The Skinny on Vinny
The only son in a close-knit family, Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro grew up down the road from the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA.
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Posted November 5, 2008 | By Anne Stein
From his mom Peg’s point of view, it was clear early on that her middle child Vinny was in love with basketball.
While other boys played with trucks and cars, the future Bulls head coach kept a basketball by his side. Day and night, at school and at home, he was obsessed — and like many a neighbor living next door to a basketball-loving kid, the folks living close to the Del Negros occasionally complained about the noise.
Starting at age 7, Vinny would venture out in his pajamas and start shooting baskets at 7:00 a.m. “He didn’t care about time,” Peg recalls. “When he woke up, that’s what he wanted to do.” One next-door neighbor who often worked nights couldn’t stand the constant thwack-thwack that woke her and called Vinny’s mom.
She told Vinny to buy the neighbor lunch, but the neighbor still complained afterwards. Finally, Peg took a stand: “I told the neighbor (who ended up turning into one of Vinny’s biggest fans) that we bought the house so the kids could play outside, and that I wasn’t going to tell my boy he couldn’t do something he loved.”
The only son in a close-knit family (he’s got an older sister, Theresa, and a younger sister, Nina), Vinny Del Negro, 41, grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, in a middle-class neighborhood called Forest Park. It was a tight-knit street, and five or so families on the block all grew up together, usually hanging out at the Del Negros or another home nearby.
Vinny (with his basketball) and his sisters walked to parochial school each morning, and every Sunday after Mass the extended family would gather at the Del Negros for macaroni, meatballs, chicken, sausages, spare ribs, roasted potatoes, a big salad and Italian cookies and pastries. “We’d sit and talk all afternoon while the kids played,” says Peg.
Dad Vin, a two-time junior college All-American who played for Adolph Rupp at University of Kentucky, taught his son the game’s fundamentals. “Every day, I’d give him a different drill to do and he’d work on it for hours,” recalls Vin. “He was so obsessed. In the summertime we had a pool back there, and a lot of times the neighborhood kids would come over. I’d say, ‘Vinny, why don’t you take a break?’ Everybody would be swimming, but he’d still be outside pounding the ball and shooting hoops. Eventually he’d come in for a minute and take a break.”
Vinny’s obsession led to a few arguments in the house — older sister Theresa was always stuck doing dishes after dinner because Vinny was too busy shooting.
“He was always serious,” says younger sister Nina. “We had two hoops, one regular size and one a little bit lower for him to slam, and he’d always be working the basketball while the rest of us were doing our kid things,” she says.
The hard work, along with playing on three or four CYO teams at a time, eventually paid off. Though Vinny was barely 5’3” his freshman year at Cathedral High School, he made the varsity team. “He was a little floor general,” says Peg.
And Vinny did whatever he could to further his calling. In winter, he shoveled snow to help pay for basketball camp, and in junior high he set up and took down bingo tables each week so he could earn an extra $5, plus have access to a basketball court on afternoons and weekends.
By age 14, the future NBA player had caught the attention of local coaches. Dennis Kinne, who coached basketball at Suffield Academy in nearby Connecticut, expressed interest and invited Vinny’s dad to check out the school, which was only 12 miles from their home. By this time, Dad knew Vinny had something special — but the family was especially interested in the prep school’s strong academic program. Vinny was always incredibly focused when it came to playing basketball, but he was also such a high-energy kid that they felt he’d benefit from Suffield’s small classes and demanding work schedule.
Del Negro made it a top priority to surround himself with an experienced coaching staff. Enter Del Harris, who owns 13-plus seasons of head coaching experience in the NBA and 556 career wins.
Dad checked things out first, talking to Kinne and visiting the school. The next weekend, he brought Vinny to meet the headmaster, the dean and, finally, his future basketball coach. Vinny immediately fell in love with the school.
“I asked him what he thought,” remembers Vin, “and he said, ‘Dad, I know it costs a lot of money. But if I could go there tomorrow I would.’”
Vin questioned his son a little more. “You mean you’d leave your friends?” he asked. “Dad, they’ll stay with me the rest of my life if they’re really my buddies,” young Vinny countered.
Nearly every weekend the Del Negros drove to Suffield to watch Vinny play, and bring him home along with a couple of his friends for Sunday dinner, then send the group back with cookies. In his three seasons there, Vinny led the team to two New England championships, and with 1,166 points became Suffield's all-time leading scorer. And, though many doubted Vinny could make the jump from a Division 3 prep school to a Division I basketball powerhouse, he did, choosing to play at North Carolina State University.
“He learned a lot of life lessons at Suffield,” says Peg, “like how to manage his time. He had to study every night from 7:00 to 9:00, all the kids had to have a job at the school, you had to play three sports and you lived and worked hard in a small community. You were accountable. Those realities established his work ethic.”
He was also a guy who got along with just about everyone, according to his high school coach and teammates from college and the pros. “Vinny’s an even-keeled guy,” says Vin. “He never says a bad word about anyone and even to this day, when we have private conversations (the two talk nearly every day), he’ll defend people and say, ‘The guy’s still a good guy.’ He loves people. He never, never knocks anybody.”
Even when life gets frustrating, Del Negro doesn’t complain; he simply works harder. After arriving at North Carolina State to play for the late Jim Valvano, he spent nearly two-and-a-half seasons on the bench. “He didn’t start and he wasn’t used to that,” says big sister Theresa. There were a lot of phone calls home and encouragement from Dad to keep working hard. “Vinny asked Coach Valvano what he should do, and he’d do it,” Theresa recalls. “Then when he got his chance to play he flourished.”
As usual, he had close family support; Mom and Dad regularly made the 11-hour drive down to watch Vinny play. “We’d leave Friday afternoon, arrive after sometime midnight, go to practice the next morning, go to the game, then get back in the car afterward and head home in order to go to work Monday morning,” explains Peg.
“Vinny got his passion from Valvano,” says Peg. “Coach V would run up and hug you, visit with you, and always check to see how you’re feeling. He had a huge effect on Vinny and everyone else he encountered.”
NC State is also where Vinny met his wife of 17 years, Lynn, who’s been with him from his NBA playing days in five different cities, to his two years in the Italian pro league, to his post-retirement career in radio, television and the Phoenix front office, and now in his new position in Chicago.
While the rest of the sports world was shocked that Del Negro was chosen to be the Bulls head coach, close friends and family weren’t surprised at all, especially Lynn.
“After he left the game, I felt like something was missing,” she says. “Even though he loved his jobs, he didn’t have the passion he used to have. I told him that I thought the competitiveness was missing from his life, and that he should think about getting into coaching.”
Once he started the head coaching interview process (first with Phoenix, then with Chicago), Lynn told her husband that this was what he was meant to do. “I just felt really confident that he’d get the job here.”
Del Negro played four years at North Carolina State and helped direct the Wolfpack to four straight NCAA Tournaments, highlighted by two Elite Eight finishes in 1985 and 1986.
The family first got a hint of what Vinny was thinking back in February, when Suffield Academy retired his jersey. At the big gathering that night, the school showed a career retrospective, with film clips from high school, NC State and Vinny’s pro career.
“I think that was an epiphany for him,” says mom Peg. “He got choked up when he was giving his speech and he talked about missing the game. We all had tears running down our faces. Even the mayor of Springfield was crying because Vinny, who doesn’t usually get emotional, was choked up, and I think that’s when he realized what was missing: the competition of the game.”
“Vinny loves a challenge,” explains his dad. “He was told he wouldn’t make the pros, and to go from college to the pros was unbelievable. To play 12 years in the NBA was unbelievable. Now to see him up there with Pax is unbelievable. But this is what he wants.”
“Vinny always rises to the occasion,” says younger sister Nina. “When he puts his mind to something he gets it done. Coaching was his next goal so I’m not surprised that he’s gotten there.”
Ask Mom what she’s most proud of though, and it’s not his basketball success — that’s God-given talent, she explains.
It’s that he calls his mom, dad and sisters several times each week. It’s that he goes to church each Sunday and that his wife keeps him grounded. It’s that for years he’s quietly donated money and his time to the Brightside Foundation back home, providing computers, books and an art room for abused children.
It’s that he doesn’t judge others based on what someone else says. It’s that he’s still close to the childhood friends he grew up with on Fountain Street. And when he comes home to visit he always goes to his nephew’s hockey games, and if he and Lynn can’t make a holiday or birthday celebration, they always call to join the festivities long-distance.
“He knows he’s been fortunate and he wants to make sure others can achieve too,” says Vin. “He’s going to challenge the players to be more than they think they can be. He’ll befriend and embrace them and hold their individuality in high regard. If they’re not going the right way, he’ll redirect them. He’s going to get these young kids to achieve what they can achieve.”