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PINOCCHIO WELCOMES JERRY REINSDORF TO THE BIG FAT LIARS CLUB
In a rare public conversation, the embattled Chicago sports owner blames Michael Jordan for breaking up the Bulls dynasty because of a severed finger tendon — when the real timeline proves otherwise
As a guardian of “The Last Dance” era, in the best interests of sports and Chicago and America the Beautiful, I am compelled to clock-block an attempt of revisionist history. Protecting the victims — primarily, Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson — requires a proper revisiting of the truth and the timeline. This will serve to expose the continuing ignore-the-facts tactics of You Know Who.
He would be the inimitable Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner who wreckingballed the Bulls dynasty before its rightful expiration date, as portrayed accurately in the ESPN docu-series that provided early-pandemic therapy for millions. Seems Jerry, like Pinocchio and Richard Nixon, has a deception problem.
To recap, Reinsdorf and his general manager, Jerry Krause, were eager to break up the championship party for specific reasons. Reinsdorf, as quoted, couldn’t wait to begin “our own dynasty” — in his case, a way of not having to pay further fortunes to Jordan, Jackson, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman while pocketing ongoing sellout revenues inside the United Center. Krause, consumed by grudges after years of being mocked by Jordan, thought he was shortchanged in the media’s credit assessments and ached to prove he was a larger part of the overall success.
So, the Jerrys planted seeds that a breakup was imminent a year after the 1996-97 season, which ended in a fifth NBA championship. Jordan tried to preempt management’s plan, saying, “We are entitled to defend what we have, until we lose it. If we lose it, then you look at it and say, ‘Let's change, let's go through a rebuilding.’ If you want to look at this from a business thing, have a sense of respect for the people that laid the groundwork so you could be a powerful organization.”
The words of basketball’s supreme deity — the trophies-and-sneakers force field who became the world’s biggest celebrity while making a global brand of the previously nondescript Bulls, a billionaire of the otherwise unremarkable Reinsdorf and a success story of the hopelessly schlubby Krause — fell on deaf ears in the fall of ’97. That is when Krause said Jackson, a vocal critic of the GM and his meddling, would be let go after the season, regardless of how it ended. “Jerry called me into his office and said, ‘This is going to be your last year, I don't care if you win 82 games in a row, this will be your last year here,’ ” Jackson said. “So I said, ‘Fine’ and walked out of the room, and that was the only words that were exchanged.”
Thus began the countdown to a dynasty demolition. Jackson said the season would be “The Last Dance,” while Krause was quoted, “Players don’t win championships, organizations do.” He claimed it was a misquote, but the divide between the players and management already was far beyond repair. Jordan responded by saying he wouldn’t play for another coach and crushing Krause for his quote. “Those guys who work in the front office, they were good people, but the most important part of the process is the players," Jordan said. “So, for him to say that is offensive to the way that I approach the game.”
There was no discussion during the season about detente, no attempt by Reinsdorf to assuage the internal tensions. The Bulls won their sixth and final championship. Jackson disappeared to Montana on his motorcycle. Jordan said he was retiring, with no intention of changing his mind. A labor lockout delayed the tip-off of the 1998-99 season until February, but Krause went ahead and hired a fishing pal with no NBA coaching experience, Tim Floyd of Iowa State. Twice before, in 1989 and 1996, Floyd said he’d rejected Krause’s overtures to become Bulls head coach, in each case undercutting Jackson. In ’89, according to Floyd in an NBC Sports interview: “Jerry Krause came up to me at the end of that season — I had never met him — and told me, he said, ‘Look, I’m Jerry Krause of the Chicago Bulls, and I just want to let you know that you’re going to be our next head coach.’ Anyhow, he started calling me. It started out once a week from that point on and then it ended up, for four or five years, it ended up being every day and sometimes twice a day. Hour-long conversations.”
So, Krause finally got his way. Jackson was gone. Jordan moved on and, during a Bahamas vacation, severed a tendon in his right index finger while “fooling around” with a cigar cutter. Because the finger had been dislocated frequently in the past, the Bulls physician, John Hefferon, reattached the tendon before an additional surgery. Jordan would have missed games in that abbreviated season, but it didn’t matter: He already had retired. Jackson was talking to the Los Angeles Lakers and soon joined them after a sabbatical. Jordan was enjoying his life and contemplating a future in ownership, which came in Washington with the Wizards, along with an unfortunate final two seasons in uniform.
“It didn't affect my retirement issue, although people doubt that," Jordan said of the finger issue, in a Chicago Sun-Times interview at the time. “It was ironic, the timing. But I was going to retire before this happened.”
I was there. I believe that entirely. The acrimony was too deep for Jordan ever to consider playing for Floyd, Krause’s friend. But here comes Reinsdorf, 25 years after the final championship, trying to maintain otherwise. Appearing in two conversations at the Milken Institute’s Global Conference this week in Beverly Hills, the 87-year-old owner — still chairman of the Bulls and White Sox, teams that have combined for one championship in their 50 collective seasons since “The Last Dance” — blamed the cigar cutter for derailing the dynasty. The damned cigar cutter!
Never mind that Jackson and Jordan were long out of the way.
Never mind that Floyd was hired on July 23, 1998, more than six months before the season started.
“How come you didn’t run it back after the last world championship?” came a question from the crowd at the Beverly Hilton hotel.
“How come we didn’t do what? You mean, keep the thing together? Oh, I’m so glad you asked that. Most of you probably saw ‘The Last Dance,’ which was based on a true story,” cracked Reinsdorf, in what was intended to be a soft interview with someone he has mentored for years, Alex Rodriguez.
“After the sixth championship, there was a lockout, a labor dispute. Phil Jackson said I’m going to retire,” Reinsdorf went on. “I offered him a job to come back, he wanted to retire. Michael Jordan said I can only play for Phil Jackson, I’m not gonna play for anybody else. I said to Michael, ‘Well, there’s a lockout. Why don’t your just wait until the work stoppage is over. Let me see if I can get Phil to come back. Maybe he’ll soften.’ Well, when the work stoppage ended, Michael Jordan could not have played. Because he was screwing around with a cigar cutter during the work stoppage, he cut his finger and could not have played that year. So what would have been the point of bringing everybody else back without Michael Jordan? Somehow or another, it didn’t make it into the movie. But that’s the reason the Bulls didn’t go another year. Because Michael Jordan couldn’t have played that year.”
Here’s what Reinsdorf conveniently left out: Floyd was in place and under contract. Jackson could not have been rehired, as he tried to claim, without Reinsdorf firing or demoting Krause’s guy, which wasn’t going to happen when the owner wanted the wreckingballing all along. Besides, months had passed. I believe Jordan, who has no reason to lie, unlike Reinsdorf.
The moderator asked if “The Last Dance” production had portrayed him fairly. “Yeah,” Reinsdorf said, “except for people thinking I broke up the team. When, in fact, it was Michael Jordan’s cigar cutter that broke up the team.”
No, it was greed and ego — in Krause’s case, megalomania — that began to break up the Chicago Bulls long before Jordan cut his finger. But Reinsdorf, as he’s known to do, tried to bamboozle a business crowd 2,000 miles from Chicago. He no longer answers serious questions in a town where the Bulls have been mostly brutal since the breakup and where the White Sox, one of three Major League Baseball teams that never have awarded a $100 million contract to a player, have sparked a fan mutiny with a horrible start. In 42 years of Reinsdorf ownership, the Sox have won one World Series and appeared in three American League championship series.
I never put up with his b.s. as a Chicago columnist, unlike a butt buddy such as writer Sam Smith, who used Reinsdorf’s contributions to smear Jordan in a book. I was the only one challenging him, as I am today, and I paid a price when he told public lies about me and conspired against me. Meanwhile, columnists and other media people are protected in the Chicago ecosystem because they cowardly back away from harshly criticizing him — they do wax comical about him — an injustice to the people who no longer read newspapers. This should be big news there, his first public speaking appearance in ages, topped by his cigar cutter farce. It won’t be, although the legions who watched “The Last Dance” would be fascinated by the latest twist.
It’s curious to hear former Sox broadcaster Hawk Harrelson, a longtime Reinsdorf loyalist who did favors for his boss on the air (such as ripping me constantly), suggest the owner no longer can be trusted. Blaming the team marketing man, Harrelson said last month on a podcast hosted by 2005 World Series hero A.J. Pierzynski, “Brooks Boyer really changed Jerry … Jerry, at one time, his word, let’s just say, Jerry’s word was his bond. And it’s not that way anymore.” Hawkeroo should have been firing questions at the Beverly Hilton.
Reinsdorf made other comments that will anger fans, including a reiteration of his oft-stated: “I think the important thing to fans is, while they want you to win championships, they want to know that when they get down to the last month of the season you still have a shot. You’re still playing meaningful games. If you can do that consistently, you’ll make your fans happy.” Worse, he ridiculed the same paying customers by saying he has six trophies when they have none. Why would anyone spend money on the White Sox or Bulls again?
And to think all of this happened at a function sponsored by the Milken Institute, described as an independent think tank based in Santa Monica. Purporting to advance “a thriving world,” the conference boasted a convening of “the best minds in the world to tackle its most urgent challenges and realize its most exciting opportunities.” The founder? Michael Milken, who once served a prison sentence for U.S. securities law violations.
I’ll leave the irony at that.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.