Del Negro brings 'intrigue' to Bulls
After being formally introduced as the Bulls' surprise pick for head coach, Vinny Del Negro took some time to remember his college coach, the late Jim Valvano at North Carolina State.
"(I remember) not playing a lot my first two years and going to him and saying, 'What do I need to do to play better and be better?' " Del Negro said.
"He would tell me and we would play darts and eat popcorn in his office. He'd be smoking a cigar and tell me what to do, and I'd go do it."
This was a controversial choice because no coaching experience is printed on Del Negro's resume. Since retiring as a player, he has been a broadcaster, player-personnel director and assistant to Phoenix Suns general manager Steve Kerr.
Del Negro bears a strong resemblance to former "Happy Days" star Scott Baio, making Wednesday's gathering feel a bit like the pilot episode of a new reality show, "Vinny Del Negro is 41 and an NBA coach for the first time."
But when general manager John Paxson's explanations were coupled with Del Negro's fond memories of hanging out in Valvano's office, the unconventional hire began to make sense.
"He's going to get involved with the players," Paxson said. "He's going to invest time in them. That's what today's players want. The X's and O's, he's not done it before, but his ideas are very good. They're creative. The philosophy he has in his mind is intriguing to me."
So when Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas are feeling down, will they be welcome to hit coach Del Negro's office for popcorn and darts?
"Popcorn, definitely," Del Negro joked, adding that he's unsure about the dart board. A violent video game might be more appropriate for the times.
While Paxson spoke about Del Negro, he also shared an impression of what went wrong last season when the Bulls posted a disappointing 33-49 record under two coaches, Scott Skiles and Jim Boylan.
"As I went through (the search process), I was looking for a lot of different qualities," Paxson said. "But I think our guys last year did not play with any 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 the basketball court, because I believe we have talent. I thought something was missing last year and a lot of it was the passion and enthusiasm of our players on the floor."
Del Negro grew up in Springfield, Mass., with two sisters. His father, Vinny, played basketball for Adolph Rupp at Kentucky in 1958-59, then owned a bar and package liquor store for 40 years. He passed a love of basketball along to his son.
"I would show Vinny one drill during the day and I'd go to work or whatever and come back, he'd still be doing it three or four hours later," the senior Del Negro said Wednesday. "He had a passion for the game."
The younger Vinny left home at age 14 to attend a prep school in Connecticut, Suffield Academy. He took recruiting visits to DePaul and Illinois State before settling on North Carolina State. Del Negro then began a long playing career that included 12 seasons in the NBA and three in the Italian league.
In his newest role, Del Negro will be met with a strong dose of skepticism. The Bulls bypassed several experienced and successful coaches to give Del Negro his first chance to sit at the front of the bench.
"That's fair. I haven't coached before," Del Negro said. "I have a challenge ahead of me to prove myself, and that's what I'm all about."
Paxson's response to the skepticism was basically "Wait and see."
"Believe me, I knew how it would be received, but you don't worry about those things when you feel it's the right thing," Paxson said. "Something was there that we liked. You can't always define it."
Del Negro's first order of business will be to set up meetings with all the Bulls' players. He also will begin to assemble an experienced coaching staff.
"I think the first thing is, you have to communicate with the players and gain their trust," Del Negro said. "There's no timetable on that. There's no magic ball or magic creation. I'm going to try to make it happen as quick as I can.
"At times as a coach, you have to be a disciplinarian. At times, you have to put your arm around them."
Del Negro described his basketball philosophy as defense first, because all successful teams have some level of defensive resolve. Then he plans to run the offense as quickly as the young roster allows.
"Do I feel totally prepared right now? No. That bothers me," he added. "But by the time the decisions are made, I will be."