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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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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."
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.”