For all their differences, Jerry Krause and Michael Jordan shared plenty of similarities.
Competitive as hell. Stubborn. Always trying to outwork an opponent. Obsessed with winning championships.
Krause always knew he’d never win a public relations battle with one of the most popular athletes of all time. That never stopped him from making what he believed to be the right move, even if it proved unpopular to Jordan.
“Do I regret that I had a not great relationship with him? You know what? We won a lot of [expletive] games,” Krause told me in 2016, when I worked for the Chicago Tribune, in a quote that Jordan surely can appreciate. “Right or wrong, when I took that job I thought the worst thing I could do is kiss that guy’s [rear]. We’d argue.
“But I remember about two years after I traded Charles (Oakley) for Bill (Cartwright). He and Charles were as tight as can be. He called over to me at practice and said, ‘That trade you made was a pretty damn good trade.’ I just looked at him and said, ‘Thank you.’”
When Krause passed in 2017, Jordan issued a statement calling him “a key figure in the Bulls’ dynasty” who “meant so much to the Bulls, the White Sox and the entire city of Chicago” before offering condolences to Krause’s family.
For two such strong-willed competitors, whether bygones are bygones may not be the full point. Forget the banners honoring both men in the United Center rafters. Here’s guessing the six championship banners hanging in the same spot matter more.
Krause’s family has graciously shared Krause’s unfinished and unpublished memoir. Here’s part of what Krause wrote about Jordan:
From the get-go, the challenge of building a championship team around a two guard was on my mind more than any other single thing. No NBA championship team had ever been built around a two guard. All of them, save one San Francisco team built around small forward Rick Barry, had been built around centers.
The original plan: Surround him with shooters. He had to be with a couple of quality rebounders and a defensive center who could allow him to do his thing. Did I have any idea we’d be able to do it? My mother used to say “from your mouth to God’s ears” and my father used to say “patience plus perseverance spells success.” I’d have to use a lot of those two thoughts in the next six years.
When we found out the lousy outcome of those (1985) tests (on Jordan’s broken bone in his foot), we set a strategy, part of which would alienate Michael and myself in his mind for the next umpteen years. I wonder sometimes, when he became a general manager and had to see it from my end, if he’d now think we’d done the right thing.
I said “Michael, I can’t risk your career for a few games now. You’ve been seen by the best doctors in the field and they all agree that you should rest and not play.” Michael came back with, “I know my own body and I want to play now.”
Now comes the disputed statement. I remember saying, “Michael, you are a player, not a medical doctor. I have to do what’s right for the team and as a result I’m not going to let you play.” Michael has told people who were not at the meeting that I told him he was an employee of the franchise and as a result would do what the franchise told him to do or else. He says he knew that moment that loyalty in the NBA between teams and players was non-existent and it changed his outlook on the game and on me.
Now do you think I’m dumb enough, in front of the owner and within the ears of prominent medical people from all over the nation, to tell a young star that he was an “employee?” I don’t think so.
Personally, despite our problems off the court, he was great to deal with on the court, where it counts. He wanted to win as much as I did, and we both were driven by winning again and again, looking for any edge to keep it going. Despite his quote about “my supporting cast” early in his career, he knew deep down that no individual was good enough to win in this game without being on a team that could win.
One of the things we measure greatness by is, does an athlete make his teammates better? Michael made all his teammates better by his mere presence. If you were smart, learned how to play with him and worked very hard, he was a joy to play with. The opposition, despite some thinking that “let him get his 40 and stop the other guys” had to pay tremendous amounts of time and energy into preparing and playing against him because at the end of a game, when your guys were tired and the will to win in #23 was hitting the richter scale, he could beat you in so many ways.
Early on, he tried to do it all himself in clutch situations. But as he gained confidence in his own passing skills and the skills of his teammates, he got to where he had no hesitation in passing to guys he was confident could make shots. His post skills, honed only after we went to the triangle, made him the best post scorer in the game the last six to eight years of his career. It made every player who threw the ball to him in the post and could shoot a huge threat to score.
Rookies who showed him they had guts and toughness got better because he’d take a liking to them and show them the ropes and make them feel like they belonged. On the other hand, rookies who failed to do that were subject to intense practice-floor beatings and verbal tirades that left them wondering what the hell they’d gotten into and showed us that the kid did not belong. In a sense, Michael was a built-in rookie and new veteran tester without par.
To his everlasting credit, at the end of his time with the Bulls he could have really screwed the franchise big time and he didn’t. In the summer after winning the last championship he’d cut his index finger of his shooting hand very badly with a cigar cutter. It was seriously questionable if he could regain enough movement in the finger to be himself again as a shooter. He could have easily put us in an extremely tough situation by saying he wanted to play and force us to sign him to the biggest contract in team sports history. It would then have been easy to go on the disabled list with the finger injury and spend the rest of that strike-shortened season picking up checks every two weeks and not playing at all. But Michael being Michael, once he signed a contract, he gave you a thousand percent effort and would not think of stiffing you.
Were we good for one another? I think we turned out to be a great match. We were both stubborn, strong-willed competitors, proud of our ability and wanting to carve out our own niche in the game’s hierarchy.