Sunday, April 19, 2020

A Review of GarPax's Most Infernal Intrigues and Bone-Crunching Physical Assualts

Sports may be shut down, arenas may be empty, and the entire world might be on quarantine, but that will not stop the intrigue gears from spinning at Bulls Headquarters.  One of the only meaningful pieces of sports news-- that is to say sports news divorced from the pandemic and the eternal question of when sports will start up, whether billionaire owners will deign to pay stadium support staff, and what sorts of choreographed line dances professional athletes are tik toking in their estates-- is that the Bulls, in a seemingly impossible coup, have hired a new front office.  They brought in Denver GM Arturas Karnisovas as Vice President of Basketball Operations, sidelined John Paxson into a reportedly salaried position to sort of hang out, and finally hurled Gar Forman into a crevasse in the crust of the earth.

This being the Bulls, reporting has suggested that the change came from Paxson.  Only on the Bulls can change come from an executive finally deciding to scheme against the only opponent strong enough to beat Paxson in a bureaucratic battle-- himself.

There have been millions of words by aggrieved Bulls fans written on the internet about the Paxson and Forman years, but while it is important to lament the various Doug McDermott trades throughout the years, I'm more drawn to the atmosphere of paranoia and dread surrounding the organization as it retreated further into a sclerotic decline that led to people screaming FIRE GARPAX at Stephen A. Smith as he attempted to interview Zach LaVine.  So, here are some episodes and vignettes as a review of the Garpax era.

Randy Brown's Espionage Cell Activated to Pass Crucial Intelligence About Fred Hoiberg

"Gar has never come to me and said, 'Hey, Randy, I want you to be a spy in Fred Hoiberg's locker room.' That doesn't even sound right. Gar and Pax (executive vice president John Paxson) would never ask me to do that. And Fred Hoiberg knows that." Randy Brown to the Chicago Tribune, Feb. 4, 2017.

Rumors circulated among allegations from Jimmy Butler and somehow Rip Hamilton that assistant coach and former Jordan-era Bull Randy Brown was a spy in the locker room for Gar Forman, who recruited him to play for New Mexico in the 1980s.  These players accused Brown of discussing the inevitably complicated Bulls locker room politics to Forman and, we can assume, strategically hiding in lockers, using DNA from discarded towels to have facial reconstruction surgery when he needed to disguise himself as Jerian Grant, locking himself in the trunk of Robin Lopez's car in order to compile a dossier of rides he likes at Six Flags Great America, and doing "wet work" when it was necessary to destroy one of Paul Zipser's knees because he had badmouthed Forman in a German-language newspaper not understanding the reach of Forman's network on the Continent.

Many basketball teams have had fucked up, dysfunctional locker rooms.  Few have approached the truly operatic feuding between various camps of players, coaches, and the omnipresent front office than the Three Alphas Era Bulls that resembled the feuding component states of the Holy Roman Empire.  But there are also few teams that have had so many allegations of spying from the front office; this is not even my favorite or funniest incidence of alleged espionage from the Bulls.

Everyone involved has denied these allegations, but I just want anyone reading this to think about Gar Forman, dressed like a German walk signal, silently passing papers to undercover basketball operatives at the United Center-adjacent Billy Goat Tavern while saying cryptic passwords like "it feels like spring so often for one week in February" that tell the person to compile a detailed report on whether Fred Hoiberg is getting through to Denzel Valentine.

Bulls Players Open Roaring, Grunting, Shaking Shipping Crate, Unleash Jim Boylen

The Bulls fired Fred Hoiberg and then, arriving from a secure basketball coaching facility, was a flesh-skulled maniac wailing and gnashing its teeth and demanding wind sprints.  Boylen had been on Hoiberg's staff and had won a championship as one of Gregg Popovich's assistants, but I don't think anyone had seen this coming, this surreal mutant gym teacher taking over the Bulls and immediately wreaking so much havoc that the players needed to form a bureaucratic structure for Corporate Governance in an attempt to shield themselves from him.

Jim Boylen has to be one of the funniest coaches in NBA history.  I have often written about sports coaching as a position bereft of dignity-- it is difficult for someone to become a gris eminence when there are hundreds of hours of footage of that person screaming at officials, throwing clipboards, sniping at beat reporters, and sweating through the suits that they have to wear for some reason; the price that coaches pay for exorbitant salaries and fame is that they are some of the few people whose apoplexy gets captured repeatedly by cameras, and they also are constantly subjected to having Stan from Glen Elyn call into sports talk radio every day and talk about how incompetent they are while trying not to get into an accident on the Eisenhower Expressway.  But Boylen has done himself no favors-- he comes across as an oaf, a boob, a strange maniac who regardless of his knowledge about basketball has seemed to also be a person who has no idea how to connect with people, handle the press, or exist in a human society that is not solving problems with through a ritual combat by dodgeball.

That's when the attack comes SWISH from the sides from the two 
other Jim Boylens you didn't even know were there

The uncertainty around the NBA and sports leagues in general in the midst of this pandemic has made Boylen's job status unclear.  There might not be a point to firing a coach while there are no games being played and while his job duties are probably teleconferencing with players with his bulbous head filling up a zoom window while screaming at them about how he's "jacked up" to see them doing pushups on Instagram or whatever.  But we can assume that Boylen cannot be long for the Bulls and while hiring a more competent and palatable maniac will be better for the team, we will all be losing out on his press conferences, bizarre quotes, and his weird and infuriating time outs at the end of games the Bulls have no chance of winning that have nearly caused altercations.

The Bulls also in the past had also elevated an interim coach named "Jim Boylan" who was an entirely different person and this has nothing to do with the previous paragraphs but it blows my mind every time I think about it.

The Bulls Send Luol Deng for a Recreational Spinal Tap

Sports fans have a tendency to blame their team's medical staffs for rashes of injuries, and this is not always fair.  Most fans are not physicians or professional sports trainers and have no idea what teams are or are not doing to prevent and treat injuries. Many injuries are the result of the fact that sports asks athletes to make insane and unnatural demands on their bodies and, in basketball, players are constantly jumping, landing, and getting bashed in the sternum by either Dale or Antonio Davis. 

But in some cases team's medical staffs can make mistakes that are clear and disastrous, and that would be the time that the Chicago Bulls sent Luol Deng to get an unnecessary spinal tap that could have killed him in 2013.  Deng had been complaining about flu-like symptoms.  Bulls doctors diagnosed him with meningitis and sent him to the hospital for the procedure, which developed complications including leaking spinal fluid.  Deng lost fifteen pounds in a few days and was beset with intense headaches.  The Bulls listed him as out with "flu-like symptoms."

No one here is arguing that the Bulls deliberately sent Deng into a dangerous medical situation but the Bulls front office touch was to do so in the midst of an atmosphere of downplaying injuries and illnesses.  Here is how one anonymous Bulls staffer put it in a scouting report quoted in this ESPN article from 2013:

Luol called me and told me he was really sick and had to go to the hospital. This was when we were in Miami in the playoffs ... soon after I get off the phone with Luol (redacted) play, that he's on his way to Miami. I told Thibs there is no way, he's on his way to the hospital, it was a bad situation. He blamed the team and they put pressure on him to play when he was seriously sick.

The article also mentions the entire incident happened in the context of the Bulls pressuring Deng to put off surgery to an injured wrist in the previous season.  The entire thing also happened in the maelstrom of the front office's neverending war with Derrick Rose over whether or not he was ready to come back from his various catastrophic knee injuries that had reached a boiling point that spring, when the Bulls believed Rose was ready to return and Rose decided to miss the rest of the season.  The Bulls and Rose feuded in the newspapers for awhile, and the relationship between the team and Rose soured while Bulls players questioned the organization's commitment to their health or grinding away to heroic second-round playoff exits.

 Tom Thibodeau's Staff Enacts the Moscow Rules

The thing I most appreciate about the GarPax area is their dedication to general Cold War tradecraft.  NBA teams have traditional folkways of dysfunction: feuding with players, undermining coaches in the press, or even exploring the avant garde ends of dysfunction like the time Mark Jackson attempted a bizarre process of psychologically torturing Festus Ezeli.  The Bulls, though, made this into an art.  The Bulls were running agents and, in my favorite GarPax allegation originally made by Adrian Wojnarowski, bugging offices.  Woj claimed that Bulls personnel were employing the classic tactic of running electric fans as white noise because they feared that Forman was listening to their phone conversations. 

I should note that there is no evidence that anyone bugged the offices.  There is also no evidence that Gar Forman drove a van marked Bannockburn Utility Landscape and Lawn Sculpture around the practice facility for surveillance purposes or cut off trade talks saying "not now I'm in the van."  No allegations have at this time surfaced of Bulls players using yellow chalk in a telling location over Kirk Hinrich's garage to announce a secret meeting or attempts to spirit away Ron Adams over the Glienicke bridge.

John Paxson Tries to Murder Vinny Del Negro Over Joakim Noah's Minutes

The delicate interplay of player usage, injuries, and toughness has become a hot-button issue in the NBA in recent years as teams have increasingly rested players, come up with a semi-scientific term that Sloan Sports people can use so they can say "load management" and pretend that it's an Analytic, and given Jeff Van Gundy something else to complain about, but nowhere in basketball did that play out as dramatically as the time that John Paxson attempted to shove his hand through Vinny Del Negro's chest in an argument about whether Joakim Noah was playing too many minutes.

Paxson has enjoyed recreationally feuding with his coaches.  Though he generally seems to prefer sniping at them in the press, undermining them, and then hiring a new one based on his criteria that all coaches must follow the eternal cycle of a Hair Guy giving way to a Bald Asshole, in this case he decided to showcase his Aggressive Shove Style of martial art.  Paxson then had Bulls assistants wheel out a table full of weapons while he gave Del Negro the option to either do a knife fight with their wrists tied together like in the Michael Jackson Beat It video or to dip their fists in glue and then in shards of glass before fighting to the death on the roof the Berto Center.  

Instead, Paxson holstered his fists and bided his time for a few weeks to fire Del Negro.  Within a couple seasons, he would be in an open war with Thibodeau, would fire his replacement Fred Hoiberg within a few seasons, and then hire Jim Boylen, an inept doofus who is the laughingstock of the NBA and whom Paxson seems to love.  Perhaps Boylen has already defeated him in combat.
ESPN will be airing a 10-hour documentary about the 1997-8 Bulls, another organization that was riven with dysfunction, conflict, and revolt among the front office, the players, and the coaching staff.  But in this case the conflicts came from a team that spent the 1990s as one of the most dominant teams at anything in my life; the conflict served as a dramatic undercurrent to all of the winning, destroying Karl Malone, Jordan referring to his centers as "twenty-one feet of shit," etc.  During the GarPax era, the Bulls got a few really good teams and a lot of years where the most compelling thing about the Bulls was the deranged bureaucratic infighting.

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