Chicago Bulls executive vice president John Paxson shoved coach Vinny Del Negro twice in the chest and had to be restrained in a postgame confrontation late last month, multiple sources told Yahoo! Sports.
After a loss to the Phoenix Suns on March 30, an irate Paxson walked into the coach’s office at the United Center and confronted Del Negro over a narrow breach of a management-imposed minutes limit on injured forward Joakim Noah(notes). Sources said Paxson first grabbed a hold of Del Negro’s tie and seemingly tried to provoke him with two successive jabs into his chest. Paxson was even heard to angrily challenge Del Negro to a fight.
There were several staff members present, sources said, and assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff stepped between Paxson and Del Negro and pulled Paxson away.
Sources said Del Negro did not retaliate, mostly out of fear the incident could be used to void his contract without pay or hurt future career opportunities elsewhere. The Bulls have dispatched lawyers to interview witnesses about the incident, sources said.
When reached late Tuesday afternoon, Del Negro declined comment. Paxson didn’t return a message left on his phone.
Because of Noah’s injured left foot, management and team doctors had set progressive limits on the forward’s minutes throughout the season. Paxson and general manager Gar Forman had become angry after a Feb. 26 game against Portland when Noah’s minutes also exceeded the limit. Noah played 27 minutes in the 111-105 loss to the Suns on March 30.
The issue of Noah’s minutes arose again in the Bulls' double-overtime loss to the New Jersey Nets on Saturday night. Del Negro and the front office had go-betweens exchange information during the game about the possibility of the coach playing Noah past the limit to try to win a game that would help secure a playoff spot.
The Bulls play the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night at the United Center. Chicago needs a victory over Boston and a win over the Charlotte Bobcats on Wednesday or one win and a Toronto Raptors loss to the New York Knicks to secure the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed and a first-round meeting with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
After advancing to the playoffs with a 41-41 record a season ago, Chicago lost a seven-game series to the Celtics in the first round. Del Negro’s job security has been questioned often this season, and much of that has been fueled by tepid public backing from his bosses. He has one year left on his original three-year contract.