- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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Chicago Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro initiated the physical contact with executive vice president John Paxson during an altercation on March 30 -- contrary to a report that painted Paxson as the aggressor -- a source close to the situation told ESPNChicago.com.
Yahoo Sports reported Tuesday that Paxson grabbed Del Negro by the tie, jabbed him twice in the chest and seemingly challenged him to a fight because Del Negro exceeded the time limit management set for Joakim Noah, who has been recovering from plantar fasciitis in his left foot. In Yahoo's report it was suggested that Del Negro didn't retaliate against Paxson during the altercation because he was worried the Bulls could void his contract.
Other sources have confirmed to ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher that Paxson initiated the confrontation, mirroring the Yahoo Sports report.
However, a source close to the situation disputed that account, and said that it wasn't the first altercation Del Negro has had with management. The source said that Del Negro and Bulls general manager Gar Forman had an altercation in Forman's office that was similar, but did not give details.
"So this was not the first time [Del Negro] exhibited this behavior," the source said.
As Del Negro prepared to guide his team against the Bobcats in Charlotte with a playoff berth hanging in the balance, he refuted the allegations.
"That's inaccurate," he said before the Bulls won to capture the eighth spot in the East. "That's 100 percent false.
"But this thing is funny just because you have guys that care. Guys that are competitive. It's unfortunate that it had to come out, but the most important thing is to focus on the game tonight, the players and the effort they're putting in. All those things will take care of themselves at the end of the season. And hopefully that's not for a while."
Del Negro said the last 24 hours have been "good." The Bulls beat the Boston Celtics to trim their magic number to one. The win over Charlotte clinched the Bulls' second playoff berth in Del Negro's two seasons as coach.
Before the game, Del Negro said he hadn't given much thought to the possibility that this could have been his last game with the Bulls.
"There's too much going on, and you don't have time to focus in on that," he said. "You focus in on the task at hand and handle things as best you can, as professional as you can, and then you move forward. All those things will handle themselves at the end of the year."
Forman issued a release on the controversy early Wednesday evening.
"The Chicago Bulls are focusing all of our energies into the remainder of this season and, as such, were disappointed at the recent stories that may have distracted from that," the statement read. "Reports of a recent internal disagreement between a Bulls executive and the Bulls head coach were the result of each expressing their passion about the health and well being of their players and the desire to win basketball games.
"The event occurred in coach Del Negro's office, not in the locker room and not in front of the players, as some wrongly have reported. This disagreement, while not communicated well by either party in the heat of the moment and in the immediate aftermath of a tough loss, was a result of conflicting views, but all based on the fine balance required to ensure both the immediate and long-term success of the team and the health of its players. The fans well know that the Bulls are dedicated to the team's day-to-day success, but first and foremost want to protect the health and well being of its players.
"The Bulls have a full and complete understanding of what took place, but, as requested by all parties, will address the attendant issues with the participants after the season is over. At this point, everyone intends to keep focused on the remaining games."
NBA commissioner David Stern said he is aware of the situation and will address it with a Bulls representative during a board meeting on Thursday.
The relationship between Paxson and Del Negro has been deteriorating for some time and reached a head over the use of Noah, who has been hurting since mid-January. Del Negro, the source said, directly defied orders by Paxson and Forman in playing Noah seven minutes longer than ordered to against the Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 26 when Noah was "clearly hurting," according to the source.
"[Del Negro] put his own interest ahead of the Bulls," the source said.
Noah missed the next 10 games, all Bulls losses.
The source said when Noah was brought back a second time after the injury, it was made even more clear to Del Negro what Noah's time limit was, but he was allowed to save a minute or two for close games or play Noah for one possession at the end if he had already reached his time limit and the game was close. Those were the only exceptions. And Del Negro looked for "loopholes," the source said.
Against the Phoenix Suns on March 30, Del Negro used Noah two minutes over the limit despite having seven chances to take him out in the last two minutes when there was a foul, dead ball or a timeout. The source said Paxson viewed that as Del Negro putting himself above the player and organization and found it inexcusable.
The most recent flap over Noah's playing time was Friday against the New Jersey Nets, and it proved costly to the Bulls as they chased the final playoff spot in the East. Del Negro sent assistant coach Lindsey Hunter to ask Forman if he could play Noah late in a close game with serious playoff implications. Forman contacted Paxson, who green lighted Noah exceeding his minutes. But Del Negro didn't get his answer until the first of two overtimes. Meanwhile, the Nets' Brook Lopez converted an offensive rebound in the final seconds of regulation and the Nets won in double overtime.
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