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When egos get in the way of winning championships

Why is it that egos — whether player, coach or owner — have a way of undoing a good thing?

Jimmy Johnson, left, shakes hands with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones at a news conference in Irving, Texas, in 1994.
In this March 20, 1994, file photo, Jimmy Johnson, left, shakes hands with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones at a news conference in Irving, Texas, to announce that Johnson was leaving as coach of the Cowboys.
Ron Heflin, Associated Press

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

— Harry Truman

The most destructive force in sports is not injuries, money, lack of motivation, agents, poor personnel decisions, bad drafts, aging or even greed; it’s ego. Ego has taken down more dynasties and cost more championships than ACLs and night clubbing combined.

That was reaffirmed this summer by a surprising admission made by Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys owner. The Cowboys of the early ’90s could’ve been the Packers of the ’60s or the Steelers of the ’70s or the Patriots in the modern era. Ego broke up the party way too soon.

Jones and his coach, Jimmy Johnson, waged a public fight to get credit for their success. In March 1994, just two months after the Cowboys had won their second Super Bowl under Johnson, the owner jettisoned his coach to make his point — the Cowboys (really Jones) could win without Johnson. They won another championship two years later, but with Johnson’s team. That was 25 years ago; they haven’t returned to the Super Bowl since.

Johnson and Jones couldn’t stand success if it didn’t mean they were credited as the architect of it. Things began to unravel in 1993 when Jones wanted more say in player personnel decisions. Jones wore the title of general manager, but Johnson had the final word in personnel decisions and wasn’t about to surrender that power.

In December 1993, as the Cowboys were preparing for the playoffs, Johnson let it be known that he was interested in coaching the new expansion team in Jacksonville. Jones responded by telling the media that he alone would decide Johnson’s coaching future. In March 1994, weeks after that second Super Bowl win, Jones angered Johnson when he told reporters that any coach could have led the Cowboys to a Super Bowl. Johnson left the Cowboys.

Jones now regrets it. He told Sports Illustrated last month, “ ... it was my job to keep it together and (I) should have had deference to something that was working good, those are the things that come to my mind. I’ve never been able to know why I (expletive) it up.”

Jones recalled a meeting with Barry Switzer, who replaced Johnson as coach and was always one to speak his mind. As Jones tells it, “Barry Switzer came in the office and Jimmy had just left. Barry came down from Norman, Oklahoma, to talk about getting the job. And he comes in and he said, ‘Where’s Jimmy?’

“Now, Barry had coached us both (in college). He said, ‘Where’s Jimmy?’ I said, ‘Jimmy’s gone.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s not right. Get him. Get him in here. Where’s Jimmy?’

“I said, ‘Barry, Jimmy’s gone. We’re sitting here talking about you being the coach.’ I said, ‘What in the world are you so anxious to talk to Jimmy about?’ He said, ‘I just want to get both you little (expletive) on this couch and ask you both how could you (expletive) this up.’”

It wasn’t until this year, almost 30 years later, that Jones announced that Johnson will be inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor.

Kobe Bryant, left, and Shaquille O’Neal won three consecutive titles together with the Lakers, but ultimately found they couldn’t coexist. A year after the third title, O’Neale demanded a trade and the next day Bryant re-signed with the Lakers.
Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press

Like Jones and Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant thrived as a duo, winning three consecutive championships from 2000 to 2002 while waging a public fight for credit. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson had had no such issues during an earlier era with the Lakers, and they won five championships together. O’Neal and Bryant couldn’t coexist. There finally wasn’t room enough for both egos on the same team. A year after the third title, O’Neal demanded a trade and the next day Bryant re-signed with the Lakers.

Neither player was as effective without the other. They won three championships during the eight seasons they were together; during the 12 seasons they played separately, Bryant won two titles and O’Neal one (when asked about winning his fifth title Kobe said, “Just one more than Shaq.”).

“We still are the best duo ever created,” says O’Neal now. “That’s never going to change.”

Too bad they didn’t figure that out at the time. Bryant died last year.

Then there were the Chicago Bulls. They won three consecutive championships in the early ’90s, then two years later, after Jordan returned from his baseball adventure, they won three consecutive championships again. They might have won another championship if not for the ego of general manager Jerry Krause, who wanted credit for those titles and had an open feud with Jordan and coach Phil Jackson because of it.

You remember Krause as the Bad Guy of the hit Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance.” He takes quite a beating in the film. Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Jackson all take swipes at him, as does the documentary’s author, Mark Vancil, who says in the film, “Jerry had the little-man problem. … He was always the underdog, and he couldn’t control the part of him that needed credit.”

Even before the 1998 season began, Krause announced that it would be the last for Jackson and his players; he wanted to tear it down and start over and prove himself as the championship maker. At least that was the view of many close to the team.

The team broke up afterward and Jackson, Jordan and the other players went elsewhere. Writer Rodger Sherman argues convincingly in The Ringer that Krause should’ve received more credit for those championships because he did a masterful job of first tearing down the Bulls and then rebuilding them with complementary pieces for Jordan. But if he hadn’t cared about credit, the Bulls would have returned for another year, as Jordan says in the film. Why not ride the Bulls as far as they can go? At the same time, maybe Jordan and Jackson could have shared some of the credit with Krause. If that’s what he craved, give him a taste of it. What did it matter to them?

Anyway, Krause, who died in 2017, did to the Bulls what Jones did to the Cowboys and ended a successful run. In the 23 years since the Jordan team broke up, the Bulls have made the playoffs 11 times and were eliminated in the first round in seven of them. They have never returned to the NBA Finals.