Broadcast News: Paxson Takes Over
Posted May 28, 2003
When John Paxson sat down with his wife Carolyn in mid-April to discuss the possibility of becoming executive vice president of basketball operations for the Chicago Bulls—a title better known to fans as general manager—there was an excitement in his normally calm, collected voice.
"I could just tell it was something he wanted to do," she said. But it was encouragement from John's older brother Jim, general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the words echoed by John's oldest son Ryan, that tipped "Pax" in favor of taking the job.
"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity," gushed 16-year-old Ryan to his mom. "He's got to do it! He's got to do it!" Then came the conversation with Jim. The brothers talked just hours before the Bulls held a press conference announcing Paxson's new role with the team.
"Jim has always given me wonderful advice about everything and when I talked to him he told me to go for it," said John. "He said, 'This is something you have to do; you just don't know how many of these chances are going to come around again.' "
And with that, the former Bulls playmaker agreed to take on the role that was held by Jerry Krause for the past 18 years. It's a huge task to acquire. "Jerry brought me here in 1985 and he's been an influence on anyone who has come through this organization," says Paxson.
Krause, after all, helped create one of the most dominant NBA dynasties of all time. Besides signing Paxson to a free-agent contract seven months after he took the GM's job, Krause was a two-time NBA Executive of the Year (1987-88 and 1995-96) who brought Phil Jackson to Chicago from the Continental Basketball Association, first as an assistant coach and later as head coach. Krause surrounded Michael Jordan with Scottie Pippen, Bill Cartwright, Dennis Rodman, Horace Grant and others to form a supporting cast that turned the Bulls into legendary winners. And Krause is the one who traded for Tyson Chandler and snapped up Eddy Curry, the two "Baby Bulls," who have matured tremendously in just two seasons.
One of Jerry Krause's first moves as Bulls GM was the signing of two-year veteran John Paxson in 1985.
So when Krause stepped down for health reasons on April 7, and with the season quickly winding down, Paxson was the first to admit he had plenty to learn in taking on the job.
Fortunately, he took the job with Krause's blessings. "I think John Paxson is a great selection to succeed me," Krause said just days after Paxson stepped in. "I wish him all the luck in the world. I think he'll be very successful. He has all the ingredients to be an outstanding general manager."
John Macbeth Paxson, 42, grew up in Kettering, Ohio, and was an All-American at Notre Dame, where he graduated from in 1983 with a degree in marketing. He possesses a very strong NBA pedigree: In the mid-1950s, his father, Jim Sr., played for the Minneapolis Lakers and the Cincinnati Royals. And his brother, Jim Jr., had an 11-year playing career at Portland and Boston before taking on the GM job in Cleveland.
Like his older brother, Paxson also played 11 NBA seasons, nine with the Bulls and two with San Antonio, and was a key contributor to the Bulls 1991, '92 and '93 NBA Championship teams.
As a 6’2”, 185 pound guard, the future Bulls executive was drafted by the Spurs in the first round of the 1983 NBA Draft. After two seasons, he was signed by the Bulls, becoming the starting point guard in 1986. In nine seasons with Chicago, he appeared in 645 games, averaged 7.6 points, 3.7 assists, shot .500 from the floor and .363 from three-point range. For his career he averaged .804 from the free throw line.
During playoffs, Paxson could always be counted on to up his shooting percentages and perform miracles from three-point range. In Game 2 of the NBA Finals vs. Los Angeles in 1991, he tied the NBA playoff record for field goal accuracy, shooting 8-of-8 from the floor en route to 16 points. For the series he averaged 13.4 points and shot a team-high .653 from the floor.
During his nine-year Chicago playing career, the Bulls made nine post-season appearances and won three NBA World Championships. He's probably best remembered for his game-winning three pointer in Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals vs. the Phoenix Suns, though he often cites Chicago’s first NBA Championship in 1991 as a more defining moment, because the team had struggled so long to win.
A self-described family man—when he wasn't playing or practicing, he was spending time with Carolyn, his wife of nearly 20 years, and he still bases career decisions around his wife and children—Paxson is well-liked, smart and low-key. Though he shies away from the limelight, he always shines brightly when he's in it.
And he's a guy who constantly wants to learn from those around him. When injuries and a couple of knee surgeries brought his career to a close—he played just 27 games his final season—the Bulls wanted to keep him in the organization. In 1995, Coach Phil Jackson hired him as an assistant coach for the 1995-96 season, when the Bulls went 72-10 and won their fourth gold trophy.
Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf's hiring of Paxson has been positively received both locally and nationally.
Still, it was one of the most valuable years he ever spent in the league. "I learned as much or more in that one season being around the Bulls staff as I did in 11 years as a player," Pax recalls. As a player, he points out, you try to put team first, but most of your time is spent preparing yourself for the game. "As a coach there are so many other things that factor in. I learned under the best and in retrospect that year helped me do what I did as a color analyst."
He then turned to broadcasting and for the past seven seasons was a color analyst on both the Bulls radio and TV networks. His partnership with longtime radio play-by-play man Neil Funk has been another learning experience for Pax, and like his one-year coaching gig, will serve him well as a general manager.
"I know our team as well as anyone. I know the strengths and weaknesses of our team because I got to talk about them every night and look at the team from that vantage point."
"Pax is wonderful," says Funk. "He has such a great knowledge of the game and he has something rare: He can see the game from the perspective of a guy who played and really understands it."
And he's never scrimped on pre-game preparation. As a broadcaster, Paxson's routine included not just poring over statistics, but talking to coaches, fellow broadcasters and players. When he was at home, he'd watch games he wasn't covering to get a feel for other teams around the league to see what made them successful—or not. The constant contact with Bulls players on the road and at home has allowed Paxson to see how the players are developing as well as keep tabs on other NBA players.
Paxson's loyalty and knowledge are so respected league-wide that he's been offered a couple of coaching jobs since wrapping up his playing career. When Michael Jordan first joined the Washington Wizards, he asked Paxson to consider the Wizards head coaching job.
"For a few days, I thought it was something I'd want to do, but then you think about reality—moving to Washington, never having been a head coach before. The reason I even considered it was because of Michael." Though Paxson was genuinely flattered by the offer, he turned it down.
Coach Phil Jackson invited Pax to join the Los Angeles Lakers coaching staff, but the timing wasn't right for that position, either.
This time, however, the timing's perfect, John says, as well as the place and the people. "This opportunity comes at a time in my life where I'm ready to get back into it, and it comes at a time in my life when my family has given me their support, and that's really all I needed," he explains.
Pax will also be surrounded by players and staff that he's eager to work with, including former teammates B.J. Armstrong and Bill Cartwright. "Bill and I, like B.J. and I, have a history as players. When I played with those two guys, and I played with Michael, Scottie, Horace and the rest of the list, a bond was formed. I believe in that bond with teams."
As for being a former teammate's boss? Neither Cartwright nor Paxson are concerned. "Bill and I were teammates for a long time and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him as a player and a coach," says Paxson. And Cartwright says the two are on the same wavelength when it comes to planning the team's future.
"Pax is wonderful," says his former broadcast partner, Neil Funk. "He has such a great knowledge of the game and he has something rare: He can see the game from the perspective of a guy who played and really understands it."
Armstrong's also looking forward to working with the new GM. "As a friend and former teammate, I know what he brings to the table," says Armstrong. "The city's had a chance to view John over the years as a player and a commentator, and now they'll get a chance to see his most unique skills: his ability to deal with and manage people. He's going to be fantastic at this job."
There's no question, says Paxson, that this Bulls team has great talent. "It's young and it's unharnessed in a lot of ways but it's terrific talent," he says. There are a lot of positives. "We want to win and I think that's the logical next step for these guys. When you're young as a basketball team, you have a lot of built-in excuses. The next step is to put those excuses aside and establish the fact that they're ready to win.
"If Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry, Jamal Crawford and Jay Williams grow as much this next year as they did last year, they're going to surprise themselves," says Paxson. "To me, the only goal is to win. I don't have any other expectations than that."
Paxson is a humble guy who's eager to tap into the talents of those around him. But he has his own philosophy about how the game should be played that's been formed by his experience as a player. When he met with Bulls players just before the team's last game against Philadelphia, he set out his goals: to put a team on the floor that plays hard, plays unselfishly and "has all the traits that I've always admired in a basketball team. I've played for those types of teams and I believe it can be done."
And Pax will always be straightforward about what he wants. "I like to think that over the course of my life, I've proven who I am as a person. I'm not going to change. I can't be someone I'm not and I don't want to be someone else," says Paxson. When he started in radio, he was feeling uncomfortable and unsure. Broadcasting partner Funk gave him some simple advice: be yourself.
"I've tried to do that in that job and I'll try to do it in this job. I'd like to think I'll be direct with people. I have to be who I am and that's really what I'm going to stick to."
- by Anne E. Stein