John Paxson turns an error into a big hit
By Lacy J. Banks firstname.lastname@example.org March 7, 2011 11:54PM
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
John Paxson played on the Bulls’ first three championship teams and was an assistant coach for the 1995-96 champions who won an NBA-record 72 regular-season games.
From 2003 to 2009, Paxson served as the Bulls’ general manager, and his drafting of small forward Luol Deng, center Joakim Noah and point guard Derrick Rose — the NBA’s No. 1 pick in 2008 — is providing the foundation of the Bulls’ newest title-contending team.
But if drafting these players was Paxson’s best decision as general manager, his physical assault against former coach Vinny Del Negro, whom he later fired, was his worst.
“It never should have happened, and I never should have done it,” Paxson said Monday. “It was a heat-of-the-moment thing, and I was very frustrated with the way we were playing.
“What also disappointed me is that [Del Negro] never owned up to making a mistake. That says more about him than it does me. I was trying to protect my player [Noah, who was coming back from injuries], I did it in the wrong way and I’m not proud of that.”
But if choking and jabbing Del Negro was the price Paxson had to pay to hire rookie coach Tom Thibodeau, then the Bulls appear better for the “mistake.”
“Tom came in with a positive plan and a belief system from the start, and he has adhered to that.” Paxson said. “He’s done the best job in the league.”
Now, as basketball operations chief, Paxson — working in tandem with general manager Gar Forman, Thibodeau and their players — is helping to make the Bulls title contenders again.
It was 20 years ago that Paxson helped lead the Bulls to their first title. So he knows all about the importance of a solid foundation.
When Michael Jordan joined the Bulls as the NBA’s No. 3 pick in 1984, he quickly was disenchanted with a roster he called “the Looney Tunes.”
While that team was the most physically talented Jordan had played with up to that point, it also featured players who used cocaine, others who drank and partied too much, and also some slackers interested more in how much they got paid rather than how well they played.
That’s why when Jerry Reinsdorf purchased the Bulls in March 1985 and hired general manager Jerry Krause to build a championship team around Jordan, Krause already knew the first acquisition he would make seven months later. It would be a 6-2, free-agent shooting guard.
“I wanted to get John Paxson as the first player to team with Jordan,” Krause said. “John was a graduate of Notre Dame, a tough competitor and a smart team player with an outstanding work ethic. While we had a team of characters, John was a man of outstanding character. I knew he would play well with Michael.”
Forward Sidney Green, another player on that team, applauded the addition of Paxson.
“Drug use was pretty rampant at that time, and there was a lot wrong with the Bulls,” Green said. “But Krause fixed it.
“Paxson was a great teammate who was taught the game well. He was reliable, and he helped bring out the best in his teammates because he read defenses well, was a good shooter and never played beyond what his talent demanded.”
Indeed, six years, four head coaches and about 60 teammates after being signed, Paxson validated Krause’s trust by helping Jordan lead the Bulls to the 1991 NBA championship — the first of six in eight seasons. In the ’91 Finals, Paxson shot 65 percent from the field, and he scored 20 points on 8-for-8 shooting in the decisive Game 5 against the Lakers.
“That was my best playoffs and my best game ever,” Paxson said. “And winning that first championship was the best thing I could have hoped for.”