Jerry Krause got viciously, unapologetically dunked on through the first two episodes of “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part series that chronicles Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls as they navigate the final season of what was arguably the greatest modern sports dynasty.
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots have a claim to that throne, as do Derek Jeter’s New York Yankees. Depending on your definition of modern, Magic Johnson’s 1980s Los Angeles Lakers are surely in the conversation. But the Bulls were just different. They were bigger than sports. They were the Beatles. And Krause wanted to, tried to, eventually did, break them up.
On the heels of winning a sixth title in eight years, Krause shipped out Phil Jackson, traded Scottie Pippen and essentially forced Jordan, who had made it clear he wouldn’t play for any coach other than Jackson, into retirement.
Perhaps the run would’ve ended anyway. Jordan had “burned out,” according to longtime Chicago sportswriter Sam Smith. Pippen was 32 years old. Dennis Rodman was 37. Jackson, for his part, has openly stated his belief that a leader can only keep his or her troops’ attention for so long before their message begins to fall on deaf ears. He may have left on his own regardless.
Jackson’s final year in Chicago was his ninth with the organization. He never coached more than six straight years anywhere else.
That said, Tim Floyd, who was hired as Jackson’s replacement in 1998, says Krause wanted to break up the Bulls even earlier. As “The Last Dance” frames it, the breakup even in ’98 was premature and unnecessary, a cautionary tale to the destructive powers of ego, and it’s all traced back to Krause, who’s cast as the insecure “short, fat guy” who wanted to prove he was a lot more than just another beneficiary of an all-time great player and coach.
Rather, he was the man that put Jackson and Jordan together, and indeed it was Krause who first brought Jackson to Chicago as an assistant. He was the guy who drafted Scottie Pippen. He was the mastermind who built a champion around the edges, adding key players like Bill Cartwright and Horace Grant. And he wanted his share of the credit, perhaps even more than his share, to the point that he was apparently willing to tear down an empire just to prove he could build it back up.
“Jerry did a phenomenal job with the team. He made great trades, made great free-agent signings. He deserves a lot of credit,” former Bulls player and current Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “But he couldn’t get out of his own way.”
It feels particularly mucky that Krause, who died in 2017, isn’t here to defend himself as this documentary cements his villainous legacy. But it’s not like this is the first we’re hearing of his role in the dynasty’s demise. The United Center crowd roundly booed him on the night he and the Bulls received their fifth championship ring. You get booed on ring night, you’ve carved an especially prickly place in which to exist.
That said, you don’t have to read too deeply between the lines to understand there were a lot more egos at work inside the Bulls’ walls than just Krause’s, and besides that, this is just kind of the way it goes, which is to say this was hardly the first time we saw the desire for credit infect a great team.
A champion’s greatest strength eventually becoming a befalling weakness is a time-honored tradition in the world of sports, when the competitiveness and pride that colors your rise eventually turns against you. Really, it happens in all facets of life and business. It’s just human. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal won three championships together before Kobe got sick of being cast as the sidekick. He wanted to prove he could win as the lead dog, and Shaq was shipped out.
If you put stock in Ethan Strauss’ new book, The Victory Machine, part of Kevin Durant’s desire to leave the Warriors was his frustration with consistently being portrayed as Stephen Curry’s second fiddle in the media. Kyrie Irving won a championship with LeBron James, then promptly demanded a trade as he tired of existing in the shadow of a king.
Even in examples of teams that weren’t dynasties, ego often takes center stage. Former Warriors coach Mark Jackson was reportedly steadfast that more accomplished assistant coaches not be hired so as to not threaten his authority. Derek Jeter refused to let Alex Rodriguez play shortstop. Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner butted egos for years. Magic Johnson thought he could coach, and eventually run, the Lakers. Brett Favre barely spoke to Aaron Rodgers. Josh McDaniels thought he could win with Tim Tebow. Ben Simmons won’t change his game. Terrell Owens. James Dolan. Egos are everywhere.
“It’s amazing what can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit,” legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said. It’s true, but it’s also easy for a guy like Wooden to say. He got most of the credit.
When great teams and players are able to put egos aside, we’ve seen the sustained dominance that can unfold. The Spurs won five championships and made the playoffs 22 straight years, largely thanks to Gregg Popovich and R.C. Burford shunning the spotlight and Tim Duncan’s unique brand of superstar humility.
Meanwhile, Bill Belichick and Brady were consistently pitted against one another by the media, half the people arguing Brady was more responsible for the Patriots’ dynasty, half the people arguing Belichick deserved the credit, and maybe each of their own human desires to prove their merits independent of one another ultimately drove Brady to Tampa Bay.
But they made it 20 years.
And won six championships.
The 1990s Bulls are an equally, if not bigger, success story than the Patriots. They won as many titles in less than half the time. Their flame just burned out quicker, and Krause has been, and is being, disproportionately blamed for that. So it goes. His ego definitely played a role in the end of a sports dynasty, likely as did others. It wasn’t the first time it’s happened. And it surely won’t be the last.