Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls
Bulls' Bookman nears retirement after 29 years
Long-time Controller recalls a lifetime of memories, friendships
The end of the fiscal year for Bulls Controller Stu Bookman has always been a significant time with a full plate of accounting responsibilities including finalizing budgets and preparing for audits.
But when the 2013-14 fiscal year wraps up this summer, so will Bookman’s 29 year career with the organization.
Bookman’s last day with the team will be July 31, and Monday he presented the honorary game ball prior to the Bulls' 89-77 victory over the Indiana Pacers.
Bookman, 57, is responsible for the organization’s financial information, employee benefits and purchasing. He also oversees the accounting system and staff.
To hear Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf talk about his long-time employee, one word comes to mind: reliable.
“Stuart really is terrific at the job that he does,” said Reinsdorf. “He is just solid, very solid, and he almost always has the answer. On those rare occasions when he doesn’t, he gets it in the shortest time possible.
“If he’s supposed to do something, you know that it is going to get done,” added Reinsdorf of Bookman. “You never had to worry about him getting something wrong.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree from DePaul University in 1978 and becoming a Certified Public Accountant in 1979, Bookman served as senior accountant at Arthur Andersen & Co. in Chicago.
Bookman was assigned to the Bulls audit in the fall of 1980 and stayed on the project team until 1984. Along the way, he developed a working relationship with Irwin Mandel, the team’s Senior Vice President of Financial & Legal, who is also transitioning into retirement this year after 41 years with the Bulls.
Mandel, whose wife, Sheri, taught Bookman in fifth grade, found him to be conscientious, honest and intelligent. So in early 1985, he reached out to gauge Bookman’s interest in the new role of Bulls controller, which was created after Reinsdorf purchased the team.
The Bulls office at the time consisted of roughly 15 people not counting players and coaches. The accounting department consisted of Mandel, an assistant and his secretary.
“I was fortunate to be in the right spot at the right time,” recalled Bookman. “The interview took place at [Irwin’s] house on a very snowy Sunday night where his wife put up all sorts of Bulls paraphernalia on the walls and tables to try and convince me to come. But it didn’t take a lot of convincing at all.
“I was looking to get out of what I was doing, which was internal accounting,” added Bookman. “I love sports, so I jumped at the chance.”
The move made sense professionally for Bookman as he took on developing the team’s accounting department, as well as its expansion and growth. But as he remembers those early years, it was the excitement of being around a professional sports team that made him fall in love with the job from the start.
“It was like being a kid in a candy store,” said Bookman of those days in the Bulls offices at 980 North Michigan Avenue, where he worked until the team moved to the United Center in 1994. “My first week or two with the Bulls, Norm Van Lier walked in the door. We sat down and talked and it was obvious what an exciting opportunity I was in. I sat and talked with Rod Thorn. I got to meet the Michaels and the Scotties and know them a little bit.”
Yes, the Michaels and Scotties refer to Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, who were two guys it was good to know in those days.
The Bulls gradually got better and better in the late 1980s, but couldn’t get past the Detroit Pistons, falling to their nemesis in three consecutive postseason series. Yet, Bookman recalled, there was the sense that things could change should there be another meeting.
“In 1991, we were in the second round of the playoffs when Irwin came up to me and quietly asked me to look into getting an airplane and hotel for a trip to the NBA Finals,” said Bookman. “I said, ‘OK, how many people are going?’ He told me we would take the entire office.”
So Bookman got to work, calling the team’s travel agent to start the process of accumulating facts, figures and numbers. He turned his findings into Mandel, who sent them on to Reinsdorf.
“Jerry said, ‘In the highly unlikely event that we get there, let’s do it and see if we can take everybody,’” said Bookman, noting the team’s cautious and superstitious approach.
The players took it from there, sweeping the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals to earn the organization’s first trip ever to the Finals and a meeting with the Lakers.
“We ended up going to Los Angeles and it was a crazy but wonderful time,” said Bookman. “We were so excited to be going to the Finals, but to win it out there was even better.”
Planning the Finals trips became practically as much of an annual occurrence as tax season during the 1990s for Bookman, who would coordinate five more trips, all of which ended with a championship.
“Given the fact we had Michael and Scottie, I started planning for the 1992 trip in November of 1991,” said Bookman. “I didn’t wait until the last minute. I knew better.”
Though he’ll walk away from the Bulls with six rings, it was the job itself that Bookman has cherished the most all these years. A career that began as an accountant grew into a role with so many additional responsibilities, as Bookman has often assisted on payroll, benefits, insurance and general office needs questions, allowing him to assist employees on a more personal level.
“A man for all seasons for the Bulls. Someone who wore so many hats,” said Mandel of Bookman. “He leaves as the most senior controller in the NBA. Stu is highly competent and intelligent. He has done a great job.”
“Stu really is an organizational person in the truest sense,” said Michael Reinsdorf, the team’s President and COO. “He’s not only taken on the controller role, but he has been the go-to person on so many levels during his time with the Bulls. He cares so much about everyone in the organization and he has served as a de facto human resources person over the last three decades.”
It has hardly ever been just about accounting and budgets for Bookman, and that is what has made the experience so special.
“I’ve loved it because you’re not just doing the same accounting work day after day or month after month,” he said. “You’re doing different things every day, and you’re interacting with every department and numerous people.”
As for his favorite memories, while it would be easy to cite championships or other basketball highlights, it is the camaraderie with his colleagues that means the most for Bookman.
“The memories that I’m going to take away are all the great people I’ve worked with and all the fun I’ve had over the years,” he said. “The Tim Hallams, the Joe O’Neils, the Irwin Mandels, obviously. Karen Umlauf-Stack and Keith Brown. I’ve worked with great people who are great at their jobs. But they’re also fun people to be around.”
It is also the staff in Bookman’s department, a group that includes Denise Aleman, Michele Chambers and Claudia Stevenson. He has worked with this team for more than 16 years, and said he will miss them all dearly.
“It is the people,” Bookman reiterated. “I love what I do. I wouldn’t necessarily think that everyone else would love accounting or human resources or benefits, but I love what I do. And the memories of the people I’ve been around, the jokes over the years and the social atmosphere of our office has been wonderful to be a part of. It’s a fun place to be.”
As for Bookman’s next chapter, he and his wife, Debbie, will move to Florida this summer for a life of golf, free time, biking, walks, enjoying the weather and simply embracing a slower pace.
“He’s been a fatherly type figure for a lot of people in our office and it’s not going to be the same without him,” said Michael Reinsdorf. “But I’m excited for him. I admire the position he’s in, and I know that he’ll make a great life for himself in Florida.”
“He is respected by all and will be sorely missed by all,” said Mandel. “He is also a terrific person and friend. Everyone is jealous of him getting to retire to Florida at age 57.”
“Maybe it is crazy to retire before 60,” said Bookman. “But I want to enjoy the time that I have because nobody is promised tomorrow.”