With much to prove, Del Negro grabs Bulls by the horns
It's only fitting that new Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro spent the Labor Day weekend back in Phoenix with his wife, packing up belongings for the move to their new residence in Chicago. Since his surprise hiring in June as the Bulls' new coach, the former NBA guard and Suns assistant GM has barely stopped moving as he goes about getting ready for his first season as a coach at any level.
"It's been a bit of a whirlwind," he says with a chuckle.
From working with rookie point guard and No.1 overall pick Derrick Rose and assembling a coaching staff (Del Harris, Bernie Bickerstaff, Bob Ociepka, Pete Myers) to guiding the Bulls' summer league entry in Orlando and tossing out the first pitch at a White Sox game, Del Negro has been getting a crash course in the basics of NBA head coaching.
"There's a lot that goes into it," he says. "I'm just trying to get as organized and prepared as possible."
To say that Del Negro's hiring was greeted with shock by many in the NBA would be an understatement. While he had enjoyed a notable NBA playing career as a scrappy guard for 12 years with five teams, he had not gone into coaching after retirement. Instead, Del Negro, 41, had worked as a TV analyst and player personnel director.
While highly unusual, Del Negro's quick trip to the top job is not entirely unprecedented. Pat Riley, Billy Cunningham, Larry Bird, Doc Rivers and Avery Johnson are examples of NBA head coaches who made a successful jump with little or no experience. Bulls GM John Paxson also cites the example of Doug Collins as a reason why fans should give Del Negro a chance.
"I was on the team here in 1986 when the Bulls hired Doug Collins, and he had no coaching experience," Paxson told the team's website. "At the time, our team needed energy and enthusiasm -- somebody who would push but be there and have your back. Doug was like that. And there's a positive vibe about Vinny that he'll do that, too."
Paxson had known Del Negro casually for 20 years before offering him the job. The two also had a chance to discuss coaching philosophies two years ago while taking a flight back from China, where they had scouted Yi Jianlian. Paxson spoke to Del Negro again at the annual pre-Draft camp in Orlando last May, and learned enough over subsequent meetings to become convinced that he was the right man for the job.
Kings director of player personnel Jerry Reynolds, who was Del Negro's first head coach when he broke into the league with Sacramento as a rookie out of N.C. State in 1988, praises Paxson for thinking outside the proverbial box. Reynolds calls Del Negro a "smart player" and a "good guy." He also points out that with experienced assistants in Harris and Bickerstaff to handle some of the Xs and Os, Del Negro can focus on getting the most out of his players.
"Red Holzman used to say, 'It's not about the Xs and Os,'" Reynolds recalls. "'It's about the Jimmies and Joes.'"
Along those lines, Del Negro has made getting to know his players a main focus of his summer. He has met with every Bull except Andres Nocioni, who was busy playing for his native Argentina in the Olympics. Del Negro says he has spoken with Nocioni on the phone, however.
Not surprisingly, Del Negro has also spent considerable time with Rose. He got a chance to coach Rose for two games in the summer league in Orlando before the rookie prospect shut it down with knee tendinitis. Del Negro then flew out to Las Vegas to watch Rose play for the U.S. Olympic select team that helped prepare Team USA before the Beijing Olympics.
"I got a chance to be around him a little bit, to get to know him more," Del Negro says. "I can tell you, he's a great kid, a great worker and tremendously gifted. He's got so much skill. Point guard is the most difficult position to adjust to, but he's smart and hard-working, so it's only a matter of time."
Del Negro also says he has maintained contact with free agent guard Ben Gordon, who has been working out in Chicago while awaiting a new contract.
"We had lunch together after a workout," Del Negro says. "Obviously I'm not involved in the negotiations. That's between the Bulls and Ben. But I told Ben that I want him back. He's been a big part of the Bulls the past few years. But there's a business side of things, too. Hopefully things will work out."
As for his preferred style of play, Del Negro says he expects the Bulls to be defensive-oriented, physical and aggressive while looking to push the ball up and down the court offensively.
"We'll switch it up depending on the lineups," he says. "But I think we've got such versatility defensively with Luol Deng's length, and guys like Thabo Sefalosha and Larry Hughes. And we've got guys who can guard a couple positions, like Derrick and Kirk Hinrich. So there is a lot of flexibility there.
"And if we make stops, we can get it up and down the court and make the game fun for the players, and fun to watch."
Del Negro knows there are serious doubts in Chicago and around the NBA about his ability to step right in and be a successful head coach. But he also knows there were many who questioned his abilities as a player at N.C. State and during his NBA career. Just as he did back then, Del Negro says he will work hard to prove the critics wrong.
In the meantime, Del Negro has some more moving to do. On Saturday, he will be back in his office in Chicago. In a few weeks, all the preparations and groundwork will be over. Then it will be just him, his staff and his players.
"I wouldn't say [I feel] nervous. I just feel there's a lot more we need to do to get organized and prepared," he says. "Every day I feel a little better in every aspect.
"But I also realize you're never going to have all the answers or call the perfect play every time. You just have to go with your gut feeling and do the best you can."