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Pettiness, Power, And The Chicago Bulls' New Coach

The Chicago Bulls changed coaches in the most pissily passive-aggressive way imaginable. It was exceptionally weird, but not an exception. This is the Bulls' way.
June 2, 2015, 3:50pm
Photo by Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

There is nothing in sports quite so doofy and strange as a championship trophy presentation. That prideful, elated phoosh! of feeling after the final buzzer sounds—happy tears and hugs and spazzing out—is quickly interrupted by the bustling flacks and television producers that descend onto the floor or field or ice and corral the victorious squad onto a dais or carpet where players and coaches impatiently mill about, give perfunctory I just want to thank my teammates answers to a smiling studio host, and try, one at a time, to communicate excitement by shaking a large, shiny object above their heads. For a spell, the natural phenomenon of athletic spectacle gives way to a starkly artificial one. It only sort of emits joy.

This ceremony hits peak awkwardness around the time that the winning team's owner, who is invariably many times richer than he is charismatic, is handed a microphone. What follows is either an empty suit mumbling platitudes about the best fans in the world or an amateur strip club DJ bellowing platitudes about the best fans in the world. No matter the tone, it always gives the impression that this guy's primary contribution to his franchise's success is his ability to large checks. He is walking capital, and little else.

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Most owners would balk at this characterization. It's not enough for them to be experts in real estate or finance or tech; they insist upon being regarded as sports management gurus as well. That's the case with Jerry Reinsdorf, who has confused having the privilege of employing Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Phil Jackson with being a brilliant organizational architect. In doing so, Reinsdorf conveniently forgets that even as the Bulls were racking up titles in the 1990s, he was sowing discontent. He displayed (and continues to display) a transparent contempt for labor that manifested itself most famously and hilariously when he hemmed and hawed over giving the greatest player of all time big money. He also alienated players and coaches by repeatedly refusing to fire general manager Jerry Krause, whom Jordan loathed and who was so pathetically jealous of the credit Phil Jackson received for the team's championships that he openly courted huckster haircut Tim Floyd while Jackson was still on the payroll.

Reinsdorf's hubris and stubbornness just barely permitted the Bulls dynasty to exist, and even ended it prematurely. But that's not the story he tells himself and others. Reinsdorf is fond of a logical fallacy popular among certain types of rich folk: he believes results validate methods absolutely. Bulls fans have this thick-headedness to thank for the abject futility that permeated the years between the Jordan and Derrick Rose eras. Reinsdorf sees those miserable seasons as aberrations. Question that assertion and he'll point to his trophy case.

"What do you mean they're literally all amazing jerks? Why didn't anyone tell me this?" — Photo by Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

History repeated itself last week, when Reinsdorf empowered GM Gar Forman to fire Tom Thibodeau. Once again, a merely competent organizational long-timer outlasted an exceptional iconoclast. Forman, like Krause before him, worked under Reinsdorf for years before being handed the general manager duties in 2011. (Krause was a scout for the Bulls and White Sox in the '70s and '80s; Forman joined the Bulls front office in the late '90s.) Reinsdorf values the opinions of company men above all others—except his own; though their relationship soured by the end, Thibodeau was Reinsdorf's hire, not Forman's. This explains why Forman won his battle of egos against Thibodeau. Thibs might be a defensive genius and a tireless worker, but he's no man's acolyte. It sunk him.

Forman has been agitating to replace Thibodeau with Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg, a former Bulls player, for at least the past couple of offseasons. On Monday evening, Forman finally got his wish and signed Hoiberg to a five-year contract. According to Adrian Wojnarowski, the Bulls' coaching search was "make-believe." They had eyes only for Hoiberg, whose NBA coaching experience amounts to a brief stint as a lower-level assistant with the Timberwolves. He's not a known quantity by any stretch. It's not like the Bulls saw Rick Carlisle was on the market and moved swiftly to secure his services. All we know about Hoiberg is that he was regarded a forward-thinking offensive tactician at Iowa State, and Forman likes him. For these Bulls, that's enough.

The acrimonious, petty manner in which Thibodeau was dumped and reports that the Bulls brought on Hoiberg without earnestly considering any other candidates both speak to Forman possessing a certitude that his most well-regarded contemporaries eschew. General managers make all sorts of decisions—coaching hires, draft selections, expensive free agent signings—with uncertain outcomes. What the best ones do is cast a wide net, gather a bunch of information, and then make as educated a guess as possible. They don't narrow their options unnecessarily. Remember a few years ago, when the Nets traded a pick to Portland that was, curiously, top-three protected because they claimed to like only three players in the 2012 draft? And then the Blazers used that pick to acquire Damian Lillard? More often than not, tunnel vision comes back to bite front office types in the ass.

Jerry Reinsdorf isn't concerned with that maxim. His idea of sound management is rewarding the people who are loyal to him and punishing those who aren't. Gar Forman has been devoted to Reinsdorf for long enough that the GM is now being allowed to hastily replace a great coach he despised with his own, unproven choice. This might turn out to be the right call. Perhaps Hoiberg will enliven the Bulls offense and they'll go toe-to-toe with the Cavs in next year's Eastern Conference Finals. If that happens, it will fit nicely into Chicago's legacy of stumbling into success. Reinsdorf doesn't know what he's doing, but sometimes it looks like he does. That's good enough for him.