CHICAGO — It’s comforting to know that when the NBA season eventually returns we’ll still have GarPax around to do whatever it is they want to do.
The two-headed monster of the Bulls front office, also known by their given names — Gar Forman and John Paxson — have worked together for 18 years, slowly and methodically squandering the reputation of a brand Michael Jordan helped turn into an unparalleled global success story.
Since Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf gave his son, team President Michael Reindorf, the go-ahead to find a new boss to pick up the shattered pieces of the ongoing rebuild, one might have surmised it would spell the end of GarPax.
That’s normally the way the sports world works. You get a chance, or maybe even a second chance, to build a successful team that’s competitive enough to go to the playoffs annually and keep fans coming through the turnstiles. Once that ends, you’re usually toast.
But we all know that’s not Jerry Reinsdorf’s style, and Michael is his father’s son. So GarPax will simply move to new roles in the organization, according to reports.
Paxson likely will become an “adviser,” “special assistant,” “consultant” or some other ambiguous title to be named later. Forman seems destined for some sort of scouting role, though hopefully not scouting the next head coach.
Firing one of them and not the other isn’t a realistic option since GarPax is inseparable, so it makes sense for Michael Reinsdorf to keep both in jobs where they don’t have to make any key decisions or deal with the media. This is good news for Twitter, where the #FireGarPax hashtag will live on.
I’m not an expert in Bulls etymology, so I asked a veteran Bulls writer who invented the ubiquitous GarPax nickname that has defined an era. The earliest mention I found in the Tribune archives was a letter to the editor in 2010 pleading for “GARPAX” to consummate a deal bringing Carmelo Anthony to the Bulls. But the Bulls writer informed me it was a mystery, and I couldn’t find anyone taking credit, so perhaps we’ll never know.
All we do know is Paxson and Forman have been joined for at least a decade, and may last another one at this rate. As former Tribune Bulls writer K.C. Johnson wrote when Forman took over for Paxson as GM in 2009: “About the only change the public will notice from the Bulls’ front-office tweaks is that John Paxson no longer will be the voice of the organization and won’t spend as much time traveling with the team.”
To some Bulls fans, keeping GarPax around under new management is an outrage. That reaction is understandable, but no one should be surprised.
Just look across town, where Ken Williams was named general manager of the White Sox in 2000 to replace Ron Schueler, who was promptly named special consultant to Jerry Reinsdorf. Williams had a good run, building the team that won a championship in 2005, but when the wheels fell off he was kicked upstairs.
Williams was promoted from GM to executive vice-president in 2012 after a Sox team that was 16 games over .500 in late August went 14-22 down the stretch to blow the American League Central and miss the postseason. The 2012 Sox also were a box office bomb, failing to draw two million fans for the first time since 2004.
But no matter. When promoting Williams and naming Rick Hahn the GM, Reinsdorf pointed to the organization’s overall success the previous 12 years, even though it had been seven years since that championship season and four years since their last playoff appearance.
At the time, many weren’t sold on the idea Williams would allow Hahn to have complete control, and would basically serve as a de facto GM.
“He has to find his own sea legs,” Williams said at a news conference announcing the moves. “But I challenge you to find anyone over the years to say I’m a meddling kind of management person. You hire people you trust and let them do their job. Because we have a 12-year relationship, I know where his strengths lie, and he knows where mine lie.”
The two executives have co-existed since, though in a candid admission while defending Hahn and manager Robin Ventura in the summer 2015, Williams said: “I take full responsibility for the underperformance right now. Believe me when I tell you this: The first phone call when the chairman is upset, it isn’t to any of those guys. It’s to me.”
“Not Hahn?” I asked.
“No, (Hahn) hasn’t graduated to that point yet, and I’ve told him that,” Williams said. “There are some (instances where) I may have removed myself a little bit too much from the equation.”
That led to some brief friction between the two, but they both blamed the messenger instead of the message, and quickly got over it.
Like GarPax, the Williams-Hahn tandem has yet to bear fruit, with seven straight sub-.500 seasons going into 2020 — or 2021 if the baseball season is cancelled. Everyone seems to believe the Sox rebuild has turned the corner after Hahn’s productive offseason.
But we also heard from coach Jim Boylen last September the Bulls were a playoff-caliber team, so seeing is believing. When I asked Reinsdorf last December at the MLB winter meetings if he was optimistic about the 2020 Sox, he smiled and replied: “I’m tired of being optimistic and then seeing my optimism misplaced.”
I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the Sox or the Bulls, or maybe both.
Either way, we do know that whatever happens, all the relevant executives will be safe. To paraphrase former Bulls GM Jerry Krause, “Organizations don’t fail to win championships — players do.”
So life will go on for the Bulls without Paxson and Forman at the helm. Though we’ll no longer be able to use GarPax as a pejorative to complain about front office decisions, the nickname will remain as a lasting reminder of the post-Jordan Bulls.
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