In the run-up to the premiere of The Last Dance, ESPN’s 10-part megadocumentary on the last days of the Chicago Bulls dynasty, director Jason Hehir spoke with the Athletic’s Richard Deitsch about Michael Jordan’s reluctance to greenlight the project. Here’s how that conversation went, according to Hehir.
I said to him, “Why do you want to do this?” And he said, “I don’t.” And I said, “Why not?” And he said, “When people see this footage I’m not sure they’re going to be able to understand why I was so intense, why I did the things I did, why I acted the way I acted, and why I said the things I said.”
In our coronavirus-blighted sports desert, The Last Dance promised to be an oasis of entertainment, and the prospect of seeing documentary evidence of Jordan’s storied cruelty only added to the anticipation. But Jordan needn’t have worried about his reputation. He’s the hero of The Last Dance. The documentary’s villain is Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, painted as the dastardly genius who would come to destroy the greatest team of all time.
When we first see Krause, he’s scrambling to his Cadillac in the parking lot of the team’s practice facility, looking over his shoulder with almost comic paranoia. Short and stout with a puglike visage, Krause might as well be Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot in a polo shirt, a man crazy enough to make Jordan (and Scottie Pippen, and coach Phil Jackson, and pretty much everyone else who mattered on those Bulls teams) his nemesis.
Krause was a baseball scout before convincing Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf to make him the team’s general manager in 1985. It was an unlikely success story. Krause’s astute personnel moves helped turn the franchise into a generation-defining juggernaut. He engineered the trade for Pippen, drafted Horace Grant, and added role players who became instrumental during the team’s first three-peat. Then, he rebuilt the squad on the fly to do it all again.
But when it came to maintaining relationships with players and coaches, Krause was ornery and petty to the point of self-destruction. His falling out with Jackson was particularly explosive and irreparable. Krause made it clear to the world that the 1997–98 season—the year the Bulls went for their sixth championship; spoiler alert: they got it—would be Jackson’s last with the Bulls, even when Jordan insisted that he would not return without his coach. The Last Dance owes not only its drama and stakes to Krause, but its name, too.
Krause died in 2017, the year Hehir first met with Jordan to discuss his participation in The Last Dance. The documentary relies on contemporary interviews with key characters (and Justin Timberlake, for some reason), and Krause’s absence is noticeable. We learn about the events that triggered the Bulls’ demise—Krause’s animosity toward Jackson, his overt chumminess with future head coach Tim Floyd, his threats to trade away Pippen—and of Krause’s motivations, which, others assert, amounted to nothing more than insecurity and an unrelenting need to receive credit for the team’s success. (He had a “little man problem,” Rare Air author Mark Vancil muses).
Krause’s absence is, in a way, convenient for some of the film’s living protagonists, who can bask in the Bulls’ greatness without taking any responsibility for the team’s demise. Reinsdorf praises his general manager using words Krause himself would have used, saying that “you never would have heard of Phil Jackson” if it weren’t for Krause. But the owner also gives himself credit for overruling Krause to negotiate Jackson’s final contract. In the end, The Last Dance only hints at a fundamental truth about Bulls leadership: No matter how much blame Krause deserves for the Bulls’ breakup, Reinsdorf was the man in charge. The owner ultimately chose to stick with his general manager, and not the players and coaches.
Whenever The Last Dance alludes to the antipathy between the team and management, it is usually via archival news clips or modern-day interviews. The filmmakers had hundreds of hours of behind-the-scenes footage to choose from, but the interactions we see between the players and Krause rarely rise above lighthearted ribbing. (In the second episode, we learn that Pippen cursed out Krause on the team bus, but we don’t see it.) When the Bulls win an exhibition game in Paris, Jordan tells Jackson to keep the trophy away from Krause. When Jordan spots the general manager swallowing some medication, he says, “So those are those pills you take to keep you short. Or are those diet pills?”
If anything, those scenes underplay the drama. Compare them with Jordan’s comments in an as-told-to story with ESPN the Magazine’s Rick Telander that was published during the 1998 season:
[Krause is] keeping a low profile. And I’m glad. I think it’s good that he’s not around, especially for the guys who rely on his decisions for their careers. I can operate with or without Krause, but when we walk past each other, we never speak. I guess you could say I don’t agree with his business decisions. …
One thing is for sure, money won’t keep me in the game. Never. Just change ownership. And you know what I’d consider a change in ownership? Change the GM. Let Phil be general manager and coach. Krause? I don’t want to start a war around here. I’ll just say that sometimes it’s tough working for an organization that doesn’t show the same type of loyalty toward you as you show it.
Toward the end of The Last Dance’s first episode, we see the Bulls open their season with a ring ceremony to celebrate their triumph from the year before. When color announcer Johnny “Red” Kerr introduces Krause, “the architect of the 1996–97 Bulls championship team,” the United Center crowd showers him in boos. Like the Bulls three-peat that year, the response was to be expected.
Krause outlasted Jordan, Pippen, and Jackson in Chicago by five years. He retired as the Bulls’ general manager in 2003 and eventually went back to being a baseball scout. Maybe he would’ve agreed to participate in The Last Dance if he were still alive. Maybe he wouldn’t have. Either way, he would’ve known the part he was going to play.
For more on The Last Dance, listen to the April 20 Hang Up and Listen.