Enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame wasn’t among Jerry Reinsdorf’s early goals. And the fact that he was around 23 years before the joint opened its doors is a mere technicality.
Reinsdorf’s ambitions lay elsewhere during his Wonder years.
“The only real goal I had was, I wanted to own a car,” said Reinsdorf, who nonetheless is a member of the Hall’s Class of 2016, to be enshrined Sept. 9 in Springfield, Mass. “Because my father, most of the time, he couldn’t afford a car. Once in a while he would have a car but it would be 10 or 15 years old, an old jalopy.”
Reinsdorf took another puff on the cigar, leaning back in the desk chair in his office at the Chicago Bulls’ Advocate Center practice facility.
“Then when I owned a car, my next goal was to own a car I didn’t make payments on.”
Reinsdorf did get what he wanted: a 1953 Ford with 34,100 miles on the odometer he bought at age 20 in 1956. After its engine blew four years later, sending a mechanic to the hospital, his father-in-law dragged him to the bank and co-signed a loan, enabling the young tax attorney for the IRS to buy a Rambler.
In time, there would be a succession of Cadillacs. None of them with payments.
Reinsdorf, chairman of the Bulls for the past 31 years and chairman of MLB’s Chicago White Sox for 35 is one of the few owners whose teams have won championships in two of the four major U.S. team sports. The multi-sport owner has kept things seemingly simple along the way. Seizing opportunities as they presented themselves, suffering little apparent doubt, brushing himself off briskly after missteps and sticking to a few core principles have him, at age 80, fit and nearly as involved as ever.
“He wants to win,” said Michael Reinsdorf, 49, the second-born of Reinsdorf’s three sons and the president and COO of the Bulls since 2010. “After the World Series [won by the White Sox in 2005], he was like, ‘Well, this will make it easier now. I won’t get so emotional now during games.’ And it’s never changed. Easier said than done.”
‘A tax attorney for life’
Reinsdorf, the oldest of Max’s and Marion’s three children, grew up in Brooklyn back when it wasn’t just a gentrified annex of Manhattan. He loved baseball and got to Ebbets Field as often as he could to watch the Dodgers. But this wasn’t a father-son thing — Max wasn’t much on sports, and usually was too busy working.
“My father only saw two baseball games in his life and that was after I owned the White Sox,” Reinsdorf said. “He worked six days a week, and on Sundays he could barely get out of bed. He worked as a mechanic in a Chevrolet dealership for a while. He drove a cab. He drove an ice cream truck. He put together enough money to buy a truck once and would drive around upstate New York buying old sewing machines. He had a guy in Mexico, he would ship them there to be resold.
“He never made any money but he also fed his family.”
Reinsdorf said he dreamed of being a lawyer from the age of 8 or 9, and that’s what led him to George Washington for undergrad and Northwestern for law school. A job with the IRS and marriage to a local girl, Martyl Rifkin, kept him in Chicago. Eventually he joined a law firm.
“I thought I would spend the rest of my life being a good tax lawyer,” Reinsdorf said. “The interesting thing about being a tax lawyer is, none of your clients are poor. I had clients come to me and say, ‘Can you help us make investments?’ That led to me getting into the real estate business.”
Get into it? Reinsdorf co-founded a company, Balcor, in 1972 that he sold a decade later to American Express for more than $100 million.
Reinsdorf’s move into sports was more of a fluke. He had answered an ad in the Wall Street Journal’s classified section seeking investors to bid for a MLB team. The fellow who placed the ad, John Alevizos, had bounced around baseball while working as a real-estate developer, and landed a six-month stint as Ted Turner’s GM with the Atlanta Braves in 1976. Alevizos then tried (and failed) to buy the San Francisco Giants, Cleveland Indians and New York Mets.
Each time, Reinsdorf was a willing partner. Until one morning a light bulb went on above his head: Why invest in a team in another city? Why be only a partner?
In Chicago, Bill Veeck owned the White Sox. As usual, he was underfunded. And true to form, Veeck never held onto anything for long. Reinsdorf learned that, sure enough, with free agency beginning to send baseball costs skyward, Veeck was looking to get out. After an arduous process, Reinsdorf’s group purchased the team in January 1981 for $20 million.
That’s when he got his first taste of running an organization that people looked at as their own.
“We’d do literally billions of dollars in business [at Balcor] every year. Compared to that, this was easy,” Reinsdorf said. “The only thing about sports is making sure you don’t read the papers too often.”
Reinsdorf saw a White Sox front office badly in need of restructuring. He boosted the number of scouts on the payroll and got aggressive in free agency. Attendance at old Comiskey Park more than doubled to 2.1 million from strike-ruptured 1981 to 1983, when Chicago finished 99-63 to reach the American League playoffs.
Baseball begets basketball
In the summer of 1984, Reinsdorf was at dinner in New York with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner when he started complaining about one of his investments back in Chicago — the Bulls.
“He’s moaning and groaning he’s got to write checks every year for the Bulls,” Reinsdorf recalled. “I told him, ‘George, the reason you’re not making money is your [primary] owners are not personally invested in the operation.’ These were giants of industry, they didn’t have time for the Bulls.’
“About a week later, one of his partners called and said, ‘Do you want to buy everybody out?’ There were two partners who wanted to stay in, but everybody else wanted out.”
Reinsdorf knew that controlling two Chicago franchises offered business leverage unavailable if he owned only one. What he didn’t realize initially was what the Bulls had among its assets: a shooting guard drafted that June by GM Rod Thorn, one Michael Jordan.
By the time Reinsdorf’s deal closed in March 1985 — he had controlling interest for $9.2 million — people had a better idea of Jordan’s prowess and his potential.
Reinsdorf had decided to fire Thorn for a fresh start. That’s when a White Sox scout named Jerry Krause called to inquire about the Bulls GM position.
“I said, ‘What’s your vision?’ He said basically what I wanted to do, which was to copy the New York Knicks,” the owner said. Reinsdorf had admired the Knicks’ tenacity on defense under coach Red Holzman, as well as their egalitarian offense based on ball and player movement.
“I give him credit for coming in and asking for the job. I give me credit for taking a chance on him,” Reinsdorf said. “After it was announced, I had a number of people come to me saying, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ They didn’t think he was good enough.”
Krause did so well building a team around Jordan — working a Draft-night trade for Scottie Pippen, swapping Charles Oakley for Bill Cartwright — that the ambitions to get past Detroit’s “Bad Boys” and the Knicks in the East turned soon enough into NBA titles from 1991-93. After Jordan gave up baseball (Reinsdorf indulged him in the Sox farm system) and un-retired the first time, the Bulls three-peated again 1996-98.
That’s why Reinsdorf tells almost anyone who’ll listen that Krause is the Jerry who should be going into the Hall first. But Krause was a stout, gruff man who became a target for Jordan, Pippen and coach Phil Jackson. The rancor between them believed to be hurting Krause as a Hall candidate.
Reinsdorf’s core principles
Krause is an example, both good and bad, of one of Reinsdorf’s keys to management success. Essentially they line up as:
1. Find good people
3. Stay loyal
Reinsdorf considers his ability to read and select the best possible personnel for his enterprises to be one of his “few” skills. Once he has done that, he gives them responsibility, trusts (but verifies) their performance and demands that they keep talking to each other.
As he noted soon after buying his MLB and NBA franchises, “only in sports are your partners your competitors. And we derive maybe half of our money together. Any other business, you want your competitors to go out of business. In sports, you just don’t want them to have as good a record as you do.”
If competitors can share info, then so too can various departments within a franchise. “I don’t want silos,” he said, veering close to the reasons offered when coach Tom Thibodeau was fired in May 2015. “Your basketball people have to be talking to your marketing people, because they do interact. I make sure they talk to each other, I make sure they talk to me.”
Reinsdorf bankrolled seven championships and developed United Center (in partnership with the NHL’s Blackhawks) and U.S. Cellular Field into profitable venues. But it’s his loyalty that is legendary on the Chicago sports landscape, both on and away from the job.
Reinsdorf has seen White Sox and Bulls employees through illnesses, surgeries, scrapes with the law and other setbacks. He has backed his decision-makers (currently Kenny Williams of the White Sox and John Paxson and Gar Forman of the Bulls) perhaps to a fault (according to some local pundits).
Reinsdorf grew so close with former Bulls coach Doug Collins that, after firing him in 1989, he ruled out Collins’ return to the position 19 years later because of the toll another go-round would take on their friendship. He reportedly was so emotional about trading White Sox outfielder Harold Baines in 1989 that he ordered Baines’ uniform number to be retired — even though Baines was only 31, was halfway through his career and would return for two more stays with the team.
Reinsdorf has been known to cut longtime employees sizable checks upon their retirement, several multiples of their annual salary. But maybe more impressive, he made sure to bring front-office staffers to The Finals or the World Series and seemed to think it odd that anyone else might think it was odd.
“If I were in the marketing department and the team was in The Finals or the World Series and I didn’t get to go or I didn’t get a ring, I’d feel under-appreciated,” Reinsdorf told the Sports Daily Journal in May 2013. “Why shouldn’t I do that for people? It never dawned on me it was a big deal.”
It’s not foolproof. Fans point to Reinsdorf backing broadcaster Ken Harrelson who, in his don’t-blink tenure as GM, fired manager Tony La Russa. La Russa went on to win 2,206 more games and three World Series titles with Oakland and St. Louis after that.
Supporting Krause through his ineffective rebuild of the post-Jordan Bulls with coach Tim Floyd and youngsters Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler didn’t work. Plenty also question the need to shed Thibodeau.
Said Michael Reinsdorf: “At times, we don’t agree on everything when it comes to that. Sometimes I don’t know it’s being ‘loyal’ as much as it is, if he feels he has the right people in place, why make changes?
“He’s the farthest thing from a micro-manager. He feels that every decision you can off-load to someone else, that frees your time up to be more creative and think big picture.”
‘You’ve got to have help from other people’
Reinsdorf has been influential within the ranks of owners in both sports. He was considered to be a hard-line voice during some of baseball’s labor strife in the ’90s.
When a proposal he had drafted on revenue sharing during the 2011 NBA lockout came to a vote, he got high praise when Jordan, now in ownership, said simply, “I’m with Jerry.” Reinsdorf became close with Bud Selig and David Stern, his sports’ longtime commissioners, though he admitted favoring Selig’s collaborative style more than Stern’s successful (but often autocratic) approach.
It’s the “team” thing again for Reinsdorf.
“At the end of the day, it’s up to the players,” he said. “But somebody drafted them, somebody generated money to pay them. You can have the greatest players in the world and they’re not going to win without the coaches. The greatest coaches aren’t going to win without the players.
“I don’t think there’s anybody who’s been super-successful who did it by himself or herself. You’ve got to have help from other people.”
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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