Many of those who work for Reinsdorf say a kinder and fairer boss never walked this earth. Every time the Bulls make it to the NBA Finals, Reinsdorf flies the team's full-time employees and their families to the road games, a move that last year cost the club about $1.5 million. These employees also get championship rings. Even coaches Reinsdorf has fired are treated well. The owner still sends former Bulls coach Doug Collins, now with the Detroit Pistons, an engraved watch every time the Bulls win a championship, in gratitude for having taught Chicago's players "to believe in themselves." Reinsdorf doubted Collins was the right coach to get the Bulls to the next level, however—too intense, too driven to win—and replaced him in 1989 with the more laid-back Phil Jackson. To this day, firing Collins remains Reinsdorf's most unpopular managerial move—to be surpassed, no doubt, if he fails to re-sign Jackson.
Before allowing White Sox manager Tony La Russa to be fired by new general manager Ken Harrelson during the 1986 season, Reinsdorf, at the suggestion of his personal assistant, Sheri Berto, called then Oakland Athletics president Roy Eisenhardt to see if the A's would hire La Russa. "I'd known he was a great admirer of Tony's, and Sheri would have killed me if I hadn't done something," Reinsdorf says. "She loved Tony. I wasn't going to piss her off." La Russa was out of a job for less than three weeks.
"Jerry is a good friend to people who are his friends," La Russa says. "The personal side of him is 180 degrees different from his public side." So why not clean up that public side?
Can't do it, Reinsdorf says. "I know I could have a better public image if I were less open, if I ducked more issues and didn't speak out. But it's not my nature. I admire honesty more than any other trait. Two things I got from my mother: 'You have to tell the truth, even if the truth is hurtful,' she used to say."
The second thing? " 'Don't eat ham.' "
Even those who are entrenched opposite Reinsdorf on business issues do not share the public's image of him. They respect what they see as his habit of intelligently and articulately speaking his mind. "His style is concise, logical and passionate," says Larry Lucchino, CEO and president of the San Diego Padres. "Even when we battle—and we do battle—there is a certain civility to it. I still consider him someone I can joke and laugh with in between the verbal fisticuffs."
"He believed that the Bulls franchise would permanently cripple itself if it did not take advantage of the opportunity, when Michael Jordan was playing, to establish itself on WGN," says Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL, who was the NBA's top attorney when Reinsdorf filed his lawsuit. "Whether he was right or wrong is not the point. He believed this in his bones."
Says a Chicago taxi driver, speaking unsolicited but authoritatively for the working people of the city, "Someone will put a contract out on him if he doesn't re-sign Phil Jackson."
Never mind that Jackson and Reinsdorf agreed in the spring not to discuss his contract until after the end of the season, that Reinsdorf has a history of keeping those coaches and players he wants to keep, that he still calls Jackson "the best coach in the NBA."
"I had one conversation with Phil," says Reinsdorf. "I told him, 'If we decide to break up the team, I don't want a coach who will be here only one year. Are you prepared to stay longer than that?' He said, 'I'm not sure.' Hard decisions should be deferred until you have to make them."