Goodbye, Crumbs: Remembering Jerry Krause, Architect of Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls
It's unlikely that Krause will join Jordan and Phil Jackson in the Basketball Hall of Fame; if he ever does, the display might well be a huge set of cojones.
The Bulls huddle during the 1992 Finals. It would be one of Krause's many championship seasons. Photo by USA TODAY Sports
His tombstone won't mention it, but Jerry Krause was immortalized to Chicago Bulls fans around the world as "Crumbs."
That, of course, was the infamous nickname Michael Jordan once supposedly gave the team's portly general manager because Krause always seemed to wear what he ate on his sweater.
It was not a term of endearment.
Krause's death at age 77 was announced on Tuesday, almost 19 full years since he, Bulls coach Phil Jackson, and Jordan parted company in a hail of spite and anger after winning six championships together with one of the NBA's great dynasties.
It's unlikely that the three ever posed together for a photograph, even in their sunnier days—but if they had, Krause would have been the short, dumpy guy looking entirely out of place.
The caption for that photo might have noted that Jordan was the one with the fierce presence and incredible talent, and that Jackson was the one with the motivational smarts and interpersonal cunning.
Well, Crumbs was the one with enough gumption to stand up to both of them. That stubborn fearlessness helped Krause twice earn NBA Executive of the Year honors. It's unlikely that he'll ever join the other two men in the Basketball Hall of Fame; if he ever does, the display might well be a huge set of cojones.
Jordan, you may recall, was the most intimidating presence in the history of the game, on and off the court. That was his gift and his curse, all rolled into one. A gift because it propelled Jordan to basketball's pinnacle, scaring everybody in his path along the way—and a curse because it transformed many of those around him into fawning groupies and sycophants.
Everywhere Jordan turned, he encountered people eager to tell him what he wanted to hear. Even Jackson, hugely intimidating in his own right, stepped softly and chose his words around His Airness.
Krause, on the other hand, charged right in like the bull that he was, cocksure in his own view of things, sometimes tragically so.
Go back to the 1980s. Chicago's coaching and front office staff agreed that the team needed Bill Cartwright, the better to upgrade their center play with smarts and toughness. To land Cartwright, Krause traded away Charles Oakley, Jordan's dear friend and partner in crime.
This was just one of several Krause acts that Jordan never forgave.
"We didn't win until we got Bill Cartwright," Krause told me in a long conversation several years ago. "People today don't realize how good Bill Cartwright was."
Cartwright was the key to the Bulls' first three championships from 1991-93, Krause said. "Then the second group of three (1996-98) started when we got Dennis (Rodman). Without Dennis, we wouldn't have done that."
Jordan signed off on the Rodman acquisition, but there were plenty of other times Krause didn't hesitate to run afoul of the team's star, even going out of his way to tease him that New York Knicks legend Earl Monroe—a.k.a The Pearl, a.k.a Black Jesus—was a better player.
Crumbs, it seemed, had a particular talent for pissing Jordan off.
As Jackson once confided to me, Krause always seemed to need to go the restroom right before games, even though everyone knew that Jordan treasured his moments in there, alone on the throne.
Jordan lobbied hard for the drafting of Joe Wolf, a star from his alma mater, the University of North Carolina. Krause ignored him and drafted Horace Grant, another key in Chicago's long run of success.
Later, when Jordan became an NBA executive himself and then a team owner, he chose not to consult with Krause, although Jordan did make use of Krause's former right hand man, Jim Stack. "Michael didn't try to pick my brain," Krause once said, his voice betraying some hurt feelings. "Michael didn't have any respect for anybody's brain."
In 1998, Krause played a role in the breakup of Jordan's Bulls, as he openly expressed the desire to create another great team after Jordan's career was done. It never happened, and Krause was blamed for the breakup and branded forever as a classic case of hubris.
After Krause left the Bulls in 2003, he returned to his original love, scouting baseball. Beyond assembling Chicago's championship rosters, his basketball reputation was built on the fact that hired and promoted Tex Winter, the triangle offense expert, and later Jackson, who became the Zen Master (and noted triangle aficionado) of dynastic championship teams in Chicago and Los Angeles.
While Krause remained lifelong friends with Winter, he and Jackson were known for their refusal to so much as speak to one another, despite their great success together. "I haven't spoken to Phil since the last day he was with us in 1998," Krause told me in 2008. That stoniness briefly broke in 2011, when Winter was named to the Hall of Fame, and Jackson and Krause shared the moment.
Jackson and Krause's differences were enough to make you wonder how they ever came to work together. The answer is the bittersweet heart of the story.
When Krause was a student assistant charting plays at Bradley University, he caught his first glimpse of Winter, then the coach at Kansas State. Krause was intrigued by the triangle offense and Winter's intelligence and integrity. "I liked what Tex did," he said. "I thought, Boy, if he ever got good players that offense would be something."
Winter moved around in his coaching career as Krause moved into the netherworld of scouting, all the while keeping an eye on Winter and his teams. When Winter took the job at Northwestern, "we became better friends," Krause said.
Although Winter is now incapacitated by a stroke suffered in 2009, he once told me that he spent a lot of time with a projector, going over film, showing a young Krause a lot about the triangle.
"I wanted to learn about it," Krause said. He also had hopes of becoming an NBA general manager someday, and he offered promises that as soon as he did, he would hire Winter.
"I want you with me," Krause told Winter. "I want you to teach the big people and to coach the coaches."
"I always said, 'I'm gonna hire him as an assistant coach, and I'm not gonna worry who the head coach is going to be," Krause recalled.
In 1985, Krause's labor came to fruition. Jerry Reinsdorf hired him to be GM of the Bulls as Jordan was entering his second season. Sure enough, one of the first calls Krause made was to Winter to become an assistant/consultant with the team.
First, Krause hired Stan Albeck as head coach. But Albeck didn't want to listen to Winter, and didn't want to use the offense.
Krause also wanted him to hire a goofy young assistant named Phil Jackson. He had discovered Jackson, a lanky big guy at the University of North Dakota, while scouting small college ball. He had quickly come to believe that Jackson had a bright future.
Albeck absolutely refused to hire Jackson, who was viewed as something of an oddball back in the 1980s. Krause later fired Albeck, and promoted a bright young coach, Doug Collins.
Krause wanted Collins to hire Jackson, but the new coach was reluctant. "I went around some things with Doug, but I finally got Phil on his staff," Krause said.
Once there, Jackson soon began working with Winter and learning from him. Meanwhile, like Albeck, Collins didn't want to listen to Winter. He even barred Winter from Bulls practices at one point.
Finally, Krause got fed up. He fired Collins and hired Jackson as his head coach. At last, Krause had the two people he had dreamed of putting in charge. It was the beginning of a coaching partnership that would win nine NBA titles.
"Phil was the first person to understand how good Tex was," Krause said. "I give Phil a lot of credit. Phil is the best brain picker I have ever known. Phil has picked Tex's mind for years. I'm a great brain picker myself. I've picked Tex's mind for years. But Phil is by far the best I've ever seen because he took a genius and picked his brain. I hired Phil because he was a brilliant defensive coach. When Phil said he wanted to use Tex's triangle, I said, 'That's great.'"
Krause didn't take credit for it, but the two would become the core of a great coaching staff that included Johnny Bach, Jimmy Rodgers, Frank Hamblen, and Jim Cleamons.
"I do believe the coaching staff we had in Chicago is the best staff in the history of the game," Krause said. "They were a tremendous complement to Phil."
For several years, Jackson and his staff proved the perfect match for Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and the rest of the Bulls. However, Krause's strong personality wore on Jackson season after season.
Winter grew to be a moderating factor between the two. He said Jackson spent several years bending over backward to please Krause, but by late 1995 had grown weary of the process and began to rebel.
That rebellion grew into open warfare by 1996. Some accused Jackson of using Jordan and Pippen's dislike of Krause to motivate the team and drive the Bulls along a bitter road to their last three championships.
Krause soon found himself caught up in the web of Jackson's mind games and the coach's ability to use the media to achieve his goals. "He's always operated that way," Krause said of Jackson. "Believe me, he's stirred the pot with me a number of times. That's the way he does things. I know the act, believe me."
Observers watched Krause's own hubris feed into the end game in Chicago. The team and coaching staff broke apart after the sixth title in 1998. Krause's vision of Jackson and Winter had been special, then it turned into his nightmare.
Krause said he was disappointed in 1999 when Winter told him he was leaving the Bulls to accept a job working with Jackson and the Lakers. "I wasn't happy about it when he left," Krause said of Winter, one of the elite few whom Krause called "Coach."
In the years after the Bulls, Krause showed some callouses and bitterness. "I've got tapes of every game that was played in that era," he once told me. "I've never looked at 'em."
Jackson, Winter, Jordan, Pippen, and even Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf were all voted into the Hall of Fame. But not Krause. He seemed to accept that reality, as he did everything else that came to pass. There would never be a warm reunion of what were perhaps the greatest teams in pro basketball history. "It's past history," Krause once said. "It's done. Phil is a great coach. For a long time, he was very easy to work with. Then he was not so easy. That's life. Things change. Phil is Phil. I'm proud I hired him."
Although he never did write it, Krause had long threatened to pen an autobiography called One Million National Anthems. That's because he knocked around the games of baseball and basketball for years as a scout, taking bad flights, eating bad food, hanging out at practice, always looking for the hidden truth. He enjoyed boasting that he was quite a student of the game, and he loved to point out that Chicago held a distinction among all of the NBA's greatest squads—one that reflected on the greatness of Jordan but also, perhaps, on the necessary stubbornness of the man Jordan called Crumbs.
"We were the only ones to build a championship team around a 2 guard," Krause once said, adding that even attempting such a thing is almost silly. "That's what I'm proudest of. It's the hardest thing to do. Really, really hard to do."
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.