The late Jerry Krause was a punching bag throughout “The Last Dance,” taking on the role of a primary villain and catching a lot of flak for how the Bulls’ dynasty broke up. While Krause certainly deserves blame for how things ended (he also deserves credit for building those teams), Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf transitioned into the villain role as the docuseries concluded, and in the days after Episodes 9 and 10 premiered this past Sunday.
In the series’ final minutes, Michael Jordan expresses disappointment about not being able to go for title No. 7 in the 1998-99 season, which wound up being shortened due to the lockout. Jordan unsurprisingly thinks the Bulls could have won another championship and says it’s “maddening” they didn’t get the opportunity to do it, claiming he thinks everybody would have been willing to come back on one-year deals.
In one of the series’ many meme-able moments, we see Jordan watching his iPad as Reinsdorf explains why it wasn’t in the cards. In addition to talking about not being able to convince Phil Jackson to come back, Reinsdorf addresses the roster and basically says the Bulls didn’t want to pay an aging core for another season:
“After the sixth championship, things were beyond our control, because it would have been suicidal at that point in their careers to bring back Pippen, Steve Kerr, Rodman, Ron Harper. Their market value individually was going to be too high. They weren’t going to be worth the money they were going to get in the market.
“So when we realized we were going to have to go into a rebuild, I went to Phil and said, ‘You’re welcome the opportunity to come back the next year.’ But he said, ‘I don’t want to go through a rebuild. I don’t want to coach a bad team.’ That was the end. It just came to an end on its own. Had Michael been healthy and wanted to come back, I don’t doubt that Krause could have rebuilt another championship team in a couple of years, but it wasn’t going to happen instantly.”
While the core clearly was on the decline and arguably running on fumes, the “market value” comment stands out as very #financialchamps given we’re talking about a group that just won a three-peat. Paying big money for that group (Pippen especially given he was seeking a big contract after being underpaid for so long) for another season might have backfired, but that’s the price to pay for keeping a dynasty alive to go for a fourth straight championship. And, of course, the rebuild blew up in their face in pretty epic fashion for several seasons, though they still drew good crowds for a few years at least!
Jordan’s comments clearly struck a nerve with Reinsdorf, though, as he went on a media tour of sorts defending the breakup of the dynasty. He did notable interviews with ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson and The Athletic’s Darnell Mayberry, with all three interviews featuring a similar sentiment about how bringing the crew back just wasn’t possible for a variety of reasons, from Phil’s decision to MJ’s cigar-cutter incident and Phil stance (he wouldn’t play without Phil) to Pippen’s contract (“not a chance in the world” Pippen comes back on a one-year deal) and the expensive roster.
On the topic of Phil, Reinsdorf openly admits to not choosing a side in the feud with Krause, though he claims he admonished the GM for his “Phil’s not coming back even if he’s 82-0” line. Jackson may have been on his way out regardless because he had been in Chicago for nine seasons, but you have to wonder if he would have considered staying if that whole situation was handled differently.
In the interview with K.C., Reinsdorf is notably irked (“I was not pleased. How’s that?”) by Jordan’s comments about bringing the band back together, citing “private conversations” to suggest that MJ had a different view on the situation at the time. Reinsdorf echoed this displeasure in the Mayberry interview, going as far as saying the Bulls definitely wouldn’t have won even if everybody came back:
“Overall, I thought it was really good,” he said. “It was basically accurate. I think it showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that Michael is the greatest player of all time. My only objection to it was giving the impression that there was a way of keeping this team together after the sixth championship, which I think was not possible. But even if we had kept it together, we wouldn’t have won. If you really watched the last show with objectivity, you would see that we barely won. We barely got through the season.
“We were fortunate to beat Indiana. And we were fortunate to beat Utah. Michael had to absolutely go above and beyond the pale. He almost willed us to win those games. Scottie Pippen had a back injury and was going to have surgery. And Dennis Rodman had gotten to the point where nobody could stand to have him around anymore. We couldn’t have kept the team together. Even if we had, their skills had eroded. So my only objection to the series was it really should have given a clear impression that it was over, that it was done and it was time.”
Reinsdorf isn’t entirely wrong about this, and obviously he saw all this close up and had all these conversations with the key people involved. Still, similar to the “market value” quote and the line about Pippen’s contract, he’s not endearing himself to anybody by flat-out declaring the Bulls wouldn’t have won the title in 1999. It would have been challenging for sure, and I have my own doubts about them winning, but Reinsdorf is definitely trying to cover his ass with some of these comments. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe says, Reinsdorf “dishonored” this championship group by doing what he did.
Of course, there’s plenty of blame to go around for the dynasty’s breakup. But even if you’re okay with how the dynasty broke up because of the poetic ending on the court, Reinsdorf also made some other comments to Mayberry about “loyalty” that are worthy of an eye-roll:
“First of all, I’ve been accused of being loyal when I shouldn’t be,” Reinsdorf said. “My first responsibility is to the team. So I don’t think the reason that so many people have worked for me for a long time is that I’m loyal to them. I think it’s because I’ve been fortunate enough to get really good people. And when you have good people you keep them. But I have fired people in the past. When I don’t think they’re doing their job properly or there’s somebody who’s significantly better, you have to make a change.
“Where loyalty comes in is if you have a good person but you realize that you have to make a change, you make the change but you make sure that good person has a soft landing. And by that, there are a couple of things you can do. You can see if you can get them another job. Or make sure that they have enough severance pay that it can tide them over until they do get another job. But you can’t let your liking of a person cause you to keep somebody in the job who shouldn’t be in the job.”
Apparently Reinsdorf thought GarPax was doing a great job all this time! The “soft landing” quote also gives insight into why Pax still has a job in the organization.
Finally, if you want to be annoyed by one more thing, here’s former Bull Corey Benjamin and former beat writer Kent McDill talking to HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy about the Bulls’ failed pursuits of star players in the post-Jordan era:
Corey Benjamin: “I had Arn Tellem as an agent and Arn represented a lot of star players. The Bulls were trying to sign free agents. I hosted Tracy McGrady, Tim Thomas and Jermaine O’Neal when we brought them in. I was there personally for those [meetings] because we were all represented by the same agent (Arn). I remember Jerry Krause told me, ‘If you can get them to sign, I’ll renew your contract.’ I don’t remember Tim Duncan coming in, but I know we wanted Duncan. But we weren’t offering them the money that other teams were offering. I remember Tracy and Jermaine telling me, ‘They’re offering me peanuts.’ They weren’t trying to max these guys out; they were trying to give these guys smaller contracts.”
Kent McDill: “That sounds right. The Bulls organization – whether it be Krause or Reinsdorf – thought that you would take a pay cut in order to be a member of the Chicago Bulls, that being associated with a franchise this successful is worth more than the money you can make elsewhere. Nobody, nobody, was buying that argument.”
Sounds about right, indeed.
While Bulls ownership remains the same, let’s hope this new front office can change the franchise’s fortunes and return them to glory in the near future.