After carrying out a lengthy and thorough search for a new coach, Bulls Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson became convinced the best candidate for the job was arguably the most unconventional—first-timer Vinny Del Negro.
(Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)
Posted August 14, 2008 | By Conrad Theodore
Talk about impressive. For a guy with no coaching experience, Vinny Del Negro confidently stepped into the United Center and received his very first victory in front of a packed house.
The date was June 11, 2008. The place was the Chicago Stadium Club on the United Center’s 200 Level. The opponent, if you will, the assembled media, was ready to dissect the surprise hiring decision of the Bulls’ 17th head coach in franchise history.
The fifty minutes Del Negro and Bulls Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson spent in front of rolling cameras and tape recorders at Del Negro’s introductory news conference went off as well as they could possibly have hoped. Del Negro was poised and ready, answering every question openly and self-assuredly while displaying his heartfelt enthusiasm—a signature trait that ultimately helped land him the coveted Bulls job.
Del Negro, 41, played 12 of his 14 professional seasons in the NBA and comes to the Bulls organization after two years in the Phoenix Suns’ front office. He didn’t back away from the issue of never having coached at any level.
“Obviously, this is thinking a little outside of the box,” Del Negro said. “But I can tell you, once you get to know me you’ll understand what I’m about in terms of what I do in preparation, organization and attention to detail.”
Bigger names in the business such as Mike D’Antoni and Doug Collins were linked to the Bulls’ position in the past several weeks. But, when they didn’t pan out, Paxson took another point of view.
“The further I got into the process, the more I started thinking along the lines that you don’t always have to look at things in a conventional way, the way that satisfies the mass of people,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘Why not go outside the box? Why not take a chance?’ It’s not something that hasn’t been done before.”
Truth be told, several organizations have done just that. Doc Rivers, Larry Bird, Avery Johnson and Phil Jackson all posted successful rookie coaching seasons with little or no experience under their belts. But this isn’t about Paxson making a case for general-manager-of-the-year honors by finding a diamond in the rough. This is simply about taking a team that suddenly and unexpectedly derailed, and finding the best way to place it back on course.
“I want our guys to get their swagger back and come ready to compete,” explains Paxson. “They have a lot to prove after last season. That’s their mindset, and I think Vinny can help them.”
So exactly how is Del Negro going to build their confidence back up?
Del Negro played a little over 12 seasons in the NBA, six of which were in San Antonio, and his heady play with the Spurs led to his being named one of the 25 best players in franchise history.
(Lou Capozzola/NBAE/Getty Images)
Without having the chance yet to sit down and talk individually with each player, Del Negro didn’t want to discuss specifics about any one person but did say he’s incredibly excited with the versatility in the roster. And having the number one overall pick in the NBA Draft is an incredible, welcome surprise.
As for his on-the-court philosophy, Del Negro stresses defense first and foremost, stating that all great teams have defensive resolve.
“Offensively, there’s no question my philosophy is to play the game fast and quick. When you play fast, there’s an unpredictability to basketball. That’s what makes it exciting and interesting.”
Del Negro’s personal basketball career has been exciting, interesting and, well, revolving. After playing four years at North Carolina State under Coach Jim Valvano, he went on to play for five NBA teams in 12 seasons (Sacramento, San Antonio, Milwaukee, Golden State and Phoenix). He also played two seasons overseas in Italy.
When Del Negro finally did retire, he was approached by several teams asking if he’d like to get involved in the coaching ranks. But the timing just wasn’t right, as he wanted to spend more time with his wife and family after so many years on the road. So instead, Del Negro made a transition into television, covering the NBA for ESPN, and then later as a broadcaster for the Spurs and Suns.
He eventually moved into the front office as a scout, director of player personnel and finally assistant general manager for the Suns.
“So as far as coaching goes, it’s always been in the back of my mind. When I played, whether at the point guard position or off guard, I felt like I was a student of the game and another coach on the floor,” Del Negro adds. “This isn’t something that just came into my mind. This has been a twenty-year process for me and it just kind of happened quickly so people are having a hard time grasping it a little bit.”
Paxson and Del Negro have known each other casually for over 20 years. Their basketball relationship grew stronger in March 2007, when both traveled to China to scout now-Milwaukee Bucks forward Yi Jianlian and talked for hours about basketball.
When last season came to an end and Jim Boylan was released from his coaching duties, a list of potential coaching candidates was put together, but Del Negro’s name wasn’t initially on it. Paxson simply hadn’t heard he was interested. In fact, Paxson had no knowledge until he spoke to Del Negro during the NBA’s annual Orlando Pre-Draft camp, which occurred in late May.
“Steve Kerr (general manger of the Suns) gave me permission to speak to him,” confirms Paxson. “I also interviewed a few other guys who haven’t coached before—Mark Jackson and Jeff Hornacek, and a couple that people still don’t even know about,” Pax says smiling.
In a twist of fate, Del Negro played under two of the most successful coaches ever in Bulls history—Dick Motta (No. 2, 356 wins), during his second year in the league back in 1989-90 with Sacramento; and Scott Skiles (No. 3, 165 wins), towards the end of his career with the Phoenix Suns in 2000-01.
(Motta: Jim Gund/Getty Images)
Steve Kerr echoes the same belief about his former coworker. “Vinny is really good with people, a great communicator. That’s why I think he’ll be good with a young team like the Bulls.”
The advantage Del Negro believes he had from the beginning of the process was the instant comfort factor he had with Paxson. “When we started talking, it felt like five minutes,” recalls Del Negro. “Then you turn around and discover that we’d been talking for three and a half hours.”
The comfort level around the Chicago area may take a bit more time. Many initially raised an eyebrow when Del Negro’s hiring was confirmed. As Paxson himself had said early in the coaching search, the candidate he hired had to resonate with Bulls fans. So what was Del Negro’s reaction upon hearing more than a few concerns at his lack of experience?
“I think that’s fair. Hey, I didn’t coach before,” Del Negro says candidly. “Those are fair questions. I don’t have a problem with that. I have a challenge ahead of me to prove myself. That’s what I’m all about. It’s a tremendous challenge, a huge challenge, but I feel very confident. I can control three basic things: I know this team will be well conditioned. I know they’ll be well prepared. And I definitely know that they’ll be competitive.”
As for himself, having all the tools to be the best coach possible is something he’s still in search of but dedicated to find before the start of the season.
“Do I feel totally prepared right now? No,” he answers openly, “And that bothers me. But by the time these decisions need to be made, I’ll be ready.”
Del Negro played for a lot of coaches during his career, including Greg Popovich, George Karl, John Lucas, Scott Skiles and Bob Hill. He spoke about learning from each of them. Some were better at the defensive end and others on offense. Some had great strengths and he learned from others by their weaknesses. And some, like Valvano, would best be categorized as a life coach.
“If he spoke to you before a game and said, ‘Vinny, you can run through that wall,’ you really believed him.” Del Negro remembers about his Valvano days. “That was his presence, his personality. It was very, very unique.”
Never one to shy away from battle, Del Negro’s hard-nosed approach to winning basketball will be a perfect fit in Chicago.
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
“Vinny is the right guy for us going forward,” he says matter of factly. “I made this comparison. I was on the team here in 1986 when the Bulls hired Doug Collins, and he had no coaching experience. At that time, our team needed energy and enthusiasm—somebody who would push but be there and have your back. Doug was like that. And there’s a positive vibe about Vinny that he’ll do that too.”
Managing personalities is perhaps the biggest challenge to every NBA coach. The Bulls plan to surround Del Negro with experienced assistants, but getting inside the players’ heads to allow them to once again believe is what has excited Paxson the most about his new coach.
“Vinny comes off knowing what he’s about—having an understanding of today’s players. The player development component of this business is major right now—especially when you’re a young team. I believe he’s going to make our young players better.”
As Del Negro mentioned numerous times during his introductory press conference, this is going to be a process, and everything can’t get done in just one day.
“My job as a new coach is to surround myself with the most qualified staff we can put together, let them do their jobs, and continually build on that process.”
Although Del Negro has made it clear that he’s not a magician, Paxson and the rest of Chicagoland are hoping he’ll help put a little magic back into the United Center.
“We lost our spirit last year,” Paxson bottom lines it. “When I talk to our fans, the criticism I often hear is we didn’t play hard. Like them, I won’t accept that, and neither will Vinny.”