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How Much Credit and Blame Does Jerry Krause Really Deserve?

The villain of ‘The Last Dance’ is responsible for dismantling the most iconic dynasty in NBA history. But there’s another part of Krause’s legacy that the documentary fails to acknowledge.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The hero of The Last Dance is obvious: It’s Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time. The series also has an obvious villain, and it’s not any of the teams Jordan played against: It’s Jerry Krause, the general manager who intentionally dismantled the 1990s Bulls in a foolish attempt to prove his own worth.

In The Last Dance, Krause is depicted as vain, jealous, and stubborn—and on top of all that, he’s called fat and ugly. In fact, the documentary implies that Krause was vain and jealous largely because of his appearance. “Jerry had the little man problem. He grew up a little fat kid,” author Mark Vancil says in the documentary’s first installment. “He was always the underdog, and he couldn’t control the part of him that needed credit.”

Throughout the series, Jordan, Phil Jackson, and Scottie Pippen all rip on Krause, with multiple scenes showing Jordan humiliating the egotistical executive about his height and weight. The first episode prompted many viewers to notice that Krause had the same stature and passion for long-term contracts as the evil alien villain from Space Jam.

The Last Dance explains that Krause, a baseball scout, came to the Bulls in 1985—the year after Jordan was drafted—and spent the next 15 years growing increasingly furious at all the credit Jordan received for the team’s bevy of championships. So Krause took matters into his own hands and decided to try to build a new dynasty. He told Jackson that 1997-98 would be his final season coaching the Bulls, courting modestly successful Iowa State head coach Tim Floyd to take over as his successor. Jordan stated that he wouldn’t play without Jackson. Meanwhile, Krause refused to negotiate a fair contract for Pippen, Jordan’s brilliant no. 2.

Virtually all the key members of the back-to-back-to-back champion Bulls left in 1998, and the team won a combined 66 games over the next four seasons. Chicago built its hopes around top-five draft picks Marcus Fizer and Eddy Curry, and never again made the playoffs before Krause left the organization in 2003. Krause was seemingly dealt a straight flush, got pissed because people said the dealer was responsible for those cards, and decided that he could do a better job picking his own. In that sense, his actions are indefensible: The Jordan Bulls were a beautiful, irreplaceable crystal, and Krause shattered it purely for the sake of ego. We don’t know whether Jordan and Pippen would’ve continued to win titles after 1998, but Krause prevented the world from finding out. His stupidity alone seems breathtaking; that it was born out of insecurity makes it unforgivable.

But Krause wasn’t just responsible for throwing away a great hand. While he’s certainly to blame for the Bulls’ unnecessary destruction, he also was instrumental in the team’s miraculous assemblage. Krause—who was twice named NBA Executive of the Year and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017—surrounded Jordan with the complementary pieces needed to win three straight titles from 1991 to 1993, then got rid of many of those pieces and surrounded Jordan with a different set of teammates for another threepeat. While The Last Dance shows the Bulls team that drafted Jordan in 1984 as a hopeless “cocaine circus” and explains how Jordan’s costars were often found in obscure basketball backwaters, it never clues in on Krause as the person who found the necessary cogs to turn that circus into a champion.

The Last Dance makes sure to tell the story of how Pippen rose from virtual anonymity to become one of the greatest players of all time and an integral part of the Bulls dynasty, but doesn’t give Krause credit for finding Pippen. Nor does it acknowledge Krause’s history of discovering star small-school players. During his time with the Washington Bullets, Krause found Earl Monroe at Division II Winston-Salem State and Jerry Sloan at Division II Evansville. That Krause found Monroe is considered his origin story, but Jordan didn’t buy it—after all, the Bullets took Monroe second in 1967, and MJ thought a player drafted second couldn’t really be a secret. If Krause didn’t scout Monroe, “someone would have found him at no. 3 or no. 4,” Jordan said. Krause’s passion for small-school talent was evident in his first year as Bulls GM, as he took Charles Oakley out of Division II Virginia Union with the ninth pick in the 1985 draft.

You don’t get any of this information from The Last Dance, which makes it seem like Krause worked exclusively in baseball before becoming the Bulls GM. And none of Krause’s spectacular finds buys him credibility with Jordan, who saw Krause’s interest in small-school talent as a weakness. “My whole definition of Krause is that he favors the underdog,” Jordan said in 1993. “He wants that diamond in the rough. I figure he had a rough childhood, that he was always picked on, and this is his way of compensating.”

Pippen was Krause’s masterpiece. This Sports Illustrated article from 1987 details how the Bulls were one of the only teams to send a scout to check out Pippen playing NAIA ball for Central Arkansas. In 1993, Krause said he “almost had an orgasm” the first time he saw Pippen in person. Krause was crestfallen when Pippen’s stock soared during his postseason workouts, and the Seattle SuperSonics ultimately drafted Pippen fifth—but Krause traded the eighth pick in the draft (Olden Polynice) and future assets to secure his guy. Outside of the Lakers’ 1996 trade for Kobe Bryant, it’s probably the best draft night trade of all time. The Last Dance shows Krause sitting next to Pippen at a press conference announcing his selection, but otherwise marvels at Pippen’s rise from small-school standout to NBA star as an arc that happened without acknowledging how Krause helped set it in motion.

During his time with the Bullets, Krause also became enamored of a power forward at Division II North Dakota named Phil Jackson. Krause couldn’t get the Bullets to pick Jackson—the Knicks took him in the second round of the 1967 draft—but maintained a relationship with the big man even as Jackson’s coaching career tumbled into total obscurity. Jackson coached for the Continental Basketball Association’s Albany Patroons and a pair of teams in Puerto Rico, with NBA teams refusing to take a chance on the 6-foot-10 hippie. In 1985, Krause asked Jackson to write up some scouting reports on CBA players, and was impressed by the thoroughness of Jackson’s work. Two years later, when Jackson was considering filing for unemployment or going back to law school, he reached out to Krause as a last-ditch effort to keep his coaching dream alive—and Krause hired him as an assistant. With the Bulls, Jackson bonded with another Krause hire (Tex Winter, a modestly successful college coach who came up with the triangle offense) and went on to become one of the greatest coaches of all time. The Last Dance doesn’t mention how Krause saved Jackson from ending his coaching career, focusing instead on the dissolution of their relationship ahead of the 1997-98 season.

We can keep going. The documentary highlights how Krause’s interest in Toni Kukoc irked Jordan and Pippen ahead of the 1992 Olympics, but doesn’t spend much time on how Krause found Kukoc, securing a pivotal piece of the Bulls’ second threepeat in the second round of the NBA draft. Krause had the wisdom to pursue a European big man with a sweet 3-point stroke at a time when neither Europeans nor shooting bigs were en vogue. The documentary notes how Dennis Rodman had become unwanted in NBA circles due to his volatile demeanor, but blows right past Krause landing one of the best rebounders in NBA history in a trade for Will Perdue. Steve Kerr was basically written off when he joined the Bulls in 1993; after Chicago signed him to a league minimum contract, he went on to become one of the most effective shooters in NBA history. Krause often made decisions that upset MJ, like trading Jordan’s friend Charles Oakley for Bill Cartwright in 1988. Up until 1997, though, his choices almost always made the team better.

I get why The Last Dance doesn’t spend much time celebrating Krause’s successes. This is a documentary about the greatest basketball player of all time and the larger-than-life personality traits that made him singular. It is not a documentary about a suit who made savvy trades and handed out team-friendly contracts. The past 20 years have seen the sports universe drastically change its perception of front office figures, to the point that an Oscar-nominated movie features Brad Freakin’ Pitt playing an analytically-minded general manager trying to assemble a winning roster for a penny-pinching employer. There are fan bases that lionize their GMs over their team’s actual stars, and I appreciate The Last Dance resetting that conversation. That Pippen, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, signed a seven-year, $18 million contract, might today be written about as a coup that allowed a franchise to better structure its salary cap. The Last Dance correctly portrays Pippen’s meager salary in comparison to his massive on-court contributions as a sports tragedy.

Krause is blasted in The Last Dance for one controversial quote above all else: “Players and coaches don’t win championships; organizations win championships.” (Krause claimed that he was misquoted and what he actually said was “players and coaches alone don’t win championships.”) This seems like an obvious distillation of his faults. Krause worked for a team with the greatest player of all time, the greatest sidekick of all time, and perhaps the greatest coach of all time—and had the gall to claim that they didn’t “win championships” because of his pathological need to receive credit. Of course players and coaches are primarily responsible for winning, not general managers.

Still, Krause found the players and coaches who won those championships, often in remarkable settings. He had a rare gift for unearthing overlooked players and coaches, and used it to piece together a magical combination of talents and personalities that made up the legendary Bulls—the team that changed basketball forever and still fascinates us 20-plus years later. The documentary simply leaves this part of the Bulls’ incredible legacy out.

Krause doesn’t get a chance to defend himself in the series, as he died in 2017. (At the time of his death, Jordan offered some acknowledgement that Krause played a pivotal role in the Bulls’ dynasty.) The few instances when we hear Krause’s voice in The Last Dance come from archival footage. The documentary also fails to sufficiently criticize one of the main architects of the Bulls’ demise: owner Jerry Reinsdorf, whose tenure has been marked by high profit margins and low salaries. Reinsdorf, who has publicly stated that he cares more about owning the White Sox than the Bulls, was happy to avoid paying Jordan and Pippen after they left town; Krause may have simply been doing his bidding. Krause left the Bulls in 2003, but the franchise has kept faltering in ways that reflect poorly on its owner.

Krause is one of the best general managers in NBA history. He also made one of the largest mistakes of any general manager in NBA history, robbing the world of a chance to see the extent of what was possible from the most iconic basketball player and team ever. The Last Dance tells one of these stories but not the other. It’s striking that when Jordan goes after Krause’s height and weight, it doesn’t feel like a demonstration of MJ’s cruelty—it feels like we’re supposed to laugh with Jordan at the fat little evil guy who screwed everything up.