Q&A With Ben Joravsky on Krause, MJ, and The Last Dance

Since 1981, Ben Joravsky has been writing about Chicago politics primarily for the Chicago Reader.  In addition to his long history on the political beat, Ben is a huge Chicago sports fan and his favorite team is the Bulls.  Ben’s love of hoops allows him to get off politics for a bit and write about sports. Ben also has a regular podcast, The Ben Jorasky Show, where he reviews politics and hoops (he recently spoke to Craig Hodges about Michael Jordan’s documentary).

Back in 1990, Ben wrote a long-form review of Jerry Krause, which was the first deep examination of Krause’s success as a general manager and the overall sense that everyone around the Bulls hated him.  The article was revealing of Krause’s strengths (evaluating players) and weaknesses (which were due to his utter lack of social skills).  Ben was also prophetic in noting that Krause would never got the credit he deserved for his role in building the MJ Bulls.  Ben was kind enough to sit down for a Q&A to reflect on his article, the Bulls, and The Last Dance.

Hoops Analyst:  I came across your article from 1990 talking about Jerry Krause when I was doing a little research myself on the situation with the Michael Jordan Bulls so I could learn what people in Chicago were thinking and feeling about the Bulls at the time and not just in retrospect.  Your article seemed to capture that moment really well.  Do you remember doing that article?

Ben Joravsky:  Yeah, I sure do.  Let’s go back in time to 1990.  There is something you should know about me.  I mostly write about politics and Chicago politics in general and that’s what I’ve made a career out of but my obsession is basketball and I have a love for it.  I am a life-long Bulls team and they are my favorite team in sports.  The Chicago Reader which, back then was Chicago’s version of New York’s Village Voice or The New Yorker, really encouraged its writers to write long form articles and stories.  I was freelancing at the time and I said to the editor that I wanted to write about this guy Jerry Krause, who was in year-five as general manager of the Bulls and being criticized.  I thought that was really unfair because he was the best general manager the Bulls ever had at that time and, looking back, the greatest general manager in the history of Chicago sports.  It was unfair he was being criticized, picked on, and booed and I wanted to explore it and the editor said okay.  What I didn’t know, because I didn’t know Jerry Krause from Adam, was that Jerry Krause loved to talk and I spent a lot of time talking to him by phone while he was on the road scouting.  I guess I was his form of entertainment.   For the better or worse at the time, I had the reputation amongst my friends, as Jerry Krause’s defender.  What I wanted to do in the article was explain his significance and talk about his background, how he viewed the world, how he went about his business, and why people didn’t like him.

HA:  Did it strike you that he felt hurt about some of the stuff he got from fans and writers?

BJ:  Yes.  I’ll say this about Jerry Krause…he is one of the greatest general managers in the NBA and the criticism leveled against him is absurd given the way GMs operate.  Having said all that, Jerry Krause was his own worst enemy.  He had a very prickly personality.  I feel like he was so anti-social that he drove people away.  I can tell you he said so many inappropriate things to me in the course of all those interviews we did, not just about other people, but about me.  He was his own worst enemy is the best way of putting it.  He had no social graces and that really hurt him.  I feel, particularly back then, the negativity about him had to do with his appearance.  There was so much fat shaming going on around him that doesn’t exist as much today.  The basketball players made fun of him and called him “Crumbs” [implying that he was all covered in crumbs from his last meal] and the sportswriters picked up on it.  I believe the sportswriters wanted to show how cool that they were to the basketball players so they joined in on the mocking of Krause.

HA:         Sort of like the 1980s cool kids bullying the fat nerdy guy?

BJ:          Yes.  Absolutely.  I could do a whole thing on the inner geekiness of sportswriters and the interactions with the athletes they cover and all the awkwardness that emerges from that.  This is particularly the case when you have someone as popular as Michael Jordan and he is outspoken in his disdain for Jerry Krause.  So, if you are the geeky sportswriter and you want to be in with the cool crowd, you would be drawn to the players’ attitude.  It was exacerbated by Krause’s prickliness, his habit of saying the wrong things, and making himself look worse than he actually was.

HA:         It’s fair to say that Krause lacked gravitas?

BJ:          Yeah.  He wasn’t charismatic.  He couldn’t schmooze.  He never learned the art of buttering up a reporter.  He didn’t know about speaking off-the-record and he didn’t have small talk capabilities.  He had none of that.  The derisive nickname for him was “The Sleuth” because he was secretive about what he was up to and they would roll their eyes and mock him for that.  He would always say “I’m not going to tell you that.  What do you think, I’m stupid?”  I’m laughing because I spent so much time with Krause on a couple of stories in the early 1990s and then I did a story on Norm Van Lier.  I remember talking to Krause for the Van Lier story and Krause was terrible at talking to reporters.  I look at GMs in the game now and their behavior is no different than Jerry Krause’s behavior.  They trade their players at the drop of a hat.  They take hardball stances with their players.  They tell players they won’t be traded and then trade them. What Jerry Krause did is standard operating procedure of a general manager.  It’s a cold business.  This notion that Jerry Krause is the only one who operated that way is ludicrous.  Pat Riley traded people all the time. 

Also, take Masai Ujiri.  He traded DeMar DeRozan after telling DeRozan he would not.  But compare Ujiri and Jerry Krause.  One guy is widely regarded as brilliant front office man and Hollywood handsome.  The other guy is considered a schmoe.  One guy knows how to talk to reporters and play the game and the other guy doesn’t. 

Another example….Pat Riley left Knicks unceremoniously and no one would think about doing a documentary reviling him like Jerry Krause.  Krause was his own worst enemy and paid a price for it.  That was the conclusion I reached in 1990 and we are now in 2020 and the conclusion hasn’t changed.  I watched the Jordan documentary and I saw this outpouring from people who weren’t even around in 1990 insulting Krause now.  We are just picking up where we left off but I can’t think of a GM who did a better job in Chicago sports.

HA:         Krause certainly made some great moves.  He made a few questionable moves but what GM doesn’t? 

BJ:          All GMs make bad moves and no one bats 100%.  I read your analysis where you said Krause missed out on Derek Harper.

HA:         If we are going to talk substance on Krause, a couple of bad moves stand out.  He whiffed in the 1989 Draft when he took Stacey King with the sixth pick, who was sort of a bust as a player, when Nick Anderson, Shawn Kemper, Tim Hardaway, and a bunch of better players were available.  The other whiff was in 1994.  The Bulls had a pretty good team without Jordan that year.  Both Derek Harper and Jeff Hornacek were available because their teams were terrible and the teams only wanted a late first-round pick.  The Knicks got Harper because Krause wasn’t interested and Harper ended up hurting the Bulls in the playoffs that year (when he wasn’t punching Jojo English).  Hornacek, who was a better player than Harper at that point, was traded to Utah.  According to Sam Smith, Phil Jackson desperately wanted Hornacek but Krause didn’t want to do it because Krause’s thing was drafting.  Krause really did have a blind spot for overvaluing late draft picks because you don’t always hit on those.  So he wouldn’t give up on the pick and Utah gave up their pick, which ended up being someone not very good [B.J. Tyler], and Krause kept the pick and took the immortal Dickey Simpkins.

BJ:          Dickey Simpkins!  Not a great move but it’s hard to be critical of Jerry Krause overall when they went 72-10 and won three more titles.  Ron Harper fit in really well with Michael Jordan.  I’d don’t know if Hornacek would have fit in as well.  Jerry Krause was always looking to draft a power forward after Horace Grant left.  They drafted Dickey Simpkins and Jason Caffey.  For that matter, the documentary left out how much his late 1997 signing of Brian Williams [a/k/a Bison Dele] contributed to the 1997 title. 

HA:         I think that speaks to one of the things that Krause was really good at.  He was a pretty good drafter but he did a great job of finding players off of the scrapheap.  Not just Brian Williams.  Bill Wennington was out of the NBA [he had gone to Italy from 1991-93] when Krause found him and Steve Kerr was barely in the league.  Even Luc Longley, who they traded King for, ended up being a very good trade.

BJ:          I’ll tell you, Jerry Krause’s run from 1985 to 1998 when the team fell apart was as good a run in basketball as I’ve seen since I started watching in 1969.  The second three-peat was different from the first three-peat with the exception of Jordan and Pippen.  Even the stuff he was criticized for, it can be argued, he was ahead of his time.  For instance, drafting Toni Kukoc. Krause was vilified for that pick in Chicago.  It was a stupid reaction by the fans.  Krause was ahead of the game. 

HA:         Kukoc was one of the first draft-and-stash guys, which happens all the time now. 

BJ:          Yeah.  And the fact that Krause had to woo him was considered controversial.  Now, LeBron or Dwyane Wade are recruiting each other players constantly.  No one says LeBron is anti-social or that he’s disrespecting his teammates by recruiting other players.  It’s expected now. 

On another tangent, Scottie Pippen was criticized for having surgery at the start of the 1997-98 season.  That’s called lode management now.  As it was, his back gave out in the playoffs anyway.  Imagine if he had played the full season?

If you could just separate Krause’s personality from his accomplishments and his bizarre need to say the wrong thing at the worst time, he would be much higher regarded.

HA:         What are your thoughts on the post-Jordan Bulls?

BJ:          I went through a period where I was not particularly proud of.  I was so mad at the Bulls for breaking up that team that I wouldn’t go to games for several years.  I proclaimed I wouldn’t go to another Bulls game again.  It took about five years for me to break the pledge. 

HA:         My quick and dirty take on Krause’s rebuild was that he actually drafted pretty well.  In 1999, he took Elton Brand and Ron Artest, both great picks.  In 2000, he took Jamal Crawford which was a good pick but also took Marcus Fizer, which made no sense since he already had Brand (Fizer was a low-budget Brand at best).  In Krause’s defense, 2000 was a terrible draft and there wasn’t much available anyway.  It gets complicated in 2001.  The Bulls traded Brand for the second overall pick and took Tyson Chandler and used the fourth pick on Eddy Curry.  In between those two picks was Pau Gasol. 

BJ:          That’s where the wheels fell off.  You’re bringing back memories.  He gave up on Brand too soon.  A frontcourt of Artest, Brand, and Gasol would have been great.  Krause also really blew it with his notion that Tim Floyd would be a really good coach in the NBA.  I don’t know where they got that idea from. 

HA:         My theory was that Krause was chomping at the bit to get to the rebuild and he knew Jordan would not stay if the Bulls brought in a novice coach.  Even though Jordan said he’d only play for Phil Jackson, if the Bulls had replaced Jackson with a vet like Chuck Daly, Jordan would’ve stayed.  I think Krause wanted to burn that bridge by bringing in Floyd.

Now, let’s talk about the end of Krause’s career a bit more.  In 2002, he drafted Jay Williams, who looked like a pretty good player until a motorcycle accident ended his career early.  All this time, the team was terrible for five years.  Even though the team had good young players, it wasn’t reflected in the win-loss record.  In the middle of 2002-03, Krause turns around and trades Artest and Brad Miller for Jalen Rose, whose value was debatable in his prime, but was definitely done as a starter at that point.  That was the end for Krause.  He was let go a few months later at the end of the 2002-03 season.  The Bulls recovered pretty quickly thereafter because they still had some good players.  Krause went the tanking route and, like Sam Hinkie in Philly, he couldn’t survive the losses.  That’s something that GMs have to understand, fans won’t stick around for the process.

BJ:          Krause quit on his own rebuild and was probably panicking trying to get results and he had a terrible coach.  It was a disaster.  I remember, when Krause was fired, the younger players put their initials on his shoes [Chandler and some of the players did do this].  Unlike Jordan, they liked him.  I don’t believe in tanking and would, as a fan, prefer mediocre teams to the bad teams required to tank.

HA:         It’s hard to get off the treadmill of mediocrity once you are on it.  You understand that, unless you can sign a great free agent, you have to tank to get good players or get really lucky in the draft.

BJ:          It’s a risky venture and so many great players were found with lower picks, like the Greek Freak, Steph Curry, or Jimmy Butler.  I watched Krause try to tank enthusiastically.  He couldn’t wait to have Michael out so he could show everyone what a genius he was.  His own worst enemy.  Re-living it through your review of the facts is painful again [rueful laughing].

HA:         Sorry.

BJ:          If they had just gotten a veteran coach they might’ve gotten another year out of the team.  I know Jordan was saying in the documentary that he would come back but was he really saying it then?

HA:         He played it close to the vest but he was willing to come back and play for the crappy Wizards so that shows he was willing.  The only question was whether the Bulls would have created the conditions to make him feel comfortable to return.  There was no way Pippen was ever coming back for 1998-99 and I understood why the Bulls didn’t want to pay him at that point in his career.  Could they have found an adequate stand-in for Pippen that Jordan would have been okay with to make run with?  Krause could always find more role players if MJ and a good second banana was available.

BJ:          I do not know how committed Jordan was.  I saw his speech at the end of the documentary about bringing everyone back but I didn’t see that in real time.  I saw a lot of bad feelings and he insisted he would only play for Phil.  Jordan was a proud stubborn guy who walked away once before.  Jerry Reinsdorf was essentially posed with a decision: Jordan or Krause.  If I had to make that decision, I would take Jordan every time.

HA:         It was slightly more complicated though.  It was Jordan at $35 million a year.  Once MJ’s salary ballooned, Reinsdorf wanted no part of that ride unless he knew he was winning a title.  Reinsdorf was not going to be left holding the bag with a bad team and paying Jordan a ton of cash.  That leads to the next point.  Reinsdorf was a complicated figure.  He was the good cop to Krause’s bad cop.  He allowed Krause to take a lot of crap for Krause’s lack of social skills.  Do you think Reinsdorf was good or bad for Krause overall?  He was loyal to Krause and paid him well but allowed Krause to hang out there as a loser for history.

BJ:          Jerry Reinsdorf did not do Krause any favors when he allowed Krause to be the public face of the rejection of Michael Jordan.  In the public’s mind, it was Jordan versus Krause.  Reinsdorf should’ve sided with Jordan.  I believe, and I know it sounds strange, that the Bulls are paying a psychic price for driving the best player in the NBA out much like the Red Sox after they sold Babe Ruth. 

HA:         Do you think Reinsdorf loses any sleep over his bad karma?

BJ:          No.  I don’t know him and never met him but I get the sense that his first love is baseball and the White Sox and he just doesn’t care about the Bulls the same way.  His son Michael Reinsdorf seems to care more and he is running the team now.  There is hope that they will turn it into a 21st century operation.  But the psychic price was big.  I know it is intangible but, at the very least, free agents were unwilling to sign there after they drove out Jordan.

HA:         They got Ron Mercer.

BJ:          [Laughs] 

HA:         There were several times when the Bulls considered trading Pippen for younger players like Tracy McGrady or Shawn Kemp.  Do you wish they had done that?

BJ:          It would’ve been really interesting to see Jordan and a young McGrady.  Krause wanted to do that trade in the 1997 Draft.  Reinsdorf asked Jordan and Jordan rejected it.  In the end, I’m glad they didn’t trade Pippen.  The 1997-98 season was so enjoyable the way it unfolded.  It would’ve been a shrewd GM move by Krause.  If you view players as assets, as GMs are supposed to do, getting a great young player like T-Mac for the older Pippen, who was never great after 1997-98.  The 1998-99 Bulls with Jordan and T-Mac could’ve been fun.

HA:         How much, if at all, does how Krause was treated take away from the Bulls great run?

BJ:          It’s just all part of it.  The Michael Jordan Era was like a novel.  The Last Dance did a good job of showing the major characters and twists and turns.  They couldn’t have done it without Jerry Krause.  Jordan was too proud to admit it but Pippen admitted it at the end of the documentary. 

Having said all that, Krause was his own worst enemy and I’m not getting into some of Krause’s other stuff where he really went out of his way to alienate old pros like Chet Walker and Norm Van Lier.  There was a lot of unnecessary stupid stuff Krause did that had nothing to do with the Jordan Years.  Krause is a tragic figure who made some shrewd moves like the awesome 1987 Draft of Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant.

HA:         Would you say that Phil Jackson, who was a pretty smart guy, also used Krause as a foil to his advantage?

BJ:          Everyone did!  The coolest kid in the cafeteria, Michael Jordan, picked on the nerdiest kid, Krause.  It would take some of exceptional courage to tell Jordan that he was being unfair and to stop it.  People went along with it.  You in The Last Dance that Jordan bragged about being a bully helped him win.

HA:         Do you think Jordan understood that Reinsdorf was pulling the strings and the Krause was really middle-management?

BJ:          Yes.  Michael Jordan is very smart.  He knew what he was doing.  Jordan knew that the ultimate decision lies with the owner.  Reinsdorf loves telling the story that he personally kept Jordan from playing after Jordan broke his foot in 1986 but Jordan publicly blamed Krause anyway.  At Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech he only thanked Reinsdorf and not Krause.  I never met Jordan but I think he made a conscious decision to pick on the weaker guy.

HA:         Does that change how you think about Jordan?  It seems strange that Jordan would use his documentary 30 years later to gloat since Jordan won in the judgment of history.  What does it matter now that Krause has passed away?

BJ:          In terms of the narrative, the documentary needs a villain.  I spoke with Craig Hodges on my podcast and he said “dead men don’t talk.”  Krause is not around, let’s dump on him. 

HA:         Were you friendly with Krause after you did the big story on him in 1990?

BJ:          When my article came out, I called him to get his opinion.  He sternly told me that the story was “riddled with errors.”  I remember that line.  It was classic Krause.  I asked Jerry to specifically fact check the errors.  I knew there were no errors because I had rigorously reviewed it with him beforehand.  I thought “well that’s not ending on a nice note.”  I think what happened was the story was popular in Chicago and many people went up to Krause and told him they liked it and were sympathetic to him.  The story won an award and I had to talk to Krause about something else and his attitude towards the story and me had changed.  Suddenly, the story wasn’t riddled with errors.  Suddenly, Krause liked how this story won an award and the beat writers who he reviled did not.  He was using me as a weapon in his fight with the beat writers.

HA:         Let’s end on a more positive note, which team scared you most during the Bulls run?

BJ:          I don’t count the Pistons since they were past their prime by 1990.  The Cavs were pretty tough as well but those 1991-92 Knicks were probably the toughest.  Pat Riley had those Knicks so determined to beat the Bulls.  Game 6 in the Garden where the Bulls couldn’t put away the Knicks scared me but the Bulls took care of business easily in Game 7.  The next season, the Knicks were really ready to take on the Bulls and for Chicago to beat the Knicks in six in 1992-93 was impressive. 

HA:         The Bulls were pretty tired that season and it seemed that the Knicks were ready to beat them.

BJ:          The Knicks were up 2-0 and the Bulls won Game 3 at home when Jordan played poorly.  Let’s give Krause some level for that supporting cast that won that game for them.  Game 5 of that series, when Charles Smith was blocked several times by Pippen and Jordan, that was my favorite moment of the whole run.

I know I sound critical of Jordan because he acts like a jerk all the time but I feel lucky, as a Bulls fan, to watch that run with the greatest of All-Time.