Bulls coach Del Negro gets thumbs up from mentor Popovich

Bulls' Del Negro gets thumbs up from mentor Popovich
2009-01-18T00:00:00Z Bulls coach Del Negro gets thumbs up from mentor PopovichAL HAMNIK
ahamnik@nwitimes.com
219.933.4154
nwitimes.com
January 18, 2009 12:00 am  • 

CHICAGO | Many teacher-student relationships today are soon forgotten.

Go to class, get a grade, see ya.

But to the Bulls' rookie coach, Vinny Del Negro, those six seasons he spent in San Antonio, the final two with Gregg Popovich, helped prepare him for his current post.

They were reunited Saturday night at the United Center, and it was hugs and smiles all around, despite their respective teams being headed in different directions in the standings.

"He knows there's gonna be bumps in the road," said Popovich, a 1966 Merrillville grad. "That's one thing (NBA) players who become coaches probably know better than college coaches who come in. There's lots of moments in the season when confidence levels are high, low, there's bumps, bad times, good times.

"Vinny knows things take time."

The Bulls entered Saturday's matchup at 18-22 and in fourth-place in the Eastern Conference Central Division; the Spurs 25-13 and nursing a one-game lead in the Western Conference's Southwest Division.

"When I had Vinny, he and Avery (Johnson) were the guys who'd always offer suggestions. Vinny had ideas about things and you knew he understood the game," Popovich said. "He played more on smarts than anything else."

Del Negro's biggest challenge is finding unselfish players and a post presence to surround No. 1 draft pick Derrick Rose.

"Pop taught you how the game should be played; about being passionate in terms of making the right play, being a good teammate, setting a good example, and having the drive and desire to win and be successful," said Del Negro, who averaged 9.1 ppg for 12 NBA seasons.

He wore the silver and black from 1992 to 1998, helped lead the Spurs to a pair of Midwest Division titles, and was selected by fans as one of the top 25 players in franchise history.

Among his various teammates were Sean Elliott, David Robinson, Dennis Rodman, Avery Johnson, Dale Ellis, Chuck Person, Dominique Wilkins and Tim Duncan.

Popovich took over early in the 1996-97 season and has won four NBA championships since '99.

"When I got the job, Pop and I talked and he was very helpful," Del Negro said. "You'd be hard pressed to find a guy who can give you more insight into what this job entails.

"He tries to put you in a situation where you can succeed. It sounds easy to do but it's difficult unless you have the right makeup of guys and the right system."

The Spurs do it in boring fashion, relying on defense, teamwork and plain old fundamental basketball.

"A big list of his former players have gone on to become head coaches, assistant coaches, general managers," Del Negro said. "A lot of that has to do with the environment and the culture that you learn when you play for the Spurs under Pop."

The Bulls hired Del Negro in June of 2008 despite no coaching experience whatsover. That raised eyebrows among fans and Chicago media who feared the ex-North Carolina State star would be eaten alive by the headcases and misfits he inherited from interim coach Jim Boylan.

To make his transition smoother, Del Negro brought aboard Del Harris and Bernie Bickerstaff -- both of whom have a combined 80 years of overall coaching experience.

"It shows you're comfortable in your own skin," Popovich said. "It's like an Obama move -- you're not intimidated or worried about someone else having ideas. You want that input.

"Del Harris and Bernie Bickerstaff both bring different basketball philosophies. It's a great pool for Vinny to draw from."

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