bid for them. They deserved it.

There you have it, the truth.

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