As we come to terms with a physical horizon reduced perhaps to no farther away than our front doors, many of us have sought solace in “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-episode chronicle of Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Bulls.
As thorough as the documentary is, it fails to mention one little-known chapter of the tale: a scheme by Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, who died in 2017, to swap Scottie Pippen for Tracy McGrady at the 1997 NBA Draft.
The other day, McGrady retold the story, adding: “It was a couple of days before the draft. I flew into Chicago to meet secretly with Krause. Before the deal got out, MJ axed the whole thing.”
Which turns out to be sort of true, but not entirely. So I spoke to Arn Tellem, at the time McGrady’s agent, to set the record straight.
Krause was scouting for the White Sox when Tellem first met him in the spring of 1982. He recalls Krause as a short, rumpled presence with a mustard-stained polo shirt and a body that looked like a second helping of mashed potatoes.
“He was a nice guy but acted like he was a CIA agent, with a touch of Maxwell Smart,” said Tellem, now an executive with the Pistons. Krause was so furtive that Pat Williams, the onetime Bulls GM, gave him the nickname ‘‘Sleuth’’: “Slinking, suspicious, secretive, talking low and fast, plotting, planning, hiding behind potted palms, wearing disguises.”
Indeed, while scouting college athletes, ‘‘Sleuth’’ often wore a trench coat and dark glasses and pulled his hat down over his forehead to throw off the competition.
In 1985, soon after Jerry Reinsdorf and his partners bought the Bulls, Krause was named GM. He was so single-mindedly devoted to the franchise that Reinsdorf said, “The man is devoid of any other outside interests.”
Pretty much anytime the Los Angeles-based Tellem came to Chicago to see his clients on the Bulls, he dined with Krause.
In 1993, they had lunch at Ada’s Deli in Deerfield. Krause wanted to discuss Scott Williams, a Bulls reserve. As the lumpy GM laid waste to a Francheezie — a massive deep-fried hot dog infused with Velveeta, bound with bacon and jammed into a poppy-seed bun — melted “cheez” oozed out of both sides of his mouth and trickled down his chin.
“Scott must get in better shape,” Krause said between gulps. “He needs to improve his diet.”
On June 13, 1997, the Bulls won their fifth NBA title. With Jordan, 34, nearing the end of his brilliant career, Krause was eager to rebuild before the dynasty had naturally concluded. Pippen, 31 and displeased with his relatively meager salary, had a year left on his contract and looked to become a free agent after the 1998 season. As detailed in “The Last Dance,” he went public with a trade demand and lambasted Krause on the team bus.
Unable to remake the team through the draft — the Bulls’ first pick was No. 30 — Krause negotiated a trade with the Celtics that would’ve sent Pippen and Luc Longley to Boston for the third and sixth selections. Privately, Krause said he intended to use one of those picks on McGrady, then 18 and fresh out of Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, North Carolina.
The 6-8, 220-pound McGrady had made a name for himself the previous summer when he outplayed 6-9 Lamar Odom, then considered the country’s best high school talent, in a camp game. Krause was smitten with him. All during the 1997 playoffs, he called Tellem to monitor the interest of other teams.
“Tracy is one of those generational players, like Kobe Bryant, but taller and even more athletic,” he said. “He could jump-start a franchise and be its cornerstone.”
The draft was held at the Charlotte Coliseum on June 25. At 1 that morning, Krause phoned Tellem at his hotel room. He was overjoyed.
“I think I’ve swung a deal,” he said. “There’s just one catch: Tracy has to take a physical.”
Tellem said, “How do you expect to accomplish that on draft day?”
Krause said: “I’ll figure it out.”
An hour later, he called Tellem with the lowdown.
“I’m sending a black SUV with tinted glass to meet you guys at the hotel,” he said, mysteriously. “You’ll be driven to a place where no one will recognize Tracy.”
‘‘Sleuth’’ was afraid of leaks.
Escorted by a security detail Krause had hired, the SUV took Tellem and McGrady to a hospital 45 minutes away. They were ushered in through a back entrance, where a doctor was waiting to perform the physical. Evidently, McGrady passed.
The teenager was thrilled at the prospect of joining Jordan and the defending NBA champs. But it was not to be. Later that morning Krause called Tellem, devastated. Reinsdorf, he said, had run the trade by Jordan, who pleaded to keep the team’s nucleus together and attempt a second three-peat. Reinsdorf called off the deal. Krause was heartbroken but promised he’d someday bring McGrady to Chicago.
The Raptors chose McGrady. After two relatively quiet seasons, the future Hall of Famer had a sensational 1999-2000 season, and Toronto made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
After the season, McGrady became a free agent. Krause called him his top priority. But Orlando made McGrady a priority, too. The Magic were likely to sign free agent Grant Hill and told McGrady that the two of them would make a formidable tandem. Still, Tellem knew that Krause remained infatuated with McGrady.
“I told Tracy that playing in Chicago was a great opportunity,” Tellem said.
He encouraged McGrady to accompany him to Chicago and hear the GM out.
When McGrady did, Krause pulled out all the stops. He was greeted at O’Hare by a jazz band and a contingent of Bulls cheerleaders. He was wined and dined at Rosebud on Rush, where Krause made a pitch as virtuosic as any in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
“McGrady was impressed by how much the Bulls wanted him,” Tellem said.
After dinner, the 5-5 Krause and the 6-8 McGrady walked down Michigan Avenue, arm-in-arm. Tellem says he has never seen a GM so in love.
Alas, after much deliberation, McGrady chose Orlando, which was closer to his home in Auburndale, Florida. It was left to Tellem to break the news to Krause.
“I knew that, once again, his heart would be broken,” Tellem said. “During my 35 years as an agent, that was one of the toughest calls I made.”
Franz Lidz is a former senior writer for Sports Illustrated, a current Smithsonian magazine columnist and a New York Times film, science and archeology essayist.