He’s seen the NBA evolve from an oversized family business into one of the great sports leagues in the world. In that time, he’s mingled with presidents and stars of sports and entertainment and been involved with more championship celebrations than most people even dream about. And he’ll go around a few more times as he’ll be transitioning into retirement.
Oh, yeah, David Stern is retiring, also.
“Irwin Mandel is as knowledgeable a person as there is on team finance and management of the salary cap,” commissioner Stern said in a recent interview about Mandel, the Bulls senior vice president and alternate NBA governor who is winding down this season after 41 years with the Bulls. “He is an inveterate asker of questions. In many ways relentless, but in a positive way. He wants to be satisfied in his knowledge on a particular issue and is a terrific learner.
Irwin Mandel joined the Bulls in 1973 as business manager and controller.
“In his understanding of every aspect of the business and basketball operations,” Stern added, “he has been the complete basketball executive.”
Mandel, 71, like Stern, is using this 2013-14 NBA season as a countdown in his impressive run in the NBA, 41 years with the Bulls as one of the longest serving executives in American team sports with one team. Like Stern, Mandel still will be involved, but not as intimately.
“It’s time,” Mandel said. “I’ve lived a dream. I always loved sports and I said to myself a long time ago, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to combine my educational background with my biggest hobby, which was my interest in sports.’ I’ve been able to do that and I wouldn’t trade a minute of it.”
Mandel, a CPA and attorney, is that mysterious and essential figure in every NBA organization, the salary cap expert whose machinations and understanding of the arcane world of basketball finance goes a long way toward determining a team’s fate in this era.
“Irwin is one of best ever at what he does, and that’s cap management,” said Doug Collins, former Bulls coach and now an analyst for ESPN. “I’ve always said to have a championship team you have to have someone who knows the cap inside out. I’ve always remembered something he told me regarding salaries and the intricacies. He said you can always make something work. You have to decide the price you want to pay. You can do it if you want, but you have to understand the costs.”
It’s, in effect, the definition of modern economics. What do you want to pay for a tax cut, for spending cuts? It’s the way every business and household should operate, though perhaps more scrutinized and analyzed when it is a sports team. The top financial experts provide the alternatives and identify the pot holes along the way in that long, strange trip.
“My philosophy,” says Mandel, “is I’m a company man, but I try to be fair and cooperative. If you are honest and conscientious and work hard and keep your nose straight good things happen. Stay out of political fights, and there have been a number. Be cooperative, get along with everybody and do your job.”
“Irwin Mandel is as knowledgeable a person as there is on team finance and management of the salary cap,” said NBA commissioner David Stern.
Effectively, be a pro.
Herb Rudoy, the Chicago attorney and agent who now represents Luol Deng as his agent, was a law school classmate of Mandel’s at Northwestern. They get on opposite sides at times, in effect, since Rudoy is on the other side of the bargaining table from the Bulls. But Rudoy says he retains so much regard for Mandel’s NBA knowledge he enjoys their discussions.
“He was my go to guy on CBA questions,” said Rudoy. “He’s the most cautious person I know. We’d talk about the salary cap (in general) and even though I knew he knew the answer he’d say he’d call me back to double check. He’s always had the correct answer, a cautious, bright guy who was exactly the same back then.”
That was after growing up on the city’s North side, where the slightly built, bookish Mandel attended Amundsen High School and was student council president and basketball team manager, seemingly born to be an accountant.
He pursued accounting at Northwestern and then earned his law degree from Northwestern. He secured a job in the tax department at Arthur Andersen and it seemed his dream was coming true.
The Bulls were an Andersen client and being sold to a group of seven of the richest men in the U.S. Mandel was assigned to come up with a purchase investigation report analyzing the assets of the organization, however few there were.
It was the so-called “Magnificent Seven” of owners, who were wonderful and successful businessmen, but not exactly sports experts at the time. They included George Steinbrenner, Lester Crown, Lamar Hunt, Jonathan Kovler, Arthur Wirtz and Phil Klutznick.
The owners, who spent much of their time all over the world on their various business interests, liked what they saw in Mandel’s analysis and offered him a job. But the sports world wasn’t as lucrative then as accounting.
In Mandel's office is a photo along with Michael Jordan’s famous $30 million contract with Jordan autographing it, “Irwin, where’s my check?”
But it was sports. And it sounded like fun. Irwin could be a wilder and crazier guy than he appeared.
“I loved sports and I thought, ‘You only live once,’ said Mandel. “My feeling was to do what you love. I was married. I took a pay cut. But my wife, Sheri, backed me and I joined the Bulls in 1973 as business manager and controller (of a staff of six).”
Mandel’s history paralleled the history of the Bulls, as well.
“That team was terrific,” says Mandel, whose office, a virtual Bulls museum, features among the photos one of Norm Van Lier, Jerry Sloan and Bob Love running a fast break. “Unfortunately, we did not have a Chamberlain or an Abdul-Jabbar. Those were the teams we lost to (in the playoffs). But I loved those teams because our opponents were in a battle every time they played us. Those guys gave you every single thing they had. You can’t help but respect and admire people who do that. Opposing guards were afraid to play Sloan and Van Lier.
“The toughest was 1973 when we were leading the Lakers in Game 7 (of the conference semifinals) with three minutes left up six and just couldn’t finish,” recalls Mandel. “Then there was 1977. We won 20 of the last 24 and lost a tight three-game series to the eventual (Trail Blazers) champions. Bill Walton told me years later we were the toughest opponent Portland faced that playoffs.
“Then for six years it was one of the worst teams in basketball,” acknowledged Mandel, though always quietly at the time. “It was tough, embarrassing. We were disrespected. Then we got Michael Jordan.”
And came so close they almost didn’t because Mandel was doing his job so well.
Mandel tells the story on himself of that famous stretch run to the draft in 1984, perhaps the most anticipated draft in years because of the presence of Hakeem Olajuwon. Jordan as well. Teams were scheming for the high picks to lose games, which led to the creation of the lottery the following season. Mandel wasn’t involved in any of that.
A devout family man, Mandel looks forward to having more time to spend with his wife, Sheri, their sons and their grandchildren.
But there was a protest he came up with because the Bulls had lost a game he felt they should have won. Mandel was a Jordan guy. He wanted to win.
The Rockets had made a controversial last second winning shot that was counted. Mandel wrote a protest saying the officials had misinterpreted the rules because they erroneously gave Houston extra time by waiting for the malfunctioning horn to sound. Stern had recently become commissioner and didn’t much want to deal with replaying games. So the protest was denied, though the lead official later told Mandel the Bulls should have won it. The Bulls ended with the loss. Had they won the game they would have been in a coin flip for the third pick in the draft instead of having it. Dallas with Cleveland’s pick took Sam Perkins with No. 4. The Mavs at No. 4 and 76ers at No. 5 at the time were making multiple offers to move up to No. 3 as they were as enthusiastic about Jordan at the time than the Bulls. General manager Rod Thorn liked the prospects of Jordan enough to reject all the offers.
And then it became a heck of a ride for everyone.
Mandel keeps photos in his office of what he considers the seminal moments of that era, first the Jordan shot against the Cavs in 1989, then Jordan’s shot against the Jazz to close the 1998 Finals and John Paxson’s shot in the 1993 Finals.
“That (1989 series) really put him and the Bulls on the map,” says Mandel. “That elevated Michael more than the 1998 shot. My fourth favorite event was of Pippen helping Michael off the court in the 1997 Finals (when Jordan was ill).”
Mandel also has trophies and Champagne bottles from the six titles in his office as well as a water bottle sitting next to them.
“I added that seventh memento, my water bottle from the game, to show when the Bulls won Game 7 in Brooklyn,” Mandel says of last season’s playoffs. “Before the game I thought on paper that was a team that would have lost by 20 points with so many of our best players out. It was an unbelievable victory, one of my favorites. I was so proud of those Bulls. I absolutely wanted to save that water bottle.”
"My philosophy," says Mandel, "is I’m a company man, but I try to be fair and cooperative. If you are honest and conscientious and work hard and keep your nose straight good things happen."
Mandel also has seen and lived NBA history. His office features pictures of him with presidents Bush and Clinton from the championship visits and autographs from the top 50 All-Star game of players like Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, George Mikan and John Havlicek.
And there’s Michael Jordan’s famous $30 million contract with Jordan autographing it, “Irwin, where’s my check?”
“Michael always said that when he saw me,” Mandel said shyly.
“I’d always kid Irwin when I’d see him at the NBA draft camps,” said Collins with a laugh. “He’d know everyone and be talking to all these former Bulls coaches and I’d tell him he knows them because he’s still paying them after they were fired.”
That was from the early disappointing years with that elite ownership group that ended up selling the team just as they drafted Jordan. So much for getting out.
“There was an executive committee of four owners and the way they had it set up was every decision had to be run past those four,” recalls Mandel. “It was an unwieldy system for making decisions because they were so frequently traveling and unavailable. They had been losing a lot of money and wanted out. Lester Crown stayed in, as did the Wirtz family, Lamar Hunt (after the sale). The rest got out.”
Jerry Reinsdorf put together a group to purchase the team.
“The first meeting I had with Jerry Reinsdorf he said, ‘Irwin, tell the people in the office they are safe and you are the safest.’ That made me feel good. For 41 years, it’s been a privilege and highly enjoyable. There’s nobody I would change places with.”
“He was my go to guy on CBA questions,” said Herb Rudoy, the Chicago attorney and agent who now represents Luol Deng, of Mandel, above with his salary cap. “He’s the most cautious person I know. We’d talk about the salary cap (in general) and even though I knew he knew the answer he’d say he’d call me back to double check. He’s always had the correct answer, a cautious, bright guy who was exactly the same back then.”