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Jerry Reinsdorf: Lost, untold stories from the Hall of Fame Bulls owner

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Jerry Reinsdorf: Lost, untold stories from the Hall of Fame Bulls owner

Michael Jordan won a game Tuesday night. So did Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson, Jerry Krause and Jerry Reinsdorf.

It was a stunning, incomprehensible overtime victory by the Minnesota Timberwolves over the Golden State Warriors, the seemingly unstoppable wrecking crew that’s been on a mission to break the Bulls historic 72-10 regular season record from 1995-96. But thanks to this improbable defeat, the Warriors now have to win their last four games to overtake the Bulls for sole possession of a record many thought would never be broken — including the Bulls longtime owner.

“I had hoped this was a record that would at least last my lifetime,” said Reinsdorf, seated in a chair inside the Bulls locker room at the United Center. “The only thing that would make me feel a little better is that it's Steve Kerr. First of all, how much I like him, he was on the 72-10 team, so it would be easier to take.”

But what if they finish 73-9?

“I'm going to be very depressed.”

As Reinsdorf knows, life rarely moves in a straight line. There are twists and turns you don’t see coming.

As a Jewish kid born and raised in Brooklyn with limited basketball abilities, Reinsdorf never dreamed of being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

How could he?

“When I was growing up in Brooklyn, there was no Basketball Hall of Fame. It wasn't even founded until 1959,” he said.

But this September, he’ll enter this holy shrine of hoops along with NBA legends like Allen Iverson, Yao Ming and Shaquille O’Neal.

When Reinsdorf joined the inductees in Houston over the weekend for the big announcement, he learned that O’Neal received a PhD in education. So while he was there, the Bulls chairman referred to the 7-foot O’Neal as “Dr. Shaq.”

[RELATED: Jerry Reinsdorf humble in response to Hall of Fame inclusion]

This new title for the former NBA center might not sound like a logical fit. But then again, once upon a time, the idea of Reinsdorf being called “owner” of the Chicago Bulls didn’t exactly fit either.

Before buying a 56 percent stake of the Bulls in 1984 (it was announced in Feb. 1985), Reinsdorf believed that from a financial standpoint, there were much better investments to be made than by putting millions of dollars into a professional basketball team.

“Shows you how wrong I was,” Reinsdorf said with a grin.

Reinsdorf’s fate drastically changed one day, and he can thank, of all people, a man who was once a villain here in Chicago, a legendary bully who used to own the New York Yankees.

That’s right. George Steinbrenner.

“I was having dinner with George Steinbrenner in New York,” Reinsdorf recalled. “He was moaning and groaning literally about having to write checks every year because he owned about 8 or 10 percent of the Bulls. He was complaining every year he lost money. I said to him, ‘I don’t think your partners have the slightest idea how to run this business.’ The principle partners were not involved on a day-to-day basis. These were power people, giants; Arthur Wirtz, Lester Crown, Phil Klutznick. They loved the sport, but they weren't giving it the time.

"I just mentioned casually to George, ‘Boy I’d love to run the Bulls.’ I don’t think I even used the term ‘own.’ I think I said I’d love to run the Bulls.”

About a week later, Reinsdorf got a call from Crown asking if he was serious because there were a number of investors who wanted to get out — including Steinbrenner. Crown and Lamar Hunt stayed on as owners, but Reinsdorf pleaded with Steinbrenner not to sell. 

“I said, ‘Don’t get out, stay in.’ Of course, he told me no. And after things turned out the way they did, George was constantly telling people in my presence that I screwed him out of the Bulls, and he didn’t use that word, he used another word.”

Even though the Bulls had just drafted Jordan, Steinbrenner had no idea the kind of star he would become. Nobody did. Not Reinsdorf, not even the man who drafted Jordan, general manager Rod Thorn.

“I went back years later and I looked at the newspaper reports. Rod Thorn said at the time, ‘(Jordan) is going to be a fine offensive player. You're not going to build a team around him, but he's going to be a fine offensive player.’ But that's what everybody thought. That's not a knock on Rod. That's what everybody thought.”

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Getting Jordan was a start, but for the Bulls to evolve into the dynasty they eventually became, more luck and fortune had to come their way.

For instance, they needed the right head coach.

Soon after Reinsdorf bought the Bulls, general manager Jerry Krause told him that former Knicks great Phil Jackson was going to be a great one.

Despite growing up a huge fan of the Knicks and admiring Jackson as a player, Reinsdorf said back to Krause, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Still, in 1986, Krause had Jackson come in for an interview to be the assistant coach.

“Stan Albeck was our coach and Phil had just retired as the coach of the Albany Patroons,” Reinsdorf remembered. “Jerry brought him in for an interview with Stan to be the assistant coach. It's a legendary story. He came in wearing a Panama hat and a beard and sandals and Albeck took one look at him and that was the end of the interview. A year later when Doug Collins was the coach, Jerry told Phil to clean up a bit, which he did and Doug hired him.”

Jackson would replace Collins as head coach in 1989 and he was there at the helm for the Bulls six titles. However, Reinsdorf says that before Jackson took over, Collins planted the integral seeds in the ground that helped turn the Bulls into champions.

“You have to give him a lot of credit because Doug Collins was the guy that changed the mentality of the organization. He came in and the players for the first time learned how to win,” Reinsdorf said.

[MORE: Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf named to basketball Hall of Fame]

The other crucial cog in the wheel was Krause, the general manager responsible for making the Bulls more than just Michael and His Jordanaires. He shaped the roster around Jordan, finding the right guys who not only could play and thrive with him but who also fit the Bulls triangle offense.

“Jerry Krause was the genius that put this organization together. He had Michael. He doesn't get credit for drafting Michael, but you've got to put the right pieces around him. The single biggest move he made was trading Charles Oakley for Bill Cartwright. I don't think we win the first couple championships without Bill Cartwright.”

If Krause was trying to make friends with Jordan, trading Oakley away was easily the worst thing he could have done. Oakley was Jordan’s best friend on the team.

“Michael made it clear he didn't like the move,” Reinsdorf said. “Eventually Michael admitted that we wouldn't have won without Cartwright. And this is sort of like the Russians and the Americans negotiating, because at the same time Jerry admitted to Michael that he shouldn't have drafted Brad Sellers. So they were even. They both admitted they were wrong about something.”

Jordan, Pippen, Rodman and Jackson have all been inducted into the Hall of Fame. While Reinsdorf will be next, it really bothers him that Krause continues to get snubbed.

“Look, I'm not a voter, but in my opinion Jerry Krause certainly belongs in the Hall of Fame for what he did. In fact, I wouldn't be going into the Hall of Fame if it wasn't for Jerry Krause.”

Jordan and the Bulls wouldn’t have won that first NBA title in 1991 if it wasn’t for that unforgettable sweep of the Detroit Pistons in four games. For three consecutive seasons, the Bad Boys got the best of the Bulls, knocking them out of the post-season using their notorious thug tactics. 

Reinsdorf wasn’t a fan of the Bad Boys back then, and he still isn’t a fan today.

“I thought the Pistons and the Bad Boys, I thought it was disgusting. I thought what the league was doing was ridiculous. They were letting them get away with criminal activities,” he said. “I would sometimes keep an eye on (Bill) Laimbeer as opposed to where the ball was. He would be taking shots at people. A whistle would blow for a foul and he would come up behind somebody and hit them in the head because nobody was looking. I thought it was a disgrace, and I thought it was a disgrace when we finally kicked their butts the way they walked off the court.”

Did you go to Commissioner David Stern asking for their style of play to be outlawed?

“I did many times. I did many times complain about it, as did other owners in the league. The league for whatever reason let them get away with it. Eventually for a long time the league reveled in the idea of the Bad Boys. They marketed the Bad Boys. I thought it was disgusting then and I still think looking back it was disgusting.”

The Bulls went on to beat the Los Angeles Lakers for their first NBA title. They’d go onto win five more. After Jordan hit the game-winning shot over Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals, Bulls fans celebrated. So did Reinsdorf, but he also knew something most people didn’t.

The party was very likely over.

“Michael had indicated that he probably was going to retire and Phil had indicated that he didn't want to coach a rebuilding thing. There was a pending work stoppage so I knew that it might be the end,” he said.

Watching Jordan, Pippen, Rodman and Jackson leave all at once still hurts many Bulls fans, who saw their team go from the penthouse to the outhouse in one off-season — and the losing lasted for years. Time might heal wounds, but it hasn’t changed Reinsdorf’s opinion about the dismantling of the championship Bulls. 

He says they didn’t have a choice.

“There's no way that it could have continued past that sixth championship for a variety of reasons. First of all, there was a work stoppage. There was a lockout. So the season didn't start until well past the normal starting point. During that time, Michael had told me he was going to retire. I said why don't you wait until the work stoppage is over. During that time he sliced his finger. People forget about that. I don't know what he was doing with a cigar cutter, but he sliced his finger. So he couldn't have played that year.

“Phil was offered the opportunity to come back and he said he didn't want to preside over a rebuilding. He didn't want to go through that. Scottie was a free agent. We would have tried to bring Scottie back if everybody else had come back. The whole thing was just coming apart, but the single biggest reason was that Michael could not have played. Michael could not have played. He couldn't bend his finger. He couldn't hold a basketball, so there's no way he could have come back.”

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

By then, Jordan and the Bulls had become a global phenomenon. The team’s brand could be found just about anywhere on the planet, a reality that was crystallized one day when Reinsdorf received a package in the mail from the late Arlen Spector, a senator from Pennsylvania.

“He sent me this (matryoshka) Michael Jordan doll with these six Michael Jordans getting smaller and smaller. He got it in Outer Mongolia. That really hammered home the point that we must really be a global brand."

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As for the current Bulls, they are fighting right now just to make the playoffs. They’re two games behind the Pistons with four to play and Detroit holds the tiebreaker, so their chances seem bleak.

VP John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman have been taking plenty of heat for the Bulls struggles. Fred Hoiberg’s first season as head coach has been a disappointment.  The chemistry inside the locker room that Reinsdorf is sitting in has been missing for months.

The Bulls chairman declined to discuss the current state of the Bulls. Unlike other owners, he chooses not to mettle with the team on the inside or comment publicly about the team’s issues to those on the outside.

Instead, he stays true to the role he assigned himself when he first bought the team.

“I pick people and put them in their jobs, and if I do my job right, I pick good people. If they do their jobs right, I get a lot of credit. And if they don't, I get ripped.”

In five months, he’ll take the stage in Springfield, Massachusetts to deliver his induction speech. While Reinsdorf has given hundreds of speeches in the past, he admits he’s never actually read one, which is the protocol with the Hall of Fame. He always jots down a few notes and just says whatever comes to his mind.

"They want a transcript of what I'm going to say. That's going to be hard. So maybe I'll give them one speech and deliver another,” Reinsdorf said sarcastically.  "I think."

Who will be on his mind that day? 

“I'll be thinking about Jerry Krause and Steve Schanwald and Michael and Scottie and Phil and the fans of Chicago. You've got to remember, the Chicago fans supported us when we were bad. During the period after Michael left, we weren't in the playoffs for six years, something like that. I think we led the league in attendance, not every year but in the aggregate. So I'll be thinking about the fans of Chicago and how happy the Bulls made them.”

The Bulls aren't trading for Kawhi Leonard, but what would a potential deal look like?

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USA TODAY

The Bulls aren't trading for Kawhi Leonard, but what would a potential deal look like?

The Bulls aren't trading for Kawhi Leonard.

Let's get that out of the way before continuing on.

At this stage in their rebuild the Bulls are interested in acquiring pieces - they dealt a Kawhi-like Jimmy Butler 12 months ago for three core parts - and have two picks in next week's NBA Draft.

The Spurs will have myriad options on where to send Leonard, the two-time All-Star and 2014 Finals MVP, and offers will pour in from everywhere. Leonard could also dictate where he plays next season, as he has one year remaining on his deal and will be a free agent after the 2019 season. Certainly a team giving up the assets required to get Leonard would want to know their All-Pro intends on staying.

So that's why. Whichever team deals for Leonard (assuming he is dealt) will be able to put together a more enticing package than the Bulls could (think Boston, the Lakers, Philadelphia). Leonard also reportedly prefers to play in Los Angeles or New York. No mention of Chicago.

But! It's Friday afternoon and we can only churn out so much draft content before our own heads begin spinning. So we figured we would put together the best deal the Bulls could offer for Leonard.

First off, the Bulls would need a gaurantee from Leonard that he intended to re-sign. Like Butler, Leonard wouldn't be able for the supermax extension if he leaves the Spurs. Instead, Leonard could sign a five-year, $188 million max deal with the Bulls, averaging $37.6 million per year.

The Bulls would get a 26-year-old All-Pro just about to enter the prime of his career. Make no mistake about it: Kawhi Leonard is a superstar. It's easy to forget because he played in just nine games last year, but Leonard is just a year removed from a season in which he averaged 25.5 points on 48 percent shooting, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals in 33.4 minutes. Oh, and he's won two Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2015 and 2016.

The Bulls would have Leonard through his age 31 season and would give the Bulls a souped-up version of Jimmy Butler, and perhaps one that could get them closer to contention in an Eastern Conference that may be without LeBron James.

The price would be steep. All-Rookie Lauri Markkanen would be the centerpiece of any deal. The Spurs have utilized versatile, small-ball lineups well in the past and adding Markkanen would be like a cheat code for Gregg Popovich. He'd slot in well next to LaMarcus Aldridge, who played 62 percent of his minutes at center last year, according to Basketball Reference. That was the most minutes he had played at center since his rookie season.

The Bulls would also have to include the 7th and 22nd picks in next week's draft, which only makes the deal more unlikely (from 0.01 percent to 0.005 percent). San Antonio could pursue a wing like Mikal Bridges or Kevin Knox and add him to a core that would include Dejounte Murray, Markkanen and Aldridge. The Spurs also have the 18th pick, so they could conceivably have five core players (Markkanen, Murray, 7, 18, 22) 21 years or younger to complement the 32-year-old Aldridge, who bounced back in a big way last season (ironically without Leonard).

Adding Justin Holiday's $4.615 million salary to the deal makes the money work and gives the Spurs another perimeter shooter.

What would the Bulls look like? Well, needless to say they would have found their wing.

Building around Leonard would include Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. With Markkanen gone, Portis would be in line for a significant contract extension and a much larger role in the offense; his per-36 numbers were on par with Kevin Love's and Joel Embiid's a year ago.

PG: Kris Dunn
SG: Zach LaVine
SF: Kawhi Leonard
PF: Bobby Portis
C: Robin Lopez

Alas, this deal is not happening. We can only hope to have angered some of you at this hypothetical, fun mock trade.

A history of teams moving in to the top 5 of the NBA Draft and what it might cost the Bulls

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USA TODAY

A history of teams moving in to the top 5 of the NBA Draft and what it might cost the Bulls

It’s difficult to move up in the NBA Draft. Like, really difficult. More often than not it costs more than it should – like free agency – because teams are aware you’re moving up to go after a specific player. Few, if any, teams move up in the draft to position themselves better on draft night. So, you want Player X and don’t think he’ll be around when you pick? Ante up. Show us how much Player X means to your franchise.

Moving up in the top 5 is even more difficult and expensive (duh). The most recent examples are Philadelphia dealing with Boston last year, going from No. 3 to No. 1. The cost was Sacramento’s 2019 first-round pick, which will likely be in the first half of the lottery. In 2009 the Timberwolves dealt two key rotation pieces – Randy Foye and Mike Miller – to the Wizards for the No. 5 pick. In retrospect that doesn’t seem like much, but Foye was three years removed from being the No. 7 pick and had just averaged 16.3 points in 70 games; Miller was 28 and one of the better 3-point shooters in the league.

And when trying to move inside the top 5, you have to go all the way back to 2005. And that’s where Bulls fans should start paying attention.

The Utah Jazz were in desperate need of a point guard after cycling through the likes of Carlos Arroyo, Raul Lopez, Howard Eisley and Keith McLeod (who?) in the two years after John Stockton’s 2002 retirement. Utah had the fifth best odds in the Lottery after a 26-win season and, like the 2018 Bulls, were bumped back a spot after Milwaukee jumped from sixth to first.

Moving back one spot didn’t seem like much on the surface, but it was significant; there were three point guards near the top of the class – Illinois’ Deron Williams, Wake Forest’s Chris Paul and North Carolina’s Raymond Felton – who all had the chance to go in the top 5, along with the consensus top pick Andrew Bogut and the potential-oozing freshman Marvin Williams. Utah GM XXXXXX said the team was interested in Paul or Williams.

So here the Jazz were, sitting at No. 6 with the potential to see the three point guards go ahead of them. In hindsight, the next point guard wouldn’t be taken until Nate Robinson at No. 21. There were three clear-cut top point guards in the class, and Utah needed one of them.

So they found a trade partner. The Portland Trail Blazers had selected high school phenom Sebastian Telfair with the No. 13 pick the previous season, and were ready to hand him the keys to the offense with Damon Stoudamire set for free agency. Not necessarily needing a point guard, Portland became the perfect trading partner for a team looking to move up. Enter the Jazz.

In addition to the No. 6 pick, Utah also had the 27th pick thanks to a draft-night deal the previous season with Dallas.

Armed with assets, hours before the start of the 2005 draft the Jazz sent No. 6, No. 27 and a future first-round pick to the Blazers for the No. 3 pick. The caveat here – as it will later pertain to the Bulls – is that the future first was actually Detroit’s first-round pick in 2006; the Jazz had traded point guard Carlos Arroyo to the Pistons for a first-round pick, which was widely expected to be near the end of the first round. Detroit went 64-18 in ’05-06 and the pick wound up being No. 30; Utah kept its own pick in 2006, which wound up being No. 14.

That was the cost. Three first-round picks, though admittedly No. 27 and the contending Pistons’ pick weren’t oozing with value. Utah selected Williams over Paul, Portland got Martell Webster at No. 6 and used the other two picks on Linas Kleiza and a year later Joel Freeland.

How does this affect the Bulls? They’re in a similar situation as Utah…kind of. The Jazz had missed the playoffs each of the previous two seasons post-Stockton but felt they were turning a corner with 23-year-olds Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko leading the way. In fact, their eight leading scorers from the previous season were 28 or younger. They were on the right path if they could find a point guard to play with Boozer, Kirilenko, Matt Harpring, Mehmet Okur and Raja Bell.

The Bulls aren’t exactly one specific piece away like Utah clearly was – they’d miss the playoffs the following year but then win between 48 and 54 games each of the next four seasons after. But they could be targeting someone specific in the top 4 of the draft. And they just so happen to have assets, and just so happen to have two teams reportedly willing to move back in a deep class.

Memphis reportedly would like to move back, and if possible add Chandler Parsons’ absurd contract to a deal. This seems like a plausible idea at face value, but the Grizzlies are going to want something substantial in return. They tanked hard – Marc Gasol “rested” eight games after the All-Star break, with Memphis losing all eight of those – for a reason, and they aren’t going to attach their main asset to a deal just to get rid of Parsons’ remaining $49 million. Freeing up cap space is nice, but at what cost? Memphis isn’t in a positon to win now. True, they’d like to try and contend with Gasol (two years left) and Mike Conley (three years left) but attaching the 4th pick to Parsons is different from the Raptors attaching two picks to DeMarre Carroll in a trade with Brooklyn last year; that Raptors pick wound up being No. 29, as the Raptors knew they’d be contending.

The Bulls might entertain a deal of the Nos. 7 and 22 picks for No. 4 and Parsons. If Parsons weren’t included in the deal, it could still get done if Bobby Portis were added. The Bulls love Portis, but he’ll need a significant contract extension in 13 months and Lauri Markkanen has the power forward position on lockdown.

The Hawks are also a potential trade option. They reportedly are looking to move down and still be able to draft Trae Young, who could supplant a disgruntled Dennis Schroder at the point. Again, a package of the Nos. 7 and 22 picks plus Portis could be enough to get the deal done; Atlanta drafted forward John Collins a year ago but he doesn’t offer much as a pick-and-pop power forward. Portis would give them a solid complement. Then again, Atlanta couldn’t be sure Young would be available at 7, especially considering Orlando is picking No. 6 and has a serious need at the point.

Who would the Bulls be targeting at No. 3 or No. 4? Rumors are everywhere so it’s difficult to pinpoint. Michael Porter Jr. could now go as high as No. 2 to the Sacramento. That would mean international sensation Luka Doncic falls. Marvin Bagley’s name has been quiet for a while, while Jaren Jackson Jr. is having “monster workouts” that have him flying up draft boards. We won’t speculate.

For now just know that trading in to the top 5 is difficult. You need the assets to do it (check), a team with enough talent that moving up will push the franchise forward (check), a willing trade partner (check) and a player you really want (check?). The pieces are there for a potential move-up, but actually pulling the trigger is far more difficult than just writing about it.