Former NBA exec Pfund knows magic formula for running Lakers
The recent death of Chicago broadcasting legend Chet Coppock brought back a bittersweet memory for Wheaton native Randy Pfund.
Pfund recalled an interview he did on Coppock's radio show during the 1991 NBA Finals between the Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. It was the Bulls' first Finals appearance and Pfund was on hand as a Lakers assistant coach.
"I said I had no idea that after all the years rooting for Chicago teams that my part of a Chicago championship would be to be on the other team," Pfund said with a laugh. "They finally won something, but I'm on the other team."
Pfund was part of three NBA championships, however. He was an assistant when the Lakers won titles in 1987 and '88, then was general manager when the Miami Heat won in 2006.
It was an impressive journey as Pfund went from star point guard at Wheaton College, where he played for his father Lee, to suburban high school coach, to joining the Lakers' bench under Pat Riley.
A short stint as head coach of the Lakers during the post-Showtime era was a thankless job and Pfund was replaced late in his second season by none other than Magic Johnson. Johnson lasted just 16 games as head coach, finishing the 1992-93 season, and he didn't even match Pfund's winning percentage.
With a history of coaching Magic, working for the Lakers and serving as an NBA general manager, Pfund has good insight into Johnson's abrupt resignation as Lakers president of basketball operations last month.
"I think he likes the ambassador role," Pfund said in a phone interview. "It was hard for him not to be able to speak to players who were reaching out to him because of the (tampering) rules. In my mind, that's 75 percent of it, probably. He likes being an ambassador and a friend to everybody more than he does having to live within all the NBA rules. Good for him."
During his impromptu news conference announcing the resignation, Johnson said he wanted to "go back to who I was before." Then he went on ESPN this week and added more to the story, accusing Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka of "backstabbing" him by suggesting Johnson didn't spend enough time in the office.
Clearly, there was a strange dynamic in the Lakers front office. While Johnson represented the Showtime Era, Pelinka used to be Kobe Bryant's agent. So there were essentially two Lakers legends competing for the ear of owner Jeanie Buss.
Meanwhile, Buss still has a relationship with former coach Phil Jackson, who had current Lakers senior basketball adviser Kurt Rambis on his staff for several years. Johnson also accused president of business operations Tim Harris of trying to get involved in basketball decisions. It's no wonder the Lakers had trouble settling on a new coach.
"The thing that struck me the day all the Magic stuff went down, I'm always amazed at how many organizations do not have a clear plan on who the ultimate decision-maker is," Pfund said. "I don't know exactly what happened in L.A., that may have been more Magic not wanting to be in that job.
"But over and over in the NBA you hear these stories of when it comes down to making a decision, is it the head coach, is it the GM, is it the president? The one thing good about us, there was no doubt who was making the decisions for us and that was Pat."
Pfund is referring to Riley, his boss with both the Lakers and Heat. Pfund was general manager, but all decisions went through Riley, who bounced back and forth between head coach and an executive in Miami. Pfund left the Heat in 2008.
"One of the main reasons I left Miami was I originally thought Pat would be happy just letting me kind of run things and he could make the decisions once he stopped coaching," Pfund said. "But he wanted to be in there working. It was like we were bumping into each other every time.
"I'm like, 'Pat, this isn't going to work. Maybe I should just step aside, because you want to be making these decisions and you're not coaching anymore, so you're full into this.' Pat's a worker. A lot of guys want to be able to make some of those decisions, but they're not necessarily willing to (do the work)."
Pfund didn't mean that last line as a knock on Johnson, just a description of what he saw work in Miami. The Bulls seem to have the single-voice plan figured out. John Paxson has made most of the decisions since 2003, although that duty did shift over to Gar Forman for a few years during the Tom Thibodeau era.
Riley helped deliver three championships for the Heat -- one with Dwyane Wade as the main star in 2006, then two more after adding LeBron James and Chris Bosh in free-agency.
"I think it was Jerry Buss' parting gift to Pat that we got Shaq," Pfund said, referring to the late Lakers' owner and the trade that preceded the '06 title. "I don't know if Jerry West would have traded him. Buss and Pat always got along really well. I think that worked in our favor that they were willing to trade us Shaq and get him out of the Western Conference, which really helped us get that first championship."
And it was the superstar moment for Wade, the player the Bulls thought they were going to draft in 2003. In Part 2 tomorrow, Pfund shares the inside story of the '03 NBA Draft.