Smile Politely

Vinny the Bull

Well, so much for Doug Collins. On Wednesday, the Bulls announced the hiring of their new head coach, a head coach with no head coaching experience, no assistant coaching experience, really, zero coaching experience of any kind: Vinny Del Negro. After peaking fans’ interest by capturing the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft, the Bulls trampled any momentum the franchise had going for it with the filling of this vacancy.

Vinny, you may recall, was a starting guard for Bob Hill and Gregg Popovich’s Spurs teams of the 1990s. He made it to the brink of the NBA Finals in 1995 as San Antonio lost to the Rockets of Olajuwon and Drexler. His 12-year career was, for the most part, unmemorable, which is the same word I would choose to describe his time off the court since his retirement in 2002. Still, his rise to head coach has been notable, if for no other reason than he’s made it here in three rather large steps. Vinny went from Suns radio commentator, to director of Phoenix’s player personnel then assistant G.M., to head coach of the Bulls. At 41 years old, he’s a relative young’un among his ranks. Only the Nets’ Lawrence Frank, the Cavs’ Mike Brown and the Pistons’ and Heat’s new hires, Michael Curry and Erik Spoelstra, are younger.

I’ve subjected myself to a private screening of several minutes of the team’s press conference to announce the hiring of Vinny. Bulls G.M. John Paxson began with a lengthy introduction, in part to initiate the defense of his selection, and in part to prolong an unnecessary build to one of the more snooze-worthy climaxes to a seven-week-long coaching search in the history of sports.

“I was looking for a lot of different qualities [in a coach],” Paxson said, not indicating if someone born in the hometown of basketball, Springfield, Mass., was one of them. “Our guys last year did not play with a lot of confidence. They were kind of beaten down. I was looking for someone who had leadership ability, who could communicate and bring them to a higher level on a basketball court.”

Gee, maybe there is a reason why so many college athletes major in communications. One day, they may find a sucker of a G.M. ready to hand them the reigns to an NBA franchise. In all seriousness, that comment does suggest that Scott Skiles’ shortcoming was an inability to relate to his players. And possibly, the gift of gab is just what this youthful Bulls team needs. It certainly did the trick on Paxson.

Of his conversations with Paxson, Vinny recalled, “You felt like you were talking for five minutes, and you turn around and you were talking for three-and-a-half hours.”

Let’s hope Vinny is as smooth of a talker when it comes to convincing Joakim Noah to stay away from the police blotter and Tyrus Thomas to remain focused for 30-plus minutes a night.

“Vinny just came off as knowing what he’s about, having an understanding of today’s player,” Paxson continued. “The player development component of this business is major right now, especially when you’re a young basketball team. I believe he’s going to make our young players better.”

Well, at least we can rest assured that Vinny won’t suffer an identity crisis midway through the season and need excessive counseling to find his bearing. Paxson did acknowledge that the fans are giving him a hard time over the no-name hire. In doing so, he suggested that time will heal all wounds. Of course, in the trigger-happy world of NBA general managers, time is precious. So Vinny better roll up his sleeves and commence the miracle working.

“Do I feel totally prepared right now? No,” Vinny concluded. “And that bothers me.”

Uh, me too, Vinny, me too.

In all fairness, it seems Bulls fans are eager to dislike Vinny strictly for his lack of a coaching résumé, as if he is just some dude off the street who discovered he had the last Golden Ticket. Maybe a few are a tad jealous that they weren’t interviewed by Paxson. I’m sure there are probably some “coaches” in the Chicagoland area that are grumbling under their breath right now, having astonishingly led their church-league teams to an undefeated season.

But the truth is, it’s hard for me to muster much dislike for Vinny. (Paxson is another matter entirely.) Right now, I don’t know squat about what Vinny is capable of doing, nor what his best intentions may be. I’ll accept him at his word that he plans to up the tempo on offense, and await his assistant coaching hires. I’m sure he’s already received a few phone calls from YMCA Pee Wee league coaches around the state.

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