The Bulls' quest for a fifth title required prudent maneuvers to keep the big guns in place and to add a few new weapons
by Alan Shipnuck
The Bulls' 1996-97 NBA title, their fifth in seven years, was made possibleif not ensuredby three contract negotiations conducted nearly a year earlier. When the brass coaxed one-year deals out of Phil Jackson and free agents Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman last summer, they kept the nucleus of the team intact for what may have been its last go-around. Those negotiations, mixing potent amounts of money, ego and power, offered almost as much drama as the season that followed. Now, with title number five under their belts, the Bulls are again at a crossroads, with both coaching and player-personnel changes possible. So it's worthwhile to look back on how this championship team was held together, and how it was helped by a few cagey additions.
The first shot in the contract wars was fired in June '96, just moments after the Bulls had defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in Game 6 of the Finals to clinch their first championship since 1993. At the postgame trophy presentation on the floor of the United Center, team owner Jerry Reinsdorf, drenched in champagne, blurted to a horrified nation, "If you had to give credit to one man, that guy that put them all here... Jerry Krause!" The comment seemed less a tribute to Krause, the astute, often Machiavellian general manager, than a message to Jackson. The coach's contract was set to expire on July 1, and negotiations for a new deal had already turned divisive. Now here was Reinsdorf, never known for his subtlety, telling Jackson in the most public way that he was expendable. Never mind that both his regular-season and his playoff winning percentages were (and still are) the best in NBA history. Reinsdorf's stance sent a chill through Chicago, not only because it threatened to chase Jackson, but also because both Jordan and Rodman had made it clear they would not return unless their coach did. If the negotiations collapsed, so too might the entire dynasty. On the surface it seemed as if, with so much at stake, finding a compromise would be the top priority. But the stalemate had as much to do with past grievances as with differences over future compensation. Jackson had long resented Krause, who ran the college draft with an iron fist and who, Jackson felt, had excessive authority over the hiring and firing of assistant coaches. Although the coach wanted more moneyhe made $866,000 in 1995-96, while Pat Riley of the Miami Heat had broken into the $3 million stratum and New Jersey Nets coach John Calipari joined him there in June '96what he wanted even more was a greater say in personnel matters and less meddling by Krause. One of Jackson's contract proposals to Reinsdorf included barring Krause from the team jet and moving the general manager's office from the Bulls' suburban practice facility to the downtown United Center, where the rest of the team's front office works.
The demands inflamed Reinsdorf, who values Krause's acumen, his willingness to play the bad cop in negotiations and, especially, his unfailing loyalty to his boss. Jackson's complaints were similar to those of his predecessor, Doug Collins, who was canned in 1989 largely because he couldn't deal with Krause's micromanagement of the team.
The key to ending the standoff was Jordan, the ultimate bargaining chip. Reinsdorf and Krause simply had to re-sign their coach or risk losing their megastar. When Jackson dropped his demand for a two-year contact, giving Chicago more flexibility for the 1997 off-season, he was rewarded financially, eventually signing for $2.7 million for '96-97. Krause retained all his authority.