As part of his lengthy process to assemble his short list of interviewees for the new head of basketball operations, Bulls president Michael Reinsdorf talked to White Sox executive vice president Kenny Williams.
Reinsdorf, according to Williams, wanted to discuss front office structure and efficiency as he prepared to overhaul the Bulls’ front office. Williams, as is his practice, had points of emphasis and questions he wanted to address. But only after listening first.
“Michael told me how important he thought it was to have multiple people in the front office who interact and relate with players from a basketball standpoint and a cultural standpoint,” Williams, who is African-American, said by phone Friday. “He talked about the work he had done in this area to pay attention to this specific aspect of the industry.
“I stopped him. And I said, ‘OK, I can cross my No. 1 item off my list now.’ Because it was something when I took an objective look, that I felt was lacking. He was on top of it. He had great understanding in this area.”
The Bulls are poised to name Arturas Karnisovas as their new head of basketball operations. On Wednesday, a day before Karnisovas agreed in principle to the job, ESPN’s The Undefeated reported a story anonymously quoting several African-American executives expressing disappointment and frustration with the Bulls’ interview process.
Since that story published, NBC Sports Chicago reported that the Bulls are on the verge of hiring Pelicans executive J.J. Polk, who is African-American, as an assistant general manager. Yahoo! Sports reported, and a source confirmed, that several of Karnisovas’ targeted candidates for general manager are African-American.
“What bothers me is it’s now going to look like it happened as a result of this public pressure. That’s not fair to Michael, Jerry (Reinsdorf), the process and perhaps most of all the person that they ultimately hire, black, white or other,” Williams said. “These hires are happening because all parties considered felt it was the right person for the job.
“Anyone who works for a Reinsdorf understands that not having inclusivity and diversity isn’t an option. Their hiring practices always give everyone an opportunity to prove their merit.”
In a rare interview, Michael Reinsdorf said his months-long process to assemble his short list for the head of basketball operations position finished with six names. Two of those candidates, both of whom Reinsdorf said the Bulls were either denied permission to interview or said no, represented diversity.
“To have the Chicago Bulls put in the light that we are a racist organization, it hurts. And what it means is people don’t understand how we operate or the process we went through to hire our head of basketball operations,” Reinsdorf said. “Diversity is incredibly important to me. It’s incredibly important to our organization. It’s something that we pay attention to every day. Every time we go through a hiring process on the business side or the basketball side, we include diverse candidates. Every time.
“We do that because it’s smart. The only way you can have diversity of thought is by having diverse people in our organization.”
While the Bulls have employed only one African-American coach in their franchise history in Bill Cartwright, B.J. Armstrong and Randy Brown have held front-office roles. Currently on Jim Boylen’s coaching staff, Roy Rogers and Shawn Respert are African American, while Karen Stack Umlauf is one the few females working on an NBA bench.
Jerry Reinsdorf hired Williams as general manager in 2000 and promoted him to his current position in 2012. Jerry Manuel, Ozzie Guillen and Rick Renteria all represent diversity hires as manager.
In the interview, Michael Reinsdorf acknowledged he could have added a diverse candidate to his short list once he was denied permission to interview two candidates. He said he didn’t do so because he didn’t want to be “disingenuous” and because he took so long to carefully assemble his original list.
“We didn’t want to interview 12 or 13 people,” Reinsdorf said. “I spent a lot of time on this beforehand. I knew the five or six people that I wanted to approach.”
Williams, in charge of multiple hires during his White Sox tenure, agreed with this approach.
“He wasn’t going to put anyone else on that list to satisfy some sort of false interview appearance. And I respect that,” Williams said. “When we talked, another thing on my list — and it was in bold print — was, ‘Do not bring anyone in for a false interview.’ It’s insulting. It’s a waste of time for the person and both teams involved.
“That’s why it should be noted he didn’t put those two diverse candidates on his list because they were minorities. He put them on the list because they belonged there. And because they were the right fit for the job.”
On the Bulls’ business side, Michael Reinsdorf hired Wendy Borlabi, an African-American woman, to serve as performance coach. Ram Padmanabhan, who is of Indian descent, serves as vice president of financial and general counsel.
“We have a small front office basketball-wise. That’s going to change about the Chicago Bulls. We are going to grow as an organization. And we are going to look at diverse candidates for all positions. That’s what we always do,” Reinsdorf said. “The people we hire in these positions will be hired because we believe they’re the best people for that role.”
The imminent hire of Karnisovas represents the first major basketball hire spearheaded by Michael Reinsdorf. Perhaps that’s why he grew most emphatic when discussing the personal element to this story.
In June 2011, Jerry Reinsdorf was one of 13 recipients of the 2011 Jefferson Awards, considered the Nobel Prize for public service. Two months later, Major League Baseball presented the elder Reinsdorf with the Barnes and Thornburg Jackie Robinson Award for diversity in the workplace.
At the time, Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB’s executive vice president for baseball development cited Jerry’s “commitment to diversity and inclusion in virtually every aspect of his ownership with the White Sox and the Bulls.”
“People want to criticize me for the process that I led. That’s fine. I understand. I’m very thick-skinned and get the industry we’re in,” Michael Reinsdorf said. “I actually feel sad for my Dad. It hurts. He’s 84 and has given his life in sports to doing what’s right. It’s just disappointing.”