Michael Jordan didn't retire just because of Jerry Krause, who continues to be disproportionately vilified
Jordan talks extensively in 'The Last Dance' about all the other factors that weighed heavy on his decision
During episodes five and six of "The Last Dance" — ESPN's 10-part, ratings-shattering, documentary chronicling Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls — former Bulls GM Jerry Krause was, yet again, dunked on mercilessly as his role as the central villain in this particular depiction of the story continues to take center stage.
It started with poor Toni Kukoc, who famously endured the defensive wrath of Jordan and Scottie Pippen at the 1992 Olympics to the tune of four points and seven turnovers. The Bulls' duo singled out the Croatian star, smothered him, humiliated him, and why? Because Jerry Krause liked him. Drafted him in 1990 and paid him more than Pippen and on par with Jordan, who says in the doc: "Krause was willing to put [Kukoc] before his actual kids, who had given him everything that we could give him."
Pippen was equally pointed.
"Jerry paved the way for a lot of hell for Toni Kukoc," Pippen said. "Not only was it just me and Michael, but every guy on that Olympic team looked at that kid and felt like he may not even think about coming to the NBA after he played against us. It wasn't anything personal about Toni. But we were going to do everything we could to make Jerry look bad."
Later in the doc, Jordan detailed his seething, Krause-centric motivation for destroying Phoenix Suns All-Star Dan Majerle in the 1993 Finals, when Jordan averaged 41 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists as the Bulls capped their first three-peat.
"I knew that Jerry Krause loved Dan Majerle," Jordan said of the Phoenix All-Star who was assigned to defend him in the series. "And just because Krause liked him was enough for me. 'You think he's a great defensive player?' OK, fine. I'm gonna show you that he's not."
All the while, this notion that Krause is ultimately responsible for breaking up the Bulls in 1998, on the heels of their second three-peat, has hovered over the entire series. Magic Johnson went on ESPN's First Take and said had Krause not blown up the Bulls, they "probably would've won 10, 11, 12 championships."
Magic is being dramatic here, as he often is. To think the Bulls would've been able to win, at a minimum, four more championships after the 1998 title is almost certainly a stretch. But the fundamental point is clear: Krause disassembled a champion at the peak of its power with plenty of tread left on the tires. This is a belief shared by many, and it's not without merit.
It remains unfathomable that Krause wanted to replace Phil Jackson so badly that he was willing to lose Michael Jordan to do it. Jordan was crystal clear that he would not play for another coach, and the simple truth is this: No matter how much more to the story there is, if Michael Jordan wants to play for a particular coach, even if your relationship with that coach has turned nuclear, you swallow your pride to the deepest parts of your soul and roll out the red carpet for that coach. You do this even if the coach Michael Jordan wants is a bum. That the coach he wanted to play for had won Jerry Krause SIX CHAMPIONSHIPS, well, one would think that should've made this a pretty easy decision.
Perhaps Jackson was ready to move on anyway. Doesn't matter. If you're Krause, you get in front of a microphone and BEG him to stay. After that, you at least try to make amends with Pippen for paying him like a benchwarmer and offer him a positively flattering contract extension. He was only 32. If you're lucky, Jackson comes back and Pippen drops his trade request and Jordan decides to make another run or two.
This last part, however, is where the Krause blame train hits a wall. Jordan, by his own admission, was ready to be done with the NBA in 1998. He was tired of the media circus. He was tired of the criticism. He was, flat out, physically and mentally exhausted. When he retired the first time in 1993, after the first three-peat, he was feeling the same way. The spotlight was just too hot.
"My fame, it was good at the beginning," Jordan said prior to his first retirement, as seen during episode six of 'The Last Dance.' "Any time people talk about you in a positive way, it's great to hear those comments, but now that you're on a pedestal it's not just the positive talk you're hearing, you hear some people taking shots at you, and that really changes the whole idea of being out there for people to see you. You want to get more behind closed doors so people don't know you as much. So I'm at the stage of my career and my life that I'd rather get behind closed doors than be out there in the spotlight to be taking shots from everyone who really don't know you as a person."
Fast forward to 1998. Again, as seen in the documentary, Jordan is locked away in his hotel room, smoking a cigar on the couch, unable to even venture outside for the swarm that awaits him.
"This is not one of those lifestyles that you envy, where you're confined to this room," Jordan says to the camera. "I'm ready for getting out of his life. You know when you get to that point. With no reservations at all, I'm there."
Finally, at the conclusion of episode six, we see footage of 1998 Jordan riding in his red Range Rover with Ahmad Rashad.
"I want to leave two years before my skills say I can't play this game," Jordan tells Rashad. "I don't want to miss my time to go. There's a lot of players who say, 'I'm going to play until I can't play ever again.' I think Patrick [Ewing] said that one time, that they'd have to carry him off the court. Nobody's going to carry me off the court. I want to walk off the court.
".. A lot of people say, you're going to miss it. I'm not sure if I'm going to miss it," Jordan concluded. "I don't think I'm going to miss it."
And there you have it. Michael Jordan, independent of Jerry Krause, was ready to retire. It made for an easy scapegoat that Krause was getting rid of Jackson and Jordan only wanted to play for Jackson, but he wanted out. There is no mistaking that when you listen to not just the words that came out of his mouth at the time, but the way they sounded.
This was an exhausted, frustrated man with nothing left to prove, with little motivation left to drain from his reservoir of stored slights. Certainly, the battles with Krause were part of his exhaustion and frustration, but nonetheless, this is not a case where Jordan 100 percent wanted to keep playing basketball and Krause just forced his hand by firing his preferred coach.
No, Jordan needed another break. He wasn't completely done with the game. He came back one more time for a two-year stint with the Wizards beginning in 2001, but in 1998, he couldn't keep going. It's just impossible to overstate the madness he was surrounded by every waking second of his life. Those two three-peats aged him in dog years. It's like a president who goes into office wide-eyed and fresh-faced and comes out four years later looking like a gray-haired insomniac. Pressure like that takes a toll, even if you're Michael Jordan.
It's not to suggest Krause doesn't deserve his share of the blame for one of the greatest teams ever coming apart at the end. But the operative words are his share. He wasn't exactly the only raging ego in that organization. Jackson, who had a heavy hand in creating a "players vs. management" environment as a bonding and motivational tactic, has stated many times that he believes coaches lose the ears of their players if they stay in one place too long.
Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls owner, could've stepped in and made Krause renegotiate Pippen's contract, but he didn't. To whatever extent blame can even be assigned to anyone in an organization that won six titles in eight years, that blame should be doled out proportionately. And after all that blame is spread around, everyone should be reminded: Michael Jordan was probably going to retire anyway. In which case, none of this other stuff really mattered.