The Chicago Bulls were sifting their way through another mediocre, forgettable season when the team announced a Ring of Honor night to celebrate its franchise legends. Announced on Dec. 12 with the team sitting at 9-16 overall, the event scanned like an organization trying to take attention off its uninspiring present to focus on its past. During a season when Zach LaVine’s ongoing trade request was the most interesting thing happening, the Bulls decided to push the nostalgia button to distract fans with the comforting feeling of remembering how cool Luc Longley was.
Somehow, the Bulls still screwed it up, turning what should have been a feel-good event into an unmistakable black eye, and one of the ugliest moments in franchise history.
The Bulls’ Ring of Honor night was ill-conceived and hastily put together from the very start. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were the headliners, but neither was ever going to show up because they hate each other. By picking a game in the middle of January for the ceremony, the Bulls also risked weather-related travel issues, which was exactly the reason Dennis Rodman couldn’t be in attendance either as a winter storm pounded Chicago. The absence of the three most iconic players to ever wear a Bulls jersey would have been embarrassing enough on its own, but instead this Ring of Honor night drew headlines around the world for something far more unnerving.
The Bulls picked a family representative for each person going into the Ring of Honor posthumously. Former general manager Jerry Krause, the man who built six championship teams, was represented by his widow Thelma. As the team showed Krause’s photo on the jumbotron, a cascade of boos rained down only for the cameras to cut to Thelma Krause in tears.
I get that Bulls fans weren’t big fans of Krause, but read the room y’all. Bad look to make the man’s widow have to hear boos during his announcement at the Ring of Honor. pic.twitter.com/S0NwGaB0Hj
— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) January 13, 2024
When the game resumed after the halftime ceremony, the Bulls were out-scored by the Golden State Warriors 48-20 in the third quarter and went on to lose the game. The Bulls will have plenty of nights where they lose, but their fans booing a widow to tears represented a new low.
The Bulls should have seen this coming. Krause has long been considered the man who broke up the Bulls’ dynasty in 1998 because that’s the way Jordan, Pippen, and head coach Phil Jackson wanted it told. Pippen loathed Krause because he viewed him as the man who wouldn’t give him a new contract despite knowing he was criminally underpaid. The relationship between Jackson and Krause soured even more, leading to the legendary coach announcing 1997-1998 would be his final season with the team before the year started. Jordan was caught in the middle knowing he needed Pippen and Jackson to win titles, forcing him into a second early retirement even though he wasn’t ready to walk away from the game.
The release of “The Last Dance” made these narratives canon forever. The documentary on the rise and fall of the Bulls’ 90s dynasty became a smash hit as the world pressed pause during the pandemic. While the series was entertaining for fans just learning about the stories behind the Bulls’ six championships, it was a series filled with bias as it was told through the lens of Jordan’s greatness. In classic Jordan fashion, the documentary tore down everyone else to build up MJ, and that included Krause. Pippen was so upset with how he was portrayed that he’s spent every waking moment since taking shots at Jordan in the media.
In reality, Krause should be celebrated as one of the greatest team-builders in NBA history. Krause became the team’s general manager in the 1985-86 season one year after the franchise drafted Jordan. His first move was to hire Tex Winter, the creator of the Triangle Offense and one of the top tactical minds the league had ever seen, as an assistant coach. A couple years later, he fired head coach Doug Collins and chose to promote his young assistant, Phil Jackson, to the lead chair.
During the 1987 NBA Draft, Krause made a bold, risky trade that turned into a masterstroke. He traded the rights to No. 8 overall pick Olden Polynice and future draft assets to the Seattle SuperSonics to acquire the rights to No. 5 overall pick Scottie Pippen. The Bulls also owned the No. 10 pick in that draft, which they kept to select Clemson power forward Horace Grant. The next offseason, Krause traded MJ’s buddy Charles Oakley for center Bill Cartwright. The foundation for the first three championships had been set.
Following Jordan’s retirement in 1993 and comeback in 1995, Krause had to reshape the roster once again. Nearly every move he made was brilliant. He traded center Will Perdue to San Antonio for Dennis Rodman. He signed Ron Harper and Steve Kerr to free agent deals. He traded Stacey King for big man Luc Longley. He also brought in Toni Kukoc, his draft pick from 1990, and integrated him on a team with Jordan and Pippen despite the two stars resenting the “Croatian Sensation” due to Krause’s infatuation with him.
The Bulls won 72 games in 1995-1996, the all-time record at the time, to start another three-peat. The team walked away on a high note in 1998 with Jordan hitting the game-winning shot over Bryon Russell. It was a Hollywood ending for Jordan and the Bulls dynasty, only everyone involved still had more basketball in them. Their egos just all got in the way from it continuing in Chicago.
The real villain of the Bulls dynasty is Jerry Reinsdorf, the penny-pinching, union-busting owner overseeing the franchise. Jordan may be fond of Reinsdorf because he paid him a record salary for his final seasons with the team, but Reinsdorf willingly made Krause his meat shield for all the decisions he really controlled. Reinsdorf is the reason the Bulls have lost their status as a glamour franchise in the years since the dynasty ended while wandering the abyss of mediocrity. Reinsdorf is the reason his other franchise, MLB’s Chicago White Sox, are one of the most hapless and humiliating organizations in their sport.
The hatred sent to Krause on Friday night should have been reserved for the other Jerry for 40 years of running Chicago sports franchises like small market teams. Unfortunately, billionaires tend to find a way to tell their own stories, and for Reinsdorf that meant making Krause the bad guy. Decades later, that narrative would lead to his widow shown in tears as the team attempted to honor its former championship architect.
Bulls fans are stupid and vile for booing Krause, but in truth they meant to boo his photo on the jumbotron, not his widow. That Thelma Krause got caught up in it only shows how poorly executed this entire event was.
This amounts to one big self-inflicted wound for the Bulls. They have no one to blame but themselves. The franchise rushed to plan the ceremony, didn’t put enough thought into who would attend and how it would be received, and ended up putting a huge stain on its only era of greatness.
That the day ended in another Bulls loss to a sinking Warriors team was the perfect closing note. It was a night emblematic of the low-rent organization Reinsdorf has let the Bulls become since the dynasty ended. The blood on those horns remains as fresh as ever, but unfortunately the Bulls can’t stop mauling themselves.