By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
The long civic nightmare of Chicago basketball fans is about to be over.
Arturas Karnisovas will soon be leading the Chicago Bulls day-to-day as its Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, replacing once-beloved Bull John Paxson and finally shattering the organizational structure of the Bulls’ front office in tact once Gar Forman was hired as the team’s General Manager, working directly under Paxson since 2009.
The organization hasn’t made the hire official yet, but insiders both within Chicago and working nationally began confirming that Karnisovas and the Bulls were in final talks by Wednesday evening. Wikipedia has even given Karnisovas the job already — it’s all done but the shouting.
As far as shouting goes, there may be reasons to do so regarding this hire in multiple contexts.
First off, simply being able to acknowledge that Paxson and Forman will no longer be the lone commanders of the Bulls’ destiny after such an indeterminate time where they did and failed in doing so is worth whoops and hollers from long-suffering fans.
As long-standing and loyal employees of the Reinsdorf family, it makes sense to feel that because GarPax won’t be completely banished from the organization that not enough may change functionally, but its important to note that Karnisovas has no prior ties to the Bulls nor any with Paxson or Forman.
The former Seton Hall standout, Lithuanian national team member, European professional and middle-manager for the Denver Nuggets is being brought in to utilize a fresh voice and to chart a new course — that has to be the case, that has to be what team President and Chief Operating Officer Michael Reinsdorf had in mind in choosing him for the job.
Plus, reporting from the Sun-Times’ Joe Cowley has Paxson being willing to fall on his sword as it were, completely willing to leave the organization, which would make sense from his POV.
Now, as for what else Reinsdorf and father and team majority owner Jerry may have been looking for?… Well, questions arise.
By just about any measure Karnisovas is a fine hire, taking a worthy step up to VP-status after being a GM in Denver through a clear revitalization of that franchise back to contention in the Western Conference. Was that enough to make him the only worthy candidate? That’s harder to say.
As reflected in K.C. Johnson’s reporting on Twitter, the Bulls targeted a healthy list of middle management throughout the league — much of those GMs, assistant GMs and the like — and many of those rising executives turned down the Bulls’ flirtations due to them knowing they can do better, even if they just stayed in their less empowered positions where they are.
Working for the Bulls is a devalued proposition in the NBA, having lost as much esteem as any organization could in the space of 20 years following a decade of unprecedented success. The GarPax era erased all the good will that resulted from Michael Jordan blessing the franchise with his trans-formative play.
The fact that Jordan himself has played no role in the franchise after his playing days (though Jordan has left a lot to be desired as a shot-caller, such things couldn’t have been predicted in 1998 or ’99, nor did any other of the important Bulls of the ’90s besides Paxson didn’t help things perception-wise league-wide. Soon the Iowa State contingent took hold of things and irrelevancy became synonymous with the team of the ’90s as a new generation of players raised under Mike avoided the United Center like the plague.
This is a franchise that had to work to redefine itself with its core constituency after years of sub-par play and Wonder bread representation. There’s a reason Chicago Hip-Hop legend Common, as a rapper more willing to offend listeners back in 1994, said he didn’t “watch the Bulls too much, they got too many white boys…”
Fast forward to a different world — not as different as today’s, but recognizable at least — and Common is rhyming NBA all-stars’ names in an elaborate introduction on the United Center floor merely two months ago, he has no Bulls’ names to rhyme be they Black or white.
When asked that weekend of how he supports the Bulls today Com faints praise, as does Chance the Rapper. Elsewhere, Zach Levine does the same in front of ESPN cameras and so do many other high-profile Chicagoans who couldn’t afford to offend lest they lose some bag or other comfort that comes with their position.
Thousands of other Bulls fans didn’t have to worry about such things during the weekend, they expressed messages of #firegarpax and the like in front of cameras and mics of all kinds, any chance they had to express displeasure with the organization and to expedite any movement within it were taken advantage of. And apparently it has worked. Still, while a competent hire looks like its been made, it couldn’t escape a deserved shadow of public scrutiny.
There’s an anonymity associated with all the VP candidates that the Bulls came close to, including Karnisovas, that’s depressing and once again signaled how unwanted the Bulls are by talented administrators in the NBA today, among them Raptors president Masai Ujiri, Sam Presti of the Thunder or Daryl Morey of the Rockets.
The Bulls are in no position to take away elite talent from elite organizations, which is something they can take blame for but not completely control. Something they are more in control of is who they give a chance to interview to work for them and the Bulls’ current search for outside guidance has sparked needed discussion as to why Black people can’t compete for front office positions in what is depicted to be a “Black” league.
None of the names Spears tweeted were brought in for interviews by the Reinsdorfs. Finley, a Chicago-area native, among the most accomplished former players still working in the league and a current important cog in a well-ran Mavericks franchise was publicly endorsed by his boss Mark Cuban and couldn’t get a sniff. Why the hell not?
Let it be known, there is no evidence of institutional racism coming from the Bulls. Such a thing would take a lot of digging to reveal and even then it would never be owned up to, but the Bulls’ lack of imagination and progressive thinking in the decision-making regarding such an important decision underscores something damning.
“That is a slap in the face. Their worst is still being considered over our best,” said an NBA assistant GM anonymously to Spears in an ESPN Undefeated piece on reaction to the Bulls’ executive search. “The league is going to have to do something. It does get frustrating.”
Maybe its not hatred, but its a dismissal at the least. Maybe its based in spite towards a league that’s turned its back on them, but if the Bulls are taking some “us against the world” stance, it for some reason looked at not one, but two disgraced former Atlanta Hawks front office execs as potential hires who they were willing to stand with.
By just about any measure Wes Wilcox and Danny Ferry should have screwed themselves out of being able to work in the NBA going forward given the racially hostile statements they made as members of the Hawks organization, but these two humps were recycled and suited themselves up for the Reinsdorfs, making an effort to work in a city where they would have been seen as distasteful for a large segment of a fanbase that not only shared pride in the fact Jordan, Pippen and Rose wore laundry that said “Chicago” on it but that they represented the city on a spiritual and cultural level.
Still, the Bulls got too many “white boys,” and in possibly welcoming Wilcox and Ferry they showed themselves to not only be out of touch with the rest of the league — something Bulls fans and media long knew already — but to be outright defiant of it.
New winning blueprints are being sketched out each year in the NBA, but on some level the Bulls are holding on to an old boys network-way of thinking. Karnisovas may be a hire that contradicts that belief or even puts it to bed, but the Reinsdorfs themselves will never exhibit the effort to do that on their own.
As one fire hashtag becomes obsolete, another may be of need, but tone-deaf hiring practices isn’t enough to get rid of any owner, certainly not a Reinsdorf.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR