On the John: Vinny and me

On the John

Vinny and me

Originally completed May 5, 2010

It was all sunshine and smiles for Vinny Del Negro on June 9, 2008.

My complicated fan relationship with coach Vinny Del Negro began May 24, 2008, the day I applied for the Bulls’ then-vacant head coaching spot. It was a chaotic time for the organization. After three consecutive trips to the postseason, the Bulls had collapsed, firing Scott Skiles and flopping to a 33-49 record under interim coach Jim Boylan. After Boylan was heaved April 17, Pax and Reinsdorf began their search for a new head coach.

The big names disappeared. Larry Brown was hired by Charlotte end of April, Rick Carlisle by Dallas on May 8, Mike D’Antoni by New York on the 10th. Joe Dumars forbade us from speaking with Michael Curry. Reinsdorf decided he was not interested in the recently-dismissed Avery Johnson. A slew of uninspiring assistants like Kurt Rambis, Brian Shaw, Tyrone Corbin, and Dwane Casey were interviewing at the Berto Center. Spirits were low.

As a fan, this is tough to take. You want to feel your team is in good coaching hands, especially when they are your beloved Chicago Bulls. Especially when you are aching to return to the playoffs. ESPECIALLY when you have lucked into the number one draft pick with Michael Beasley and Derrick Rose on the table.

On May 23rd, big craziness struck: our old friend Doug Collins contacted Reinsdorf and expressed interest in the job. Collins had not coached since 2003, and now, somehow, he was the frontrunner to lead the Bulls back to the playoffs?

I had nothing against Doug Collins. Even though in 1990 my dad persuaded me to slap a Bulls bumper sticker over Collins’s image in the background of my Michael Jordan poster because “We must look to the future,” I held no ill will toward the man. Nothing silly like, “We fired you once, why should we hire you now?” It is possible for coaches to find newfound success in their later years, Jack McKeon and Dick Vermeil being prime examples.

Michael Jordan and Doug Collins.

But come on… Doug Collins? Doug Collins?

I could not get excited for Doug Collins.

So I said what every fan says at this point: “Hell, if they’re going to hire that guy, they may as well hire me. I could coach the team better than that guy.”

And that’s when it struck me: Of course! Why not me? I had just finished my coursework at National-Louis and was already in the market for a new job; I was teaching preschool at the Skokie JCC, and was not interested in staying with them for their summer program. My student teaching, slated for the fall, would have to be pushed back indefinitely, but that could probably be arranged somehow.

It then became a question of ethics: was it selfish of me to apply for the Bulls head coaching job considering I had no NBA experience, no basketball coaching experience, and had not played organized hoops since fifth grade?

No, I decided, it was not selfish. The Bulls, after all, had backed themselves into a position in which EVERY EXCITING COACHING PROSPECT had signed elsewhere. I would not have applied for the job in mid-April, but in late-May with the search dragging on? This team needed leadership.

Once I settled on my decision to apply, I felt pretty good about my chances. I held a trump card that no other candidate could claim: the element of surprise. Pax and Reinsdorf were faced with a simple choice. They could either pull a name from the group of Regular Joes, guys whose lone qualification to coach an NBA team was previous league affiliation; or they could go for the mystery candidate with a background in conflict resolution and mid-20’s management.

There was only one problem, and that was timing. The news of Collins tossing his hat into the ring broke on Friday the 23rd, and the pre-draft camp in Orlando was set to pop on Monday. Pax would be down in Florida all week shmagoozing with other NBAers, and with the clock ticking hopelessly away and the Bulls now sitting on the draft’s top pick, ol’ Number 5 would certainly settle on a coach in Orlando.

My only chance was to swoop in and snag the job the next morning. I had to hope that by some miracle, Pax would not leave for Orlando until Saturday afternoon the earliest, and that before departure he would put in time at the office.

The Berto Center.

I stayed up all night Friday. First, I formulated a plan for approaching Pax, a brief document I titled “The John Paxson Approach.” Next, I crafted my letter of introduction, followed by a complete roster breakdown and my blueprint for success with either Beasley or Rose, (a matter still under debate leading up to the draft).

I left my home early the next morning and arrived at the Berto Center 8 a.m. sharp. I wore a black suit and carried a briefcase that contained my complete application inside a classic manila envelope. I parked my car, strode confidently to the front door, and rang the intercom.

“Yes?” answered the voice.

“Good morning. My name is Jack Silverstein, and I am here to apply for your head coaching job.”

There was a pause. “Um, repeat that please?”

“My name is Jack Silverstein. I am here to apply for the Bulls head coaching job.”

There was another pause.

“Is John Paxson in?” I asked. “I must meet with him at once.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Paxson is in Orlando. What did you say your name was?”

“Jack Silverstein.”

“Just a moment.”

Damn. I thought. Missed my chance. I waited outside for no more than 30 seconds when a college kid in basketball shorts and a t-shirt came to the door.

“What’s up?”

John Ligmanowski, upper left, seen here with some other guys.

“My name is Jack Silverstein, and I am here to apply for the Bulls head coaching job. Unfortunately, it sounds as if Pax is already in Florida.”

“Yeah, he left last night.” The kid introduced himself – he was a Chicago kid playing ball for Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and was in the midst of his morning workout. No one of true Bulls importance was present; players were home and management was in Florida. I gave the kid my pitch and he offered to place my packet in Paxson’s office. And that was that.

Then, of all things, the Orlando camp passed without a hire! Word was they were leaning toward Collins, who Paxson was behind and Reinsdorf was still mulling. A few more dud assistants were considered, but Collins seemed it. I began exploring other job options, ultimately landing with True Star magazine as a writing instructor. I was excited about this… but still… head coach of the Bulls was obviously the goal…

But then Collins withdrew his name on June 6! I returned to Berto the next morning, another Saturday, and this time spoke with longtime equipment manager John Ligmanowski. That was a thrill in itself – after all, this was the guy who told Michael before Game 2 of the Magic series in ’95, “I’ll put the #45 jersey in your locker and the #23 jersey, and you can pick.”

John listened intently with an unmistakable cockeyed look, and like the UWM player before him, took my packet and told me he would place it on Paxson’s desk.

The dream died soon after. On June 9, 2008, the Chicago Bulls hired Phoenix Suns assistant general manager Vinny Del Negro. He had no previous coaching experience.

******

Pax, Rose, and Vinny during simpler days.

The Bulls drafted Derrick Rose and the season began. I finished my student teaching on November 6, and the next day the Bulls whipped the Suns by 17 behind the rookie Rose’s 18 points, 6 assists, and 2 steals. The team meandered along, winning some and losing some. They nabbed three wins on the Circus Trip, were flogged only once in the season’s opening month (a brutal 42-point loss at Portland), and entered the New Year 14-18, a respectable mark all things considered.

The things considered were as follows. The Bulls were breaking in a rookie coach, rookie point guard, and two second-year centers. The starting lineup was bouncing, with Rose the only constant. Thabo Sefolosha had started at three positions, with Vinny even trying a four-guard lineup for one game against Golden State. Hinrich was hurt, Gordon was starting, no one knew what to make of Tyrus Thomas. The team’s most exciting game in the early going was a 101-100 win in Utah when, of all people, Larry Hughes knocked in a buzzer-beating three for the win.

The strange thing was I could never quite get a handle on my feelings about Vinny. Fans are always critical of new coaches, and here was the guy who had beaten me for the job! As a rabid Bulls addict and a former head-coaching candidate, I had all the reason in the world to judge Vinny as harshly as possible.

But for some reason, I couldn’t. Every bone-headed decision by Wanny, Dick Jauron, and Tim Floyd was accompanied by boos and head slaps. Conversely, when the Cubs hired Dusty Baker, I finally felt like our manager gave us an edge. Same with Sweet Lou, and of course with Phil. Vinny though…

Dave Wannstedt, NFL head coach.

Who was this guy? What mark was he making on the team? Players weren’t fighting with him. No one was complaining. Rose was improving. By mid-January, he had even settled on a reasonable starting lineup of Rose, Gordon, Deng, Thomas, and Noah. When Pax shook up the roster in February and Deng went down, Vinny plugged Salmons into the 3 and the team took off. Hinrich returned. Brad Miller chipped in double figures and helped steer Noah. The Bulls won 12 of their final 16 games and earned the East’s seventh seed.

Meanwhile, my take on Vinny was consistently ambiguous. When we struggled, I could not tell if it was Vinny’s fault. When we succeeded, I could not tell if Vinny deserved praise. No coach on any Chicago team had less of an impact on my day-to-day sports fan experience. It was almost as if he wasn’t even there.

******

That feeling of uncertainty continued into this season. The Bulls floundered to a 10-17 start, but Miller and Fishsticks were struggling and Ben Gordon’s 20 points were in Detroit. Then we won 13 of 18… yet how much of that run was due to Coach Vinny?

In late November, I chaperoned two of our True Star students for a trip to a Bulls-Sixers game, complete with press passes. Certainly an up close look would help me sort my feelings. But that did not really happen. Vinny struck me as a nice enough guy with strong self-confidence, a coach who possibly knew he was not the league’s best but who nonetheless was here to do a job and was doing it the best he could. He had a good rapport with his players, took a ton of heat from the press, and had the smarts to know which of those opinions mattered more. “Just how I would have done it,” I thought to myself as Simeon and Champ interviewed players.

Vinny was part of the Bulls’ exciting series against the Celtics…

Admittedly, it was strange being in the locker room as a teacher, knowing full well that a few twists and turns different and those True Star kids could have been interviewing me, Head Coach Jack Silverstein. But I loved my job and my writing was strong and I had moved on with life. After the game, I congratulated Vinny on the win, a salute he graciously returned. I was happy to see him there in the office, and felt that at the very least, he was doing as well as I could have done.

So 10-17 turned into 23-22, Derrick Rose turned into an All-Star, John Salmons into a Milwaukee Buck. Once again the Bulls were left incorporating new players at mid-season, only this time the team’s leadership was clearly defined behind Rose and Noah. Noah’s value was brazenly obvious when he missed ten games starting February 27th and the Bulls lost all ten. Deng missed 11 games starting March 11th, and Rose missed four between the 12th and the 19th. Hinrich even missed a March 16th road game in Memphis, leaving rookie Taj Gibson as the team’s only remaining starter.

To recap:

Eastern Conference Standings, end of the day February 26, 2010

1. Cleveland, 46-14, W3, 7-3 in last 10 games

2. Orlando, 39-20, L1, 6-4

3. Boston, 36-20, L1, 6-4

4. Atlanta, 36-21, L1, 6-4

5. Toronto, 31-26, L2, 5-3

6. BULLS, 31-27, W2, 8-2

7. Milwaukee, 29-28, W5, 8-2

8. Miami, 29-29, L2, 5-5

9. Charlotte, 28-29, W1, 4-6

Eastern Conference Standings, end of the day March 19, 2010

1. Cleveland, 55-15, W6, 9-1

2. Orlando, 49-21, W2, 9-1

T3. Boston, 44-24, W3, 7-3

T3. Atlanta, 44-24, W1, 7-3

5. Milwaukee, 37-30, W1, 8-2

6. Charlotte, 35-33, L1, 7-3

7. Miami, 35-34, L2, 7-3

8. Toronto, 33-34, L1, 2-8

9. BULLS, 31-37, L10, 0-10

The Bulls were drowning, and yet it was at this point where I finally said, “Ya know what? Vinny might be all right.” I mean, everyone was hurt! Give the guy a break! And sure enough, Rose, Noah, and Deng returned, the Bulls won 10 of their final 14, and we were back in the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons. I still could not quite identify Vinny’s stamp…

…undoubtedly one of the greatest extended moments of my Bulls fan career.

…but since I could “not quite identify” it for a season and a half, I decided to judge him solely on the Facts, and the Facts were strong. Rose was a better player in Year 2 than in Year 1. Noah was a rebounding monster and nearly an All-Star. Deng produced his best season in three years. Hinrich was solid. Gibson was the league’s fifth-best rookie. There was no mutiny, even as the team incurred heavy losses. When Del Negro and Pax squared off in a much-hyped, still-mysterious physical altercation, neither fans nor players called for Vinny’s head. In fact, despite my love for Pax throughout my Bulls career, that showdown actually endeared Vinny to me even further.

In the end, for whatever reason, no matter who deserves credit, the Bulls made the playoffs. The final Del Negro tally: two 41-41 seasons, two postseason berths, two hard fought series against superior opponents, and unquestionable player improvement.

******

Vinny is gone now, and the franchise moves forward. Some friends have asked about my plans, so I will tell you what I told them: I have no intention of pursuing this job. There are too many candidates with greater qualifications, and my focus on writing is strong and necessary.

It is hard to judge a coach. Hard for management, REALLY hard for a fan. In fact, I would say that we have little business evaluating a coach from our seat in the bleachers. A friend of mine is a Bulls beat reporter, and I routinely asked him throughout the season for his take on Vinny. Forget one day in November: here was a guy who spent the entire season in the locker room. And for most of the year, he, like me, was unable to articulate the Vinny Effect.

So I contacted him yesterday, and finally he had his answer:

“To me, he gave these players the freedom that allowed most of them to find themselves. Derrick became an All-Star because of that freedom, and Joakim is a borderline All-Star who was put in situations where a lot of his game was displayed. No one knew Noah could pass like he can or even lead fast breaks. [Vinny’s] mark will be left by what guys like Derrick and Joakim, Taj and James become, because he basically has allowed them to establish an identity in this league that will carry them forward.”

Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah, and Derrick Rose were three of the players who thrived under Vinny’s watch.

A sound assessment, and you’ll notice there’s nothing here about the implementation of new offensive schemes or the promotion of defensive intensity, nothing here about a renewed emphasis on three-point shooting or shot blocking, nothing about the infusion of a full-court press or so many of the X’s and O’s that constitute a coach’s resume. Just motivation, inspiration, confidence, and the management of personal relationships.

We all knew the day would come when the Bulls would say goodbye to Coach Del Negro. The surprise for me was how disappointed I was when it happened. Where do we go now? Who will lead our Bulls? Vinny spent two years growing with the team. Everyone seemed happy. Why not stick with the dude? Why the hell not?

Because of pedigree, I suppose. Because Pax and Reinsdorf took nearly two months to hire a coach back in 2008 and never seemed satisfied. Because maybe not even management can articulate what Vinny did for this team. Because it’s not good enough to represent the organization with class, steadily find your way, mesh with players, help your team achieve, and twice reach the postseason. You must be a Name, like Phil Jackson or Larry Brown or Mike D’Antoni or at least Doug Collins. Certainly not Jack M Silverstein. And apparently not Vinny Del Negro.

Copyright 2010, jm silverstein

*** 9 JUNE 2016 ***

After recording a sweet podcast with Bawl! Sports to discuss my ’96 Bulls book and other pressing matters…

…I decided it was long since time I include the primary documents described in this article, the ones I trusted with my head coaching odds. They are embedded above, but here they are again:

The John Paxson Approach

The John Paxson Letter

2008 Bulls roster breakdown

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4 comments

  1. Christopher Cason · May 5, 2010

    GREAT PIECE Jack. You had as good a shot as anyone in 2008 to be calling the shots for the Bulls. Vinny got a raw deal here in Chicago. It was a situation if he won, everyone was like “ok, good,” but when the loses came, everything is always magnified and with no coaching experience, ever, it becomes easy to point him out as a scapegoat, especially when you have Paxson and Reinsdorf publicly questioning him and this is the guy they chose to bring in. Even when the speculation started early this season that he would be fired, no one in the Bulls brass even stepped up to say “Vinny is our coach,” so, there was never any support from the front office and its surprising that the players didn’t turn on him. I think that speaks to how he was able to get along with these guys. He wasn’t a guy who was going to teach or instruct these players, but he gave them confidence and he believed in them to get the job done.

  2. readjack · May 5, 2010

    Agreed on all counts. I am pretty confident dude will find a head spot somewhere soon, where his methods and success will be more appreciated. The only question left is… who is coming to save US?

  3. Christopher Cason · May 7, 2010

    I’ve always felt that they had Lawrence Frank on their radar since he was let go.

  4. Pingback: The ReadJack Derrick Rose Archive | ReadJack.com

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