Jerry Krause: By Those Who Knew Him Best

September 6th, 2017 | by Sam Smith

We are not a society on first glance that would celebrate Jerry Krause. Though we, fortunately, take additional looks, which is one reason why Krause Friday will be enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2017.

We are quick to admire and glorify appearance, slow often to recognize and understand the traits and subtly of excellence. That’s because it comes often in unusual packages, sometimes in a rumpled raincoat and perhaps even with a few crumbs on the tie. But the results can be very appetizing.

Krause, the former Bulls general manager who presided over six NBA championship teams, was an unusually private man in an exceptionally public world, professional sports. It’s not a classic mix.

But perhaps because Krause never looked the part of a corporate sports executive, he was able to do his job even better. Because in some respects maybe he understood that there was more to a player than how he looked. The men who worked most closely with him, his top assistants, understood.

“Jerry scouted tools,” said Jim Stack, one of Krause’s chief assistants during his 18-year run as Bulls top basketball executive. “How athletic they were, long arms. He was looking for freak athletes and you saw Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant and Michael (Jordan). But another component was what kind of people they were. Were they a good teammate? What kind of competitor were they in the heat of the game? Did they shy away or step to the forefront? Jerry said there were a lot of ways to evaluate heart and drive and determination. Jerry always prided himself on being unconventional.”

It’s not always associated with exceptional, but it’s often in the neighborhood.

“People like to say Jerry was ‘the Sleuth,’” notes Clarence Gaines Jr., another of Jerry’s top acolytes who went on to work with Phil Jackson and the Knicks. “A better nickname for Jerry was ‘the Bulldog.’ He latches onto something and he’s persistent and is going to see it through and see his vision through. One of greatest attributes is persisting through peaks and valleys and being able to see the finish line. He went through a lot of trials and tribulations through his career that just made him tougher.

“It’s the gift of failure, how failure enables people in the long term to have success, internalize and take the lessons that life teaches you,” says Gaines. “Jerry had his struggles and his doubters. His first experience with the Bulls didn’t last long. He had to go out the door with his tail between his legs. But all those experiences kind of made him.”

Perhaps he was more like Michael Jordan than either would like to or be willing to admit, mutual stubbornness inciting an inevitable rivalry. Jordan, though, did famously say one big reason he succeeded was how often he failed.

“Jerry was the classic underdog,” says Gaines. “He always was doubted, a guy who never really looked the part. But in the end he was the part.”

Those closest to Krause always will say how he was more scout than executive, loving the chase, the mystery, finding that rare gem. Sort of like Jerry Krause, himself.

So it was less coincidence than providence that Krause would latch onto Pippen, a small college kid who entered college on a work study program, seek out Toni Kukoc overseas when it wasn’t so fashionable, champion players like Robert Parish and Clifford Ray, two that Krause urged the Bulls to draft when he was a team executive in the 1970s. They found Ray; they rejected his Parish suggestion and selected Indiana U. star Scott May. Krause’s objections were among the reasons he soon was gone. May didn’t last much longer for basketball reasons.

Krause didn’t look or sound like he knew better; he just did.

“Jerry was always attracted to in some ways the underdog,” said Gaines. “He never neglected any aspect of any level of basketball. My father was a small college coach (Clarence “Big House” Gaines at Winston Salem State). Look at the Knicks with Willis Reed, small college, Dick Barnett; Walt Frazier played Division 2 basketball the same year Earl Monroe did, the same year my dad team won the national championship. Small college basketball was big, but not often recognized. Jerry kept on that. Jerry would leave no stone unturned as far as scouting, but I also think that goes back to the underdog mentality. He was always looking for that diamond in the rough. Look at the Bulls draft of Scottie Pippen; had to be the ultimate draft pick for Jerry Krause, guy a late bloomer coming out of an NAIA school. He was no secret by the time he got him, but Jerry recognized that talent early.

“Jerry was a complex man; we all are. He wasn’t always comfortable in his skin; little stuff bothered him, things people wrote about him,” Gaines acknowledged. “But he was confident and comfortable in his view of talent, not only basketball, but coaching and administrative talent. Look at the coaches he had the foresight to bring in. He appreciated bright and intelligent people around him who would question and challenge him.

“Jerry wasn’t always one to listen,” Gaines added with a laugh. “I’m no shrinking violet. We had our battles; but he paid me to offer an opinion. Jerry would say if there are two people in the organization who think alike, one of them doesn’t have to be there. He was looking for people with their own ideas and thought processes and I’d say the people I was surrounded with in that organization were bright, brilliant people who were confident in themselves and voiced their own opinions and you have to give Jerry a lot of credit for surrounding himself with people like that.”

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Jerry Krause wasn’t winning many media favorite contests given his penchant for secrecy and misdirection. Nor was anyone against the unrivaled Michael Jordan. But that became part of the job for Krause, the ultimate sacrifice of popularity for progress. Krause, as many do, especially in that kind of environment where the players are credited with the success and the management with the failure, often felt overlooked, underestimated and unappreciated, driven by a seemingly angry confidence, an intense work ethic and perhaps a relentless desire to show people, to prove not only that he belongs but he’s better than you are.

Better even than Michael Jordan; OK, maybe just smarter, or better at his job.

“Say what you want to say about Jerry, Jerry was a fighter,” said B.J. Armstrong, the former Bulls who was Krause’s top aide during the conclusion of Krause’s run. “He drafted toughness. Probably driven by what he went through and the way he lived. It was a reflection of that toughness he felt was needed in a team.”

The most enduring example of that might have been the Walter Davis Affair.

It was when the Bulls were improving, but not quickly enough for Jordan’s liking. Jordan after Pippen’s migraine headache fiasco in the 1990 conference finals and Grant’s inconsistency against the Detroit Pistons’ brutes was having his doubts the Bulls had enough to be a championship team. Jordan began openly lobbying for the team to acquire former North Carolina star Davis, still an 18-point scorer with the Phoenix Suns. It would only seemingly get worse for Krause when the favored Portland Trailblazers in January 1991 acquired Davis in trade.

“Michael railed so hard to get Walter Davis because he felt we needed another scorer because Scottie wasn’t a consistent scorer,” remembered Stack. “So Jerry sent me out to watch Walter Davis. But Walter couldn’t guard anybody and we needed to get through the Eastern Conference with tough three men, Larry Nance, Mark Aguirre, Xavier McDaniel, all big, physical guys. We had signed Cliff Levingston, but Phil wasn’t playing him. So then Portland the powerhouse in the West ends up trading for Walter Davis.”

It was a brutal time for Krause in what would become the Bulls first championship season. The Bulls recently had lost badly in Detroit and now the team with the league’s best record adds Walter Davis, Jordan’s desire. Jordan, unsurprisingly, wasn’t quiet about that. The Bulls would finally beat the Pistons in Auburn Hills in February, though Isiah Thomas was out injured. Then the Bulls began their post-All Star game run which continued through the playoffs.

Ironically, though perhaps fittingly for Krause, albeit mostly unnoticed, Davis would prove instrumental for the Bulls. Though as a ‘Blazer.

“One thing that always struck me with Jerry was his dogged determination,” said Stack. “He had this motto of patience plus perseverance equals success. I was out at that (Western Conference finals) series when the Lakers were playing Portland. Portland got up early in Game 1 in Portland and (coach Rick) Adelman put Davis in and (James) Worthy drives by him again and again and L.A. got momentum and the whole tide of that series shifted. The Lakers won Game 1 in Portland (after trailing by 12 after three quarters) and won in six games in L.A. We took so much heat for not trading for Walter Davis and then when Portland got him it got even more elevated. And the funny thing is Walter played for Portland and was horrible and the Lakers stole the game and ended up winning the series.

“The heat was in the kitchen during that time for us,” Stack admits. “Phil was close with Michael; it was divided internally. Maybe our jobs would have been on the line if we were beaten. But the unique thing about Jerry was he wasn’t afraid to stick to his guns if he felt he was doing the right thing; he trusted his instincts.”

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We marvel now at the excellence of the Golden State Warriors, though their roots, their philosophy, comes as much from Jerry Krause as it does Steve Kerr, whom Krause signed for the Bulls when his NBA career seemed over.

“Jerry always thought the game should be played positionless,” says Armstrong. “He didn’t so much say it, but even in his era he felt the fundamental base was important, that everyone should be able to make the pass to the post. Who says a center can’t make the pass into the post? Michael Jordan, effectively, was a post player and you saw with the championship teams players able to do multiple things. Everyone should be able to pass to the post, play screen roll; that’s why he embraced Tex’s teachings so much. Because that’s what Tex advocated. Everyone should be able to defend multiple positions.

“Something I picked up with Jerry was the demand for length and toughness in players and the heavy emphasis on the timeless fundamentals of the game,” added Armstrong, now a top executive with Wasserman Media Group. “Call it positionless, but Jerry was into drafting guys with a heavy fundamental base because the fundaments of the game never change. If you have that you can play in any era.”

Yes, you can know the game without playing. You can even know more than those who played. Jerry Krause often demonstrated that even as it fit no one’s narrative. It remained a driving force.

“You are in a lot of ways defined by your childhood,” said Gaines. “It doesn’t mean you cannot overcome it, but you have to understand how was a kid raised, how was he influenced. Jerry was always a proponent of interviewing players for that reason. He had to get to know a player.”

Few escape those adolescent influences, and they would remain a motivating force personally for Krause as well; similarly those myriad disappointments, detours and defeats along the way.

“With the Bulls in the mid 70s it didn’t work out and he always vowed if he ever got the opportunity again he’d leave no stone unturned in terms of evaluating everything,” Stack said. “Information was at a premium pre-internet and we were always digging around. I went on a lot of wild goose chases. But Jerry always said we are going to outwork people, make sure we follow every lead. That led to a player like Scott Williams. We got him as an undrafted player; had shoulder issues. Scott was a little wild, but he was a valuable player for us when we won that first championship. With Toni in the 1990 draft I had played against Toni as a real young kid.”

That also was another element of Krause’s information complex. Just as Krause asked Phil Jackson to prepare scouting reports of the CBA for him, Krause did the same with Stack when he was playing in Europe for five years after playing at Northwestern. It was what led to players like Charles Oakley from little Virginia Union. Krause had gotten the tip from Big House Gaines.

“When you look at Jerry the perception people had of him they might think curmudgeon, a question of social skills,” said Gaines. “But he had a network of people in basketball he had developed relationships with over time. My father was one. Think of Tex Winter. The first move Jerry made when he came to the Bulls was to call two people, Tex Winter and Al Vermeil. And that was pretty forward thinking. I don’t think a lot of organizations had their own strength and conditioning coach and a coach of coaches. Now everyone does. It was one of the most positive attributes about Jerry, that he had a plan. And he implemented that plan and vision.”

Perhaps unconventionally, but history also is replete with those doubted because they were idiosyncratic; sounding, looking, acting.

“He’d do it differently,” said Stack. “We were in gyms sometimes the only NBA people there. He was going to look under that rock that no other GM would want to look under. We’d interview guys and I’d say ‘Jerry we’re never going to draft this kid. Why are we spending an hour, hour and a half?’ He always had some other reason. He’d say, ‘I want to get insight from him on another kid I’m interested in.’ He always had an angle for why he did things. There was never wasted time. He’d say, ‘No, Jimmy. There’s always something to be gleaned from time spent with someone.’ Was Jerry West doing that? No, probably not, but Jerry took pride in doing those unconventional things no one else would do.

“At his core, he always believed himself to be a scout more than a general manager,” said Stack. “He loved being out there with the action, being in the middle and evaluating. But as general manager, he did a great job accumulating assets. We always believed you build your core through the draft and get over the top through free agency. So he was always cognizant of what he called the vigorish (a Yiddish word roughly defining the house’s take in gambling). He’d say, ‘Jimmy, got to get the vig.’ Chips you can use in trade, an extra second round pick. Throw this in and close the deal. Lots of times those are the chips that get a trade over the top.

“The doggedness of Jerry was always there,” said Stack. “He’d call me at all hours of the day and night and I’d be like, ‘Jerry turn it off.’ But he just was relentless. He’d have a plan and this is how we were going to try to get where we need to go. We added Luc Longley and Steve Kerr and Toni came over, Ron Harper. That 1993-94 team, I don’t know if we would have lost any games if Michael hadn’t retired.  The system we played was all interchangeable playmaking, interchangeable parts, multiple ball handlers. In Phil, he saw a young Red Holzman with the defense and team play. Jerry was ahead of his time. Teams were winning titles with the big man. We had Michael and were blessed to have him, but we were doing it more like Golden State is now with the perimeter guys, the three-headed monster at the center spot. Jerry was an innovator.”

Krause was among the elite; it will say so in the most beautiful basketball place.

“The Hall of Fame,” said Stack, “would mean everything, to be recognized after all he’d been through.”