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By Sam Smith | 6.2.2015 | 11:10 p.m.
They talk often about heart in sports, though more figuratively–like having a lot of it and playing with it—as opposed to literally, as new Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg did Tuesday like a cardiologist in explaining his heart surgeries, which included a recent one for a value he laughed clicks like crickets in the evening. But mostly the former Bulls player and new coach spoke from the heart in an introductory media conference that should hearten Bulls fans.
“I love this roster,” said Hoiberg, accompanied in about a 50-minute session at the Advocate Center practice facility by wife Carol and four children. “I absolutely love this roster. I love the versatility of the players. The different lineups that we’re going to be able to play; can play small, can play big, You’ve got lineups that I really think can get out and play with pace. You’ve got a great group of veteran players that know how to play. I think Tom Thibodeau is an excellent, excellent basketball coach and I think he instilled a lot of unbelievable qualities in this team that hopefully I can build on. When I look at this young group, players have not only had great seasons as rookies and younger players but also a group that has great potential to be excellent players in this league. You have former all stars, you have current all stars. You have players that I think could eventually become all stars. I understand this league, playing 10 years and working in the front office for four. I know what this league’s all about and that’s the guys. I’m here to do everything I can to support them, work with them and hopefully bring this group to where we’re competing for a world championship.”
It’s not an unusual sentiment for the first day of the basketball honeymoon, which probably won’t be that long for Hoiberg given the uneasy departure of Thibodeau with two years remaining on his contract and the expedited hiring of Hoiberg. But for those more interested in results on the court than debates off it, Hoiberg should have sent your heart pounding with enthusiastic discussion of an enhanced pace of play, three point shooting and transition pick and roll with an expanded roster that seemed to mirror a lot of the best elements of the Golden State Warriors along with likely lineup changes.
Hoiberg obviously was not ready to get into specifics not having met most of the players. But in a confident, direct, relaxed and familiar style, the most recently Iowa State coach sounded ready to move the Bulls forward.
It won’t be easy following Thibodeau, whose Bulls teams over five years won 65 percent of their regular season games and became one of the most respected teams in the NBA. Not to say this is Phil Jackson replacing Doug Collins or Steve Kerr replacing Mark Jackson. Though it’s a good Bulls team, general manager Gar Forman sitting with Hoiberg reiterated it’s unlikely one with any significant personnel changes to come from this past season and just a low first round draft pick. Change likely has to come from within, with attitude, enthusiasm and energy as much as enhanced personnel. Hoiberg, 42, who played for the Bulls during their worst ever period from 1999-2003, embraced the challenge.
“As far as the pressure is concerned, I put probably as much pressure as anybody (on myself) when I went back to my hometown,” said Hoiberg. “A lot of people told me to stay away from that Iowa State job at first because I had somewhat of a good reputation in that community (as a star athlete native), and all you can do is tarnish that. I wouldn’t have taken that job if I felt we couldn’t have gotten it where we wanted, and we accomplished some good things. We didn’t reach all of our goals, but we were pretty darn close. This is a similar situation. I wouldn’t take this job if I wasn’t confident that we can continue to play at a championship level.
“Anytime you make a hire it’s a risk,” Hoiberg added. “I know that from my first time going in with no coaching experience. That was a risky hire at Iowa State. So coming in at this level I know there is some of that: ‘Even though he played 10 years and worked in the front office he never actually sat on that bench and coached a 48-minute game.’ I’m confident in my abilities to do a great job here. I really am. I think we can put an exciting style of play out there to be able to put our players in position to utilize their skill sets to the best of their abilities and hopefully we do that and give ourselves a chance to win and be in a position at this time of year where we are playing our best and can compete for that championship.
“I’ve always run an NBA–type system,” Hoiberg noted. “I’m not coming into this never having experienced NBA basketball. My career was cut short. I was planning on playing hopefully another at least five years. Reality kind of sets in and you move on to the next phase of your life. Those four years in the front office (Minnesota Timberwolves) were as valuable years for me as any I’ve ever had. I played for great coaches, had 10 years as a player. All that went into the philosophy that I put together as a coach. We had the second fastest pace of play in all of college basketball last year. We like to get out and play with pace and play with spacing, I think we ran more pick-and-roll than anybody in college basketball last year. We really like to flow into an offense as opposed to coming down and getting set on every possession. It’s something that has always been my philosophy. We led the Big 12 in three point shooting, the nation in three point shooting a few years back. We had six players average double figures last year. A lot of that was due to the ball movement, the player movement that we had on the offensive side of the floor. So I’m really excited (about Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler). I obviously think those are two of the elite guards in this league right now, and I think those guys going out there, playing off of each other is very exciting for me. I try to have enough things on my plate where we can go out there and take advantage of a mismatch whether you’re a one, two, three, four or five.”
Hoiberg was respectful about his predecessor, noting, “I came through Chicago a couple of years ago recruiting down by the city. I stopped by and I sat in Tom’s office and he was very nice to bring me in. We just talked basketball for a half hour, 45 minutes. That was great. Hopefully when I do see Tom, we will talk about this group.”
There were obviously “communication” issues between Thibodeau and management that led to Thibodeau’s dismissal last week. Hoiberg, who played for Iowa State when Forman was an assistant there under coach Tim Floyd, said he was confident and comfortable with his new bosses. And though there were jokes about the Bulls hiring Hoiberg quickly after what was supposed to be an extensive search, that also does miss the ways of running a franchise.
The job of any manager is always to know who might be next. Even in San Antonio if Gregg Popovich were to leave. It was no coincidence why Thunder general manager Sam Presti was at numerous Florida practices this past season. The job of a team executive is always to be prepared for change as coaching is not a lifetime job. The Bulls would not have been doing their job if they weren’t considering the future no matter who was their coach. Obviously, Hoiberg was atop the list. But Hoiberg insisted even as late as Monday he still wasn’t 100 percent sure he should leave such a secure job with a decade long contract at Iowa State. In fact, league sources said within the last week Hoiberg had an offer from another NBA team saying they would vastly beat any Bulls or other team offer and include a level of personnel control. Hoiberg, however, said the Bulls job, like Thibodeau said five years ago when he passed on the New Orleans job, was one with the most appeal.
“When you’re comfortable in a situation, sometimes, do you mess with that?” Hoiberg said he and his wife asked even this week. “We wrestled with that, all the way, really, until yesterday. I even talked to Carol a couple days ago, and I said, ‘Are we making the right decision here? But we just kept coming back to, you know you want to coach in this league. A lot of coaches don’t walk into this. You don’t walk into a roster that has championship potential, that absolutely can compete at that level in a city that we know, in a city that I think is as good a sports town as any in the world. It’s hard to leave guys you’ve been in trenches with, like we’ve been these last few years. But we are ready for it.
“Any time you make a major life change like we’re making right now, you have to have the full support of your family,” Hoiberg said in a touching scene with his family during opening comments. “It’s really, really been emotional to leave a comfortable situation like we had. My family understands that this has always been my dream. This is my life goal, to get out and coach in the NBA. I’ve talked to a lot of teams. It’s never gotten serious until really this one when the Bulls called. And that’s because of my relationships with the people in this franchise and also because I played here and I’m familiar with it and also the roster. They (family) are really excited about coming to Chicago and sharing this next step of our lives and this journey. Thanks to my family. You guys are everything to me.
The surgery did sound frightening, but Hoiberg spoke about it with ease and elegance as he did during the nearly hour with media. He searched out questioners to answer directly; he remembered the first names of almost everyone who asked. He joked comfortably about his limited role as a player, though he was a talented enough athlete to be recruited as a quarterback by top Division 1 schools and by major league baseball teams. He led a parade of thanks to everyone from Iowa State administration and media to reminding Doug McDermott, who was in attendance, his high school team was better.
Yes, in many respects, he’s still the competitor.
When asked about why he prefers the NBA to college, Hoiberg still lamented the premature end of his playing days.
“Obviously when you are in whatever business you are in you look at the pinnacle of that particular business, and for us as coaches that’s the NBA,” said Hoiberg. “All kids growing up playing basketball, their dream is to get the opportunity to play at the highest level. I got that and I loved every minute of those 10 years. For that career to get cut short was very, very difficult for me. I was stupid enough to think I could go out and play with a pacemaker implanted in my chest because that’s how competitive I was. I wanted to go out on my own terms. That got cut short. I was very fortunate to move into a front office position and I loved those years. But I missed being down there on the floor. I would still play with our guys when I was in Minnesota a couple of years after I had that surgery. I would play and can remember going home to Carol one day and saying, ‘You know what, I think I want to play again.’ And she said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ I wanted to feel that again.
“If there was a danger in me doing this I wouldn’t have taken this job,” added Hoiberg about coming to the stress of the NBA. “My first heart surgery, I had an aneurysm in my aorta, I was very lucky to find out about it. When I looked at it, my danger, as my doctor said, was playing with that condition. Once they found out about it and removed the diseased tissue they removed a chunk of my aorta and replaced that with a Dacron graft and that problem was over. We spared my aortic valve. I’ve said this before I know more about the heart than I thought I ever would, but as the aorta inserts into the heart, into the aortic valve, all of a sudden started to deteriorate over these last years. I fully anticipated on playing again after that first surgery, but my heart went out of rhythm and I had to have a pacemaker implanted. There wasn’t much of a risk, but there was some. I had four young kids at the time. I just didn’t feel like I would go back and play. They said the danger was coaching last year with it. My chamber stayed the same size, which was a great sign. But when the surgeon took that valve out, he said ‘Good thing we did this now because that thing was really damaged.’ I’ve got a new nice mechanical valve. My kids can hear it beat across the room, hear the clicking. It almost sounds like a little bit like a cricket chirping in my chest. The danger was last year. Everything should be fine here moving forward.”
And it does seem so for the Bulls as well.