NBA All-Star Weekend is typically a public-relations gimme for the host team. In basketball terms, it’s an alley-oop: The league lobs up one of its marquee events, the hometown franchise cashes in.
When Chicago last threw the midseason party in 1988, 32 years before hosting last weekend’s festivities, the Bulls saw considerable returns. “It was crucial to us from a marketing standpoint,” says Steve Schanwald, then the team’s vice president of marketing. “We went from 4,800 season tickets to 13,000 season tickets in one summer.” It certainly didn’t hurt that a 24-year-old named Michael Jordan used the weekend as his coming-out party, winning both the dunk contest and the game’s MVP award.
The 2020 All-Star Weekend could not have gone more differently for the already beleaguered Bulls. By the end of a hellish three days that saw the team savaged on the national stage by exasperated fans and the media’s most prominent basketball voices, executives of the once-proud franchise were compelled, as a means of curbing the backlash, to leak information about plans to shake up the front office. There were ultimately more notable performances by the Luvabulls cheerleaders than any actual Bulls.
The organization might have seen the calamity on the horizon. The week prior to the All-Star festivities, a video from the final pre-break home game began circulating that showed United Center security kicking out a man for displaying a G League Windy City Bulls jersey he had customized to read “86 GARPAX”—a reference to the long-serving and much-maligned two-headed Hydra of the Bulls’ front office, general manager Gar Forman and vice president of basketball operations John Paxson. In the waning minutes of the game, with the Bulls being blown out by Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans, Jerry Spanier stood up to show off his homemade protest apparel. “It’s the only way to get through,” says the 41-year-old sales manager of a suburban auto dealership, who returned to the United Center on All-Star Saturday wearing a WNBA Chicago Sky jersey emblazoned with “86 GARPAX.” “There were lots of sparks already in the #FireGarPax movement. Me getting booted out of the arena seemed to be the gasoline that made it a blaze.”
On the Wednesday before All-Star Weekend, a digital billboard along the Kennedy Expressway, the main artery from O’Hare International Airport to downtown Chicago, greeted visitors with a message: “Welcome to Chicago! #FIREGARPAX.” The owner of the billboard, 37-year-old real estate broker and Bulls fan Jeffrey Steinberg, told me the sign was specifically intended for NBA representatives and out-of-town fans to comprehend the peak level of local dissatisfaction. Shame, he thought, could motivate Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf to finally take action. “I’m not someone who would normally want someone out of a job. But it’s bullshit what they’ve done to the team,” Steinberg says of Forman and Paxson. For perspective, Paxson is the third-longest-tenured executive in the NBA, behind only San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Miami’s Pat Riley, but Pax has none of the hardware of his peers. Paxson (Jordan’s former backcourt mate) and Forman (promoted to GM from the scouting department in 2009) have managed only one deep playoff run, in 2011, before they were snuffed out by the Heatles. Since firing coach Tom Thibodeau in 2015, the Bulls have put together only one winning season. Last season, GarPax fired head coach Fred Hoiberg and promoted Jim Boylen, who waged a “shock and awe” campaign of lengthy practices that included wind sprints and military-style push-ups. In his first week, the first-time NBA head coach narrowly avoided a player mutiny after he scheduled a practice following back-to-back games, the latter of which was a 56-point loss—the largest margin of defeat in franchise history.
“They’re incompetent. They don’t have a plan,” Steinberg says. “It’s All-Star Weekend in Chicago, but Chicago doesn’t have a single All-Star!” (The Bulls’ lone standout, Zach LaVine, didn’t make the All-Star roster but participated in the 3-point contest, where he was knocked out in the first round.) “We deserve better. If you know you’re hosting the All-Star Game, do something.”
On Thursday, ESPN host Rachel Nichols mentioned the “86 GARPAX” ejection on The Jump, during a broadcast from Chicago’s Navy Pier. (“Fire ’em!” a Bulls fan in attendance bellowed at the mention of Forman and Paxson.) “I don’t even know half the players on the team,” frequent Jump guest Scottie Pippen said. It was a stunning admission from someone employed as a special adviser to Jerry Reinsdorf’s son Michael, Bulls president and chief operating officer. “The Bulls starting lineup are not true starters in this league,” he added. “They probably can’t go to another team.”
“Are they still punching the clock?” Tracy McGrady asked, deriding Boylen’s addition of an old-school factory time clock to the team practice facility, which Boylen believed, as part of his two-bit Bobby Knight routine, would help instill a culture of hard work.
It hasn’t helped the results. The Bulls (19-36 and 10th in the East) have been plagued by injuries to key players: Lauri Markkanen (pelvis), Wendell Carter Jr. (ankle), Otto Porter Jr. (foot), and Kris Dunn (ankle). Even when the team was healthy this season, they were losing games against bad teams. Two of the last-place Golden State Warriors’ 12 wins are against the Bulls. Markkanen has regressed and first-round pick Coby White, a shooting guard, is currently the league’s worst shooter. That has put the offensive load almost entirely on LaVine’s shoulders. The team’s one bright spot, he’s averaging 25 points a game, but he alone can’t make the Bulls a winner.
“Do you have confidence that your GM can get you the help you need?” Max Kellerman, looking like Stallone’s Cobra in aviator sunglasses, asked LaVine during a Thursday appearance on First Take. The Bulls faithful gathered at Navy Pier erupted in boos. “They might speak differently. I’m with the team, man,” LaVine said. The jeering then turned to a group chant of “Fire GarPax!” LaVine smiled. These fans are “terrible, man. I gotta put the team first. It’s just the situation we’re in right now.” (He hinted that he’d like to play for the Lakers, prompting one person on Twitter to observe: “This man in his own town pretty much flirting and giving his number out in front of his current girlfriend.”) What LaVine ultimately didn’t say was that he had any belief whatsoever that Forman and Paxson can build a winning team around him.
Common and Chance the Rapper, the team captains in the celebrity All-Star game, were asked on Friday night whether they rooted for the Bulls. The two hip-hop idols acted as if they were being interrogated about their thoughts on foot fungus. Common, who had been a Bulls ball boy as a youth, mustered some diplomacy: “I like the Bulls, but I love players. I’m not gonna front.” Of the state of his hometown team, Chance said, “I definitely want to shout out Zach LaVine. He’s going crazy.”
Later that night, I was in a crush of people pushing out of the cold and into the United Center before the Rising Stars game. This was supposed to be a showcase for the Bulls’ Carter, who had been selected in his second year but wouldn’t suit up due to injury. At one point, I looked behind me, craned my neck up, and who did I see but 7-footer Markkanen, slump-shouldered amid the hoi polloi.
“You have to wait in line to get into this building?” I asked in disbelief. “Can’t you tell them that you work here?” The 22-year-old smiled and explained that if he and his buddies had driven to the arena, they could’ve parked in a secure lot and entered through the tunnel, but they had used a rideshare service.
“You hanging in there?” I asked.
“Hanging in there because of the weather,” Markkanen asked, “or because of the basketball?”
“This season,” I said.
“Yeah, we’ll figure it out,” he said. Then, a few seconds later, sighing to himself: “We’ll figure it out.”
I asked whether he had watched LaVine’s appearance on ESPN, whether he had heard the chants of “Fire GarPax!” on national TV.
“Yes,” Markkanen said, “that was forwarded to me.” He shook his head and laughed. “They put Zach in a tough position, though.”
Minutes later, in the middle of the United Center concourse, Jim Boylen was making his way through the crowd. Heads turned. Fingers pointed. People laughed in his direction. I asked him how he was feeling at the midpoint of the season with the Bulls stuck in NBA purgatory—five games from the East’s eighth seed but four and a half games from the very bottom of the conference.
“I feel good about it,” Boylen said. He narrowed his eyes and scrunched his forehead, as if squeezing the press-conference platitudes from his brain. “We play hard. But we gotta get some bodies back. … And then we lost Markkanen and Dunn within a few days of each other. When those two guys go down, it’s tough. We were third in defense until Carter got hurt. We’re tanked right now. We just gotta get guys back.”
During the Saturday morning media session at Wintrust Arena for the All-Star participants, LaVine was asked about the growing calls for the firing of Forman and Paxson. “There’s negativity and positivity that’s been going around the city for a long time,” he said. “I think it’s a little bit more magnified now because it’s All-Star Weekend.”
Later, Jimmy Butler entered the arena to meet the press for the first time that weekend. Believing Butler wasn’t a star around which to build their franchise, Paxson and Forman traded him in 2017 to the Minnesota Timberwolves for LaVine, Dunn, and the seventh pick in the draft, which would produce Markkanen. Not only has Butler proved himself to be a perennial All-Star, he’s become the leader of the surging Heat, who entered the break at 35-19, alongside first-year All-Star and skills challenge winner Bam Adebayo, 3-point contest participant Duncan Robinson, and slam dunk contest winner Derrick Jones Jr.
“It just goes to show the Heat are great at bringing in guys that can get stuff done. Guys that are overlooked, that work incredibly hard, and try and perfect their craft. I think they put each one of our guys, including myself, in a position to be successful and to being acknowledged and recognized for having incredible talent,” Butler said. “Everything I heard about Pat [Riley] is legit, for real. He’s straight to the point, direct, involved in everything, and I love it. It shows that he cares and he wants to win, and he wants to win now.” In other words, quite the opposite of Butler’s experience with the Bulls and its front office, which ended with Butler’s trainer tweeting that he had “met drug dealers with better morals” than Forman and aggrieved fans crowdfunding a #FireGarPax billboard in the city’s West Loop neighborhood.
Earlier in the week, Charles Barkley had told a smattering of press during a TNT taping at the House of Blues that the Bulls were “the Cleveland Browns of the NBA. They want to tell you how good they are instead of play.” A reporter asked Barkley about the team’s administration and the coaching staff. “Jim Boylen is a good friend of mine,” he said. “And I’ll leave it at that.” LaVine felt he should have been an All-Star selection. Did Barkley agree? “When you’re 5-and-75, you don’t have a right to feel snubbed,” he said. “All the guys who say they got snubbed are on the worst teams in the NBA. You’re not even competitive. If your team is pretty good, you’re snubbed. If your team is in last place, you’re not snubbed. You don’t deserve it. He didn’t deserve it.”
That set the stage for a tense interview of LaVine on Inside the NBA before his brief, unremarkable appearance in the 3-point contest. The studio in the atrium of the United Center faced the bronze statue of Michael Jordan, whose long shadow has begun to seem inescapable. Barkley, being Barkley, bluntly asked LaVine, “What’s going on with the Chicago Bulls?”
“Man, we’ve been in some games, man. But I’m doing my best to try to keep us above water. We’re building. We’re going out here ... ” LaVine searched his mind for a Boylenesque cliché. “We’re battling still.”
“What happened to my man, Lauri Markkanen?” Barkley asked.
“He got hurt, man!” LaVine replied.
Shaquille O’Neal, sensing the interview unraveling, came to the rescue. “He got hurt, Chuck! There ain’t nothing to talk about. The man’s hurt. Thank you very much!”
Sidestepping the Bulls’ current on-court product, All-Star Weekend organizers bathed attendees in the reflected glory of the team’s title-winning 1990s heyday: Horace Grant running out in his red no. 54 uniform during the celebrity game; a graying Toni Kukoc putting up a jumper in the Special Olympics Unified game; a panel discussion featuring B.J. Armstrong; Pippen soaking up the United Center applause as he was introduced as a dunk contest judge; whispers of Michael Jordan’s 57th birthday party; Zion and LeBron James discussing MJ’s influence on their games; and a few bars of Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius” pulsing beneath Common’s All-Star Game introduction.
At the same time, the backlash against the current-day Bulls swelled. By Sunday evening, #FireGarPax was Twitter’s top trending topic in Illinois by a wide margin. Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times broke the news that, according to several NBA executives, Paxson and Michael Reinsdorf used All-Star Weekend to begin finding a new general manager, a move that could put Forman back in the scouting department while allowing Paxson to be more of a background figure even as he would maintain some decision-making power.
For decades, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf had been allergic to All-Star Weekend. He thought it would upset season-ticket holders, his most valuable clients, who weren’t guaranteed tickets to the events. “Jerry must be thinking his instincts were right: Don’t bring that thing back here!” said longtime Chicago sportswriter Sam Smith, author of the seminal locker room tell-all The Jordan Rules and now a writer for Bulls.com, which puts him in the peculiar position of being a contract employee of the team. “I know Jerry couldn’t have anticipated it, but to have the whole NBA here for the first time in 32 years when your community is in a furor, it reflects poorly on the organization.”
While covering the team for more than 30 years, Smith has come to know better than almost anyone what motivates Reinsdorf, how his mind works. They’re even from the same neighborhood in Brooklyn. “He’s very aware of the community reaction. He gets a clip file every day of everything that’s written about the Bulls and White Sox,” Smith says. “He’s not going to study the X’s and O’s of basketball, or why the team’s making a lot of turnovers. But he knows the community reaction.”
That being said, Reinsdorf is moved less by public opinion than by dollars and cents. Since 2005, the Bulls have finished no lower than second in average attendance in any season, with nine straight seasons in the top spot from 2010 through 2018. But the team has already dropped this season to 10th. “He’s a very pragmatic person when he makes decisions,” Smith says. “When the Bulls went off the cliff financially during the Tim Floyd era, look what happened—they got a new general manager and things changed.”
The question remains whether the moves the Bulls are planning will satisfy fans who want nothing less than Forman’s and Paxson’s heads on a stake.
Before leaving Chicago, Barkley got in one final jab at the host franchise.
“Just for the record,” Barkley said on Sunday’s TNT All-Star postgame show, “this is the last time we ever come to Chicago.”
“Why?” Ernie Johnson asked.
“Because,” Barkley said, “the Bulls stink.”
Jake Malooley is a writer and editor based in Chicago.