Fri May 28 03:00pm EDT
Loyalty, and the Chicago Bulls.
It's been an odd relationship for the duration of Jerry Reindorf's tenure as owner of the Bulls, clouded by the uneasy end to the dynastic run of the second three-peat Bulls team in 1998. A dozen years later, with some of this league's movers and shakers barely a beat into high school at the time of that team's dissolution, the stigma still carries.
And as Chicago enters perhaps its best chance to move beyond the "up and coming" tag that has seemed to stick with them for the better part of this decade (with only one trip the second round to show for it), the question is popping up again. Are the Bulls loyal? Do they treat their employees the way their employees deserve to be treated?
Well, it depends on the employee. And even that's too simple, in a way.
Because Reinsdorf is an odd cat. He'll spend money, but mostly on his other team, the Chicago White Sox. He'll bring his Bulls players and coaches' back, but at as cheap a rate as he can muster. If you do happen to "win" the negotiation in his eyes, he'll say something catty post-negotiations to leave you resentful, even if you end up leaving the negotiations with more money in hand than Reinsdorf was willing to spend.
He's incredibly loyal, but you have to earn it with him. And the rules aren't always the same.
Take Sheri Berto. She was Reinsdorf's personal assistant for years before passing due to complications of cancer back in 1991. Reinsdorf made a point to name his team's new practice facility The Berto Center around the same time; making sure that any reference to anything Bulls-related outside of the United Center would come wrapped with a ready-made tribute to his friend and confidant.
Any midday practice news? The Berto Center gets a mention. Any press conference? The Berto Center. Playoff rosters are picked? The Berto Center. Draft day machinations? The Berto Center. Media day? The Berto Center. For years.
He spends money. He flew dozens of families to Portland, Phoenix, Seattle and Salt Lake City when the Bulls were in the Finals, something teams to this day don't often do. He offered to set Eddy Curry(notes) up - for life, by most people's standards if not Eddy's - when it became apparent that Curry's heart condition might lead to a "do not play basketball" diagnosis back in 2005. The kid wasn't even a Bull, just a free agent that the team retained the Bird Rights to, and Reindorf offered to sign him just before he immediately retired, with all sorts of deferred payments and escrow money coming down the pike for years. Pay, not to play, just to be safe.
Same goes for Jay Williams(notes), who could have seen his contract voided in a Lincoln Park minute after he destroyed his leg goofing around on a motorcycle back in 2003. The Bulls didn't have to pay the most-hyped thing that had happened to their organization since Michael Jordan retired, but they went ahead anyway.
Berto staff, United Center staff, assistant coach Pete Myers, longtime scouts? They stick around as long as they want to. The Bulls even re-hired public address announcer Tommy Edwards back after a 16 year lay-off to work on the sidelines again, and I got news for ya; Bulls fans don't really like Tommy Edwards all that much. Reinsdorf does, though, and there's where his loyalty comes in.
Why did the Bulls have an opening at PA announcer, though? Well, Steve Scott (who worked the position from 2002 to 2006) left the team. Who was there before him? The legendary Ray Clay, who you might remember from all those NBA ads or magazine articles or TV appearances as the voice of the Bulls. Not the guy that first turned the lights out in Chicago Stadium, but the man who gave you goosebumps with his intros. And why was he let go? Because he didn't get on well with Jerry Krause.
It's Krause that complicates things, and Reinsdorf's loyalty to Krause plays a big part in making it so Reinsdorf's loyalty to his employees can come into question.
Because it was Krause that sent Phil Jackson home on the Draft day eve back in 1997, as the Bulls were preparing to trade Scottie Pippen to the Boston Celtics. Jackson wasn't under contract for next season, Krause mused, so what purpose did his presence serve? Never mind that this could have been Jackson's last visit to the Berto Center, his last contact with the Bulls, and that the Bulls were trading Scottie Pippen.
It was Krause that had a falling out with Clarence Gaines Jr., who some of you Twitter-savvy readers might know as "cgrock24," Chicago's top scout and the key cog in what was to be the post-Jordan rebuilding process.
It was Krause who instituted the tradition of refusing to interview coaches who retain the services of a negotiating counsel. You know, "agents." Never mind of course that Reinsdorf is a lawyer himself, his entire job is based around negotiations, and a coach's job is to, you know, coach a basketball team. The standard exists to this day, and it might be a reason why the Bulls lose out on well-regarded Boston assistant Tom Thibodeau.
It was Krause that made life borderline untenable for Jordan, Pippen, and Jackson over the last few years of their time in Chicago. With Reinsdorf mainly in Arizona and hardly interested in anything but his beloved White Sox, Krause's public declaration (however misquoted), ham-fisted HR ways, and growing paranoia led to a situation that nobody wanted to be a part of, were it not for the consistent trips to the NBA Finals.
Did Jordan, Pippen, and Jackson ("and even Dennis," to quote Reinsdorf) have every chance to come back to the Bulls for the 1998-99, partially locked-out, season? Of course. Only after Krause, who had made it clear that none of the four would be returning after the team won it all again in June of 1998, finally (with Reinsdorf's pushing), made a pitiable plea for the group to return in July of 1998.
At the press conference introducing Tim Floyd, mind you.
Classy. Not at all duplicitous. Not at all skeevy.
And Reinsdorf, for his loyalty, is skeevy. He's the guy who told John Paxson that he "can't believe [he was] paying you all this money" after Paxson played through injury to earn a free agent deal with the Bulls back in the early 1990s. Paxson had "won" that negotiation, and Reinsdorf's last sentiment sent toward him as he walked away from the negotiating table hit hard. Money be damned, Pax went away spitting mad, and that was enough for Jerry.
It was Reinsdorf that told Michael Jordan that he was "going to live to regret this" upon signing Michael Jordan - Michael Jordan, ladies and gentleman - to a one-year, $30.4 million deal before the 1996-97 season. Could a deal like that upset the league's salary structure? Sure. Could a deal like that make Reinsdorf a pariah in his fellow owners' eyes, as was the case when he broke the bank to sign Albert Belle for his White Sox a few years earlier? Totally.
But do you say that? Do you say that to Michael Jordan, the guy that was making $4 million a year before that? Hell no. Almost 14 years later, Jerry, do you regret signing him to that deal? The United Center has been full every season since MJ retired, with only five playoff teams to show for it and one second round appearance. Do you regret it?
Players play, and agents negotiate contracts for these players, because it's not a players' job to negotiate a deal. That doesn't really matter to Reinsdorf, who went behind Horace Grant's agent's back to try and re-sign Grant late in the 1993-94 season, months after Grant's agent and Krause made a pact to lay off negotiations until the offseason. Reindorf claimed that it was Grant that initiated the talks, but that's a hard sell when Reinsdorf had to drive nearly an hour from his downtown office to the Berto Center, and then co-incidentally went directly to the Chicago weight room in order to seek out his soon-to-be free agent forward.
There are other instances. It's not just on Krause. And it's not just because Reinsdorf sat back and let Krause run things the way he saw fit. The two, with only Reinsdorf surviving, have earned a reputation.
How far that reputation should go? That's a matter of some debate. No team makes more money than the Chicago Bulls, but they don't spend it in orthodox ways (like, say, coaching hires) that would seem proper for the most profitable team in the NBA. Yet they look after some of their own. And players have been re-signed. Tyson Chandler(notes), Luol Deng(notes), Andres Nocioni(notes), Kirk Hinrich(notes). Anyone who would fit on Reinsdorf's beloved New York Knick teams from the early 1970s gets to stick around.
It's a complicated set-up, and it depends on the individual. Dwyane Wade(notes) brought up the loyalty standard, but that was his own save-my-butt way of saying "thanks but no thanks" to choosing Chicago in the winter over Miami as a free agent. You're really not going to get a good answer to the loyalty question as long as Reinsdorf runs the team, and that's not even getting into the whole "it's a business, and you're supposed to win. Do you want to be loyal?" aspect of it all.
As it's been for decades with these Bulls, there are no easy answers. Just lots of easy money to spend, so as long as those fans keep flying through the turnstiles.