Bulls crew of four takes their show on the road
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Sometimes, laughs Jeff Tanaka, it’s like a scene from the movie Fargo, set in the northern Minnesota fields, waves of snow blowing across the tarmac that after a short while all anyone sees of Jeff and Fred Tedeschi and Eric Buck and John Ligmanowski is their eyes blazed against their snow covered coats.
“I guess you’d say we’re the boots on the ground,” says Tanaka, the Bulls assistant athletic trainer and part of the four-man behind the scenes team that is the support for the Bulls traveling party. “Any snafus, any needs, problems, changes once we’re on the road, we’re there to solve and resolve.”
It’s unquestionably a glamorous life to be part of the regular traveling group for a professional sports franchise. With the upgrades in living in the last two decades, teams now fly private charter aircraft which is almost a door to door service. The airplanes are equipped with first class meals for every flight. The teams stay at the world’s best hotels, generally Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton. And the company includes not only the greatest sports stars of the era, but backstage passes, in effect, to the concert of sports.
“I feel like I’m the luckiest guy on earth,” says head trainer Fred Tedeschi. “To come from where I did (small northern California town) and have a passion for this work and being able to apply that working with great people and athletes, yes, it can be a grind at times, but it’s never really felt like work. I feel like I was put here for that, if I am putting that right.”
Yes, every job no matter how glamorous sounding is a job if they call it that and you have to be there. But many would give anything to be in the places of guys like the trainers, Tedeschi and Tanaka, the security director Buck and equipment manager Ligmanowski. But it’s hardly always the red carpet, and when it is they generally have to put it down.
It’s the tale of the support people with all teams that make the day and night go more smoothly so that the players can have that many fewer distractions and more highlight dunks.
It wasn’t that way years ago, of course. Though as the basketball business grew and prospered and the players became mini corporations, the demands and expectations grew. I remember the late Johnny Kerr telling me about his Syracuse Nationals team traveling to Ft. Wayne for games. The train then didn’t come into Ft. Wayne, but a smaller town about 30 miles north. So the players would hire four or five kids with their hot rods to drive them into Ft. Wayne when the train came in. And, no, the kids didn’t carry the bags.
Even into the late 1980’s I recall traveling with the Bulls well into Michael Jordan’s career. The team traveled on commercial airplanes. We stayed at Marriotts, Sheratons, Holiday Inns and Hiltons. The players carried their luggage.
Those practices began to change when the Detroit Pistons purchased a plane in the late 1980’s. Once someone does it, everyone has to. Then teams started upgrading hotels and now teams not only provide food on every flight, but generally in conference rooms in the hotel after every practice or shootaround. The players get about $135 per day in meal money per their labor deal, and the teams provide meals all day long. It’s not required, but once one does, they all have to. Though teams generally drew the line when Mark Cuban got softer towels for the Mavericks.
When the team is home, there is plenty of support in the organization of scores of staffers.
The road starts with Karen Stack-Umlauf, the 28-year veteran administration director who arranges the hotels for the season and the aircraft, setting up and constantly altering contracts as coaches invariably change times of practices or when to leave after games or the next day if there is no back to back.
But once the team leaves Chicago, it’s a relatively small party of usually about 40.
The team radio and TV broadcasters travel with the team along with a crew from Comcast or WGN depending on who is televising. They are pretty much on their own, though they travel on the team plane and the buses to and from the arena and airport. The team also sends a media staffer and occasionally team executives like John Paxson and Gar Forman will travel when they are not scouting college and international players along with a massage therapist on long trips, a strength coach and video coordinator.
There otherwise is a staff of about 20 players and coaches with the primary attention to the players, first with their medical needs as basically everyone is on some sort of routine of rehabilitation, recovery or prevention all the time and then as issues develop.
The players meet at the private air terminal, drop their bags and the next time they see them they are in their rooms at the hotel. Which is the less glamorous life as once the plane lands basically the foursome of Tedeschi, Buck, Tanaka and Ligmanowski handle some 100 to 200 pieces of luggage and team medical and staff equipment, getting them off the plane, loading onto a truck, then unloading the truck or bus at the hotel and handing it all off to bellmen at the hotel for delivery to the rooms.
The loading and unloading can take several hours every night as getting to bed after night games with travel is often after 4 a.m. for them and then early wakeups in a few hours to prepare for shootaround or practice.
“I guess it justifies the Four Seasons or Ritz so we don’t complain,” Tedeschi says with a laugh. “But it’s a great group of people. You see something that needs to be done and they do it. Nobody is above anything. It’s a group effort.”
Because some misery is better with company.
“I remember going to Minnesota one time,” recalls Ligmanowski, the ubiquitous equipment man who’s been with the Bulls from ball boy up for more than 30 years. “We left Chicago it was 10 below and it was a snow storm when we got there. We couldn’t get the truck started (when the plane landed). We got Chevy Blazers with tow trailers and loaded all the stuff in them. And that was the beginning of a West Coast trip when we had more equipment. It can get pretty nasty on that tarmac, the wind blowing; it’s open and you’re out there awhile tagging bags, sending them.”
And that’s when things go right. Tedeschi is, in effect, also the traveling secretary, responsible not only for the initial medical well being but the travel arrangements and issues. Twice this season, the Bulls had airplane problems. Once was on the road in Minnesota in preseason. The team already had left the hotel the afternoon before the game as they generally fly out after games. So imagine trying to get about 40 rooms at midnight with a bus to take them back? Plus let the league know, as they have to be aware of all changes, and coordinate back home with the team. Plus make sure to tip everyone who helps, and there are a lot of helpers to make things work right.
“You don’t want to be the guy who gums up the works,” said Tanaka, who handles ground bus transportation.
Sometimes they just don’t show up, and guess whose fault that would be? Not that anyone would actually blame you, says Tanaka, but you’d feel guilty.
They are something of the four horsemen. And they are pretty good at avoiding the apocalypse.
Here’s a look at who they are:
Fred Tedeschi, head athletic trainer
The 15-year Bulls veteran is one of the more decorated in the field, a former president of the trainers’ association, serving as head trainer overseas for the NBA’s Basketball without Borders for two summers after serving on the trainers’ executive board.
Tedeschi grew up in a small town in the Napa Valley, Calistoga, an avid athlete who later played college golf. “I had a lot of sports injuries playing,” says Tedeschi with a smile.
Like most kids with no career plan, he was off to college, to the University of the Pacific in Stockton and gravitated to the training room given interest in medicine from several surgeries he’d already had and sports. “And I never left,” he says.
As it happened, the Vermeil brothers, Al, the former Bulls strength coach, and Dick, the then Philadelphia Eagles coach, were from the same town. Fred reached out after graduate work in physical education and trainers’ work. Dick Vermeil was leaving the Eagles. So he passed Fred’s resume onto his friend, Bill Walsh with the 49ers, and Fred got a position as an trainers’ intern. He was there two years and then got a trainers’ job with the U.S. men’s and women’s volleyball teams. He was looking to move on to a head trainer position, which he got at Vanderbilt just after Will Perdue was drafted by the Bulls. He was there three years, then four years at the University of California at Berkeley before being hired by the Bulls in 1998 when Chip Schaefer left with Phil Jackson.
As trainer, his first duties are the preliminary work with an injured player, though team doctors diagnose and order tests. And though the Bulls have been hit by injuries, most unexpected with players who have been hurt before, core players like Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, have been able to play through injuries given close work with the training staff and conditioning.
The toughest part?
“Being away from home,” says Tedeschi, whose children are now 19 and 17. “They’ve grown up with dad six months (away and really more with summer leagues and rehab work). When they were young, I made sure regardless how crappy I may have felt to always be up before they headed off to school. I felt otherwise I’d lose that connection with them. You’d want to sleep in, but it always was worth it [to be up]. The hardest part always was being away.”
Jeff Tanaka, assistant athletic trainer
He’s from San Jose and went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo majoring in physical education and kinesiology. He was a trainers’ intern there and got an internship with the then L.A. Raiders. Not unlike Tedeschi, who would later hire him at Cal, Tanaka played in college but was injured. “The physical therapists showed me some things and I was interested and liked the team atmosphere,” says the gregarious Tanaka. “Like a lot of things when you network things come up.”
A Cal Poly alumni was with the Raiders, which got him a chance there and then the 49ers were looking for an intern grad assistant and the alumni recommended him and he got the job after interviewing with Bill Walsh, which Tanaka still considers a lifetime thrill.
He then got a chance with NFL Europe as the league was bringing in young assistants to train like the NBA does with the D-League. He went to Atlanta for camp and then Amsterdam. His old boss with the 49ers knew Tedeschi, who needed some help and Tedeschi hired Tanaka for aquatics and help with football and eventually to men’s basketball and then went back to the 49ers in the early 2000’s.
Tanaka was at the NFL draft combine one year in Indianapolis and knowing Tedeschi came up to Chicago for a visit to exchange ideas.
“I got to know Pax and Gar and they were nice enough to let me travel with the team on a trip,” Tanaka recalls. “I thought I’d take back some stuff and see how we could relate it to football.”
Then assistant Marc Boff left to join take over the Bucks head job and Tedeschi offered Tanaka the job.
Tanaka has worked extensively the last year with Derrick Rose, but also helps Tedeschi with preventative and rehab work that basically every player has to work on every day. When an injury occurs, they work with the 20 or so team doctors in various areas to get the rehab program and then guide the players.
“Related to football, it’s such a small traveling party,” says Tanaka. “We are the help. The best part has been the relationships, the players and staff and the feeling you’ve helped them get better so they could maximize their abilities and be their best. It’s a great feeling.”
Eric Buck, director of security
A local kid who grew up in Orlando Park, he went to Western Illinois University, got a law enforcement administration degree and spent 27 years with the Illinois State Police splitting that among patrol, undercover auto theft and the casino gaming board. Never a gun in his face, Buck said, but plenty of cars careening down the interstate right at him. He retired unscathed in the summer of 2010 after the 2009-10 season when the security chief Tom Holbert decided to get off the road. Buck had been among the many off duty officers doing security at the United Center. He’d asked Holbert once before if he needed an assistant, and the Bulls then asked if he’d like the job fulltime. At least in season.
Traveling security is essentially when the players are between the arena and hotel, in the hotel, at practice and meetings. During games, the NBA has ample security in arenas, though Buck is around as that friendly face if players need anything and as a backup. But he doesn’t hit the clubs with them.
“I tell the guys at the beginning of the season I’m not here to question what they are doing, just to help, solve little problems,” Buck explained.
Sometimes it’s a wakeup call or maybe a search for luggage or something lost or left back at the hotel. And sometimes they ask for an errand, where Buck will draw the line and tell them where they can buy toothpaste if they need it.
“I’m there when needed,” he says. “You find yourself being an alarm clock, bus coordinator, searching for luggage. If there are big media events, I’m there if they’re looking for someone they know. I don’t go out with the players. I tell them if they need to ask me if it’s a place they should go they should question, why they are going there. They’re all young adults.”
Plus, the NBA publishes lists of off limits places in all cities players should stay away from.
“On the road, I try to be wherever they (team) are so it doesn’t get overcrowded by guests, autograph seekers,” says Buck. “At the hotel I always make sure they (hotel) takes steps (with barriers) to keep the fans from restricting our walk. Then it’s up to the players if they want to stop and sign autographs. It’s their call. I’ll just tell them how much time we have.”
There generally are groups of fans staking out team hotels for autographs, and Buck has spent more time the last few months with Derrick Rose as he’s come onto the court before games to shoot and escorting him through arenas given his celebrity.
“Just so there’s no pushing or rough stuff,” Buck says. “I’ll watch the crowd during the games to find boisterous ones who might be a problem, abusive language, aggressive attitudes who need to be spoken to.”
Generally, there are two buses to the games for early and later pregame shooting and to and from the airplane. Buck will make sure everyone is accounted for daily.
“I didn’t expect how much there was to do out of a two and a half hour game,” says Buck. “You don’t realize how much goes into it with the equipment and everything. Those guys have much more to do. It’s a great group to work with.”
John Ligmanowski, equipment manager
Ligs is the veteran, the East Leyden High School kid whose cousin worked for the team and helped him get a ball boy job in 1976. He hasn’t left. He worked up to running the visiting locker room in the old Chicago Stadium and Bulls equipment manager in 1990.
He’s the guy with all the socks and 21 uniforms, seven different ones—Hardwood Classics, white, red, black, Los Bulls, Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day—and three sets of each.
He’ll open the day helping the visiting team at shootaround getting their locker room ready and by the time he’s done on game day it’s after midnight washing the team uniforms. Similarly on the road at visiting arenas. No one knows better how much detergent to use.
He’s the guy getting the hundreds of shorts and t-shirts and socks for the season, quickly getting a new uniform as players come and go, especially around trade deadline and with 10-day contracts, and trying to figure in January when he orders what he’ll need for the following season that also never stops anymore with draft workouts and summer leagues.
Sometimes, though not often, he says, he’ll get a kid who tosses dirty socks or something at him, but he shrugs after this long.
“Sometimes you have a bad day,” Ligmanowski says. “I understand. But I’ve been around awhile, I’ll say something if I have to. But we’ve had good groups.”
Just like the friendly foursome the players have helping and supporting them.