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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Tough Choice Only One That Paxson Could Make

November 30, 2003|Mike Downey | Chicago Tribune

A biography once quoted Jimmy Hoffa as saying that if you rise to a position of power in an organization and believe that it will be necessary to fire somebody, you should do it your first day in charge. That way you gain a deeper loyalty and fear from those whose jobs you spared.

John Paxson was in too awkward a position to do any such thing with the Bulls, however. In his new role as Bulls general manager, Paxson inherited a head coach who also happened to be a man with whom he had a history as a friend, a teammate and -- a bond few men on Earth share -- a champion.

To fire Bill Cartwright 14 games into Paxson's tenure was more than a business decision. He was dismissing not a man he had hired, but a man he admired.

"I knew there would be difficult times in this job, but none is harder than replacing a friend," Paxson said in Monday's announcement that Cartwright was out.

In one swift stroke, lopping off a head like a Thanksgiving bird's, he knew full well that this trusted friend's family would now be having a much less blessed November holiday and a much less merry December one.

But sometimes it is kind to be cruel, to do something hurtful sooner as opposed to later, something that a man in Paxson's position probably knew he would need to do eventually and very possibly had wanted to do right from Day One.

With authority comes accountability. Paxson's entire future as an NBA executive -- three more years in a job like this or 30 -- could have swung on the coaching skills of a coach he hadn't picked.

Paxson didn't have the luxury of being a godlike local legend such as Larry Bird, who could take over the Indiana Pacers' organization and cut ties with Isiah Thomas as coach without so much as blinking an eye. Bird and Thomas were never champions together. They were rivals most of their professional lives, so fans could understand how they might not coexist.

Conversely, here in Chicago, the new regime was force-fed a coach apppointed by Paxson's own former boss, Jerry Krause. How can you make a snap judgment to fire a former comrade in arms who had spent many a night with you wet from champagne after glorious victories?

Paxson is entitled to put his own leadership team in place, like a president of the United States who would be a fool to keep his predecessor's Cabinet.

Paxson and Cartwright had no known falling out. The grounds are not incompatibility, like a divorce. There is no personal conflict, which is why Paxson was quick to point out, "This represents the first change, not necessarily the last."

Most assuredly not the last.

Paxson needs to remake this team as he sees fit. Just as when Jerry West felt compelled to make an immediate and radical coaching change in Memphis when he went to work there, Paxson knows which kind of coach's style would suit the type of basketball he wants the Bulls to play.

A quarter-century ago, the 1978-79 Bulls brought in Larry Costello to coach. He lasted 56 games. Scotty Robertson took over on an interim basis, as Pete Myers is now doing, and Jerry Sloan was hired quickly thereafter.

It took so long to get things right that the Bulls went from 1974 to 1988 without a 50-victory season. Paxson can't wait that long. He can't sit back and do nothing as somebody else's coach and players fail on his watch.

The hiring of a coach was Krause's final undoing. Had even a modicum of success been achieved under Tim Floyd, rather than a championship team degenerating into an embarrassment, the general manager might be on a temporary leave of absence because of illness rather than a permanent one.

Now begins the hilarious process in which total amateurs and outsiders will tell Paxson which coach he should have, as if their insights are equal to his. The same way it was argued what the White Sox needed most -- a manager with savvy or a manager with spirit -- the Bulls will be advised that what they really need is a fiery coach, a wise old owl of a coach, a coach with a Chicago background, whatever.

Paxson can pick this person without anybody's help.

All he wants is someone who can win. If he wanted a coach whose personality mattered, he would have simply kept the one he had.

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