The Last Dance premiered its first two episodes Sunday night on ESPN, as the highly anticipated documentary about Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls debuted two months earlier than was initially planned.
The central figure of the documentary is Michael Jordan, unsurprisingly, as he’s been a central figure in basketball discourse for the better part of four decades. Jordan, even for all his flaws — some of which are exposed further in clips of him berating teammates — is and, for most, always will be the conquering hero in the story of the Chicago Bulls (and the NBA as a whole). The villain for many is former general manager Jerry Krause, who was the chief reason the 1997-98 season was the end of the dynasty.
It doesn’t take long for The Last Dance to dive into the tense situation that was brewing in Chicago after they won the 1996-97 championship, with footage of a defiant Jordan in a press conference after the Finals making it clear he felt it was unfair there was discussion of rebuilding after they just won a second title (and fifth in seven years).
“We’re entitled to defend what we have until we lose it. If we lose it, then you look at it and you say OK let’s change, let’s go through a… Rebuilding? No one’s guaranteed it’s going to be two, three, four, or five years,” Jordan said. “Clubs have been rebuilding for 42 years. If you wanna look at this from a business thing, have a sense of respect who have laid the groundworks for you to be a profitable organization.”
Krause, who died in 2017, is featured in various interviews from the past, but it’s clear that while there’s some appreciation for what he did in building the team, a lot of the anger how things ended in 1998 remains among many. To be clear, it wasn’t just Krause. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf was a major part of this as well, noting that aside from Jordan, the team was starting to age and a rebuild might be prudent. There are never front office decisions that don’t get the co-sign of ownership, and that should surely be noted in any discussion of Krause and the Bulls — although Reinsdorf seems to attempt to straddle both sides of the fence in the documentary.
A major part of the problem, as some in The Last Dance explain, was Krause never felt he got appropriate credit for the Bulls dynasty and as such felt compelled to prove how much power he wielded. That frustration spilled out in the now infamous quote, “Organizations win titles, not players alone.” That, in particular, rubbed (and still rubs) Jordan the wrong way. Krause explained it as being an issue of a quote being pulled from context, as the “alone” part is often left out, but still, it was fairly clear a message was being sent, one that was received and not appreciated by the Bulls’ star player.
“We know the team is much bigger than the 15 players,” Jordan said. “Those guys that worked in the front office, they were good people, but the most important part of the process is the players. So, for him to say that is offensive to how I approached the game.”
The tension between Jordan and Krause dates back years. It stared with the insistence in Jordan’s sophomore season to enforce a strict 14-minute per game restriction as he returned from a broken foot, one that Jordan believed was an effort to tank out of the playoffs and get a better draft pick. The discord between star and GM continued with the decision to trade Charles Oakley in 1988 — a trade that Jordan now admits set them up for the opportunity to win championships — as well as Jordan having to apply immense pressure to the Bulls in 1996 to re-sign him, threatening to go to the Knicks.
“Charles Oakley and I were good friends,” Jordan says in The Last Dance. “We spent a lot of time together, but things were in place for us to win when he left.”
It’s rather incredible that Krause, Reinsdorf, and Jordan had so many issues for that long of a period of time and were so successful, still, winning six championships with Krause, a two-time executive of the year, doing an excellent job building a team around Jordan and Scottie Pippen — who he traded up for in the 1987 Draft to pair with Jordan. However, the culmination of those frustrations, along with the deterioration of Krause’s relationship with Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen, assured that the run would end in 1998.
Phil Jackson had become a superstar coach over his time with the Bulls — another member of the team Krause brought in early on — and as they kept winning, he garnered most of the non-player credit for the Bulls dynasty. This surely contributed to the falling out between he and Krause, which culminated in the possibility that Jackson would be allowed to walk after the 1997 season. That didn’t happen because Reinsdorf stepped in and negotiated a 1-year, $6 million deal with Jackson without Krause to bring him back, largely due to Jordan’s threats to walk away if Jackson wasn’t the coach. But the GM made it very clear from the jump that the 97-98 season would be Phil’s last in Chicago.
“This is going to be your last year. I don’t care if you win 82 games in a row, this is going to be your last year here,” Jackson remembers Krause telling him prior to the season.
That is what precipitated Jackson to call the season “The Last Dance,” hence the name of this documentary and the incredibly dramatic (and at times surreal) nature of such a high stakes season for a team that was at the top of the world. On top of that, Krause was openly courting Iowa State coach Tim Floyd to be his successor, while Jackson was still coaching.
For Pippen, the issues stemmed from a few things. One was his contract massively underpaid him by the mid-1990s. Pippen had signed a 7-year, $18 million deal in 1991, one Reinsdorf notes he felt even at the time was too long, due to a concern about ensuring financial security for his family. Reinsdorf refused to renegotiate that deal, and Pippen was stuck as the sixth highest paid player on the Bulls by the time the 97-98 season arrived. However, the biggest problem Pippen had with Krause was two attempts to trade him, once in 1994, and again mere days after they won the 1997 title.
“That really is what sort of tarnished my relationship with Jerry,” Pippen says in The Last Dance. “He tried to make me feel so special, but yet he was willing to trade and do all that stuff. But never would tell me to my face. After you’re in the game for awhile, you realize that nobody is untradeable, but I felt insulted. I sort of took the attitude of disrespecting him to some degree.”
That disrespect came from Michael and Scottie, who would regularly make vicious jokes at Krause’s behalf — Jordan’s personal favorite was picking on his size as a short, squat individual. In the first two episodes we get video of Jordan asking him if the pills he’s taking are “to keep him short? Or are they diet pills?”
Michael Jordan roasting Jerry Krause💀💀 pic.twitter.com/t9KDxTMnOD
— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) April 20, 2020
He also invites him to do layup lines with the team, but notes “they’ll have to lower the rim.”
Jordan constantly calling his boss short and fat pic.twitter.com/KT3t37W9jc
— Mickstape (@MickstapeShow) April 20, 2020
And after the documentary, Jackie MacMullan shared that the players called Krause, “Crumbs,” because he often had crumbs on his shirt.
Jackie Mac talks about the Bulls players nicknaming Jerry Krause "Crumbs" for spilling food on himself pic.twitter.com/50ukZZDiXC
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) April 20, 2020
There is no doubt Krause is the central villain in this story, particularly given the perspectives being shared. The players loathed him, and while Jordan has been fairly diplomatic in some portions of the interviews giving him some credit, that animosity remains. With Krause dying in 2017, he is not able to provide his side of things and, at times, Reinsdorf provides perspective from their side but it would be fascinating to have heard what Krause’s thoughts on how this went down were given he was on the receiving end of a lot from players and fans.