By Stephen Noh Feb 25, 2019
Most fans would love the opportunity to tell Bulls ownership and management exactly what they think of them. From the #FireGarPax hashtag on social media, a planned protest game for the second year in a row and waves of angry callers on sports radio, Bulls fans are not shy about expressing their anger at the state of the franchise.
Does Bulls president Michael Reinsdorf pay attention to the criticism?
“I get a decent amount of emails,” Reinsdorf told The Athletic. “I try to respond to most of them. Sometimes I’ll do it by email, sometimes I’ll pick up the phone. It really depends on the situation. I try to respond. If someone’s taking the time to write to me, I feel like they deserve some type of response. I’m sure there’s a lot more people that call or write into the team, not necessarily to me.”
I had heard rumors about Reinsdorf’s penchant for answering fan emails for years. But one fan got a response that went above and beyond what anyone would expect, and he shared the story with me.
Matt Dervin is a finance manager for an accounting agency and a lifelong Bulls fan. He and his dad have held season tickets since 1994. Like many fans, Dervin was frustrated with the direction in which management was steering the franchise. He’d been chatting with me about his frustrations throughout the year and told me last month that he decided to fire off an angry email directly to owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Michael Reinsdorf, Gar Forman and John Paxson.
“Gar and Pax need to go,” Dervin wrote as part of his 400-word email. “We are the laughingstock of the league and an embarrassment.”
He went on to question the accountability of the front office, defend the patience of fans and demand that the franchise hold itself to a higher standard. It was a harsh message, but not a wholly unique one.
“I’ve become more critical the last year or two because it’s turned from bad to just embarrassing,” Dervin said. “I wasn’t expecting anything back but I figured, might as well get some anger and stress off my chest and get it onto pen and paper and get it out there.”
Dervin got more than he bargained for. A few days later, he saw a voicemail on his phone from an unknown number. He played the message back and heard an unexpected voice.
“(Michael Reinsdorf) left me a voicemail,” Dervin said. “He said, ‘Hey, I just got your email. I just want to talk to you about some of the things you said. Give me a call back.’”
Dervin called Reinsdorf back but didn’t get an answer. He figured the story was over from there. But his phone rang again the next week.
“I was shocked that (Reinsdorf) remembered and a week later called me back, that he still even had it on his mind,” Dervin said.
The two ended up chatting for 20 minutes.
“We talked about everything,” Dervin said. “My email, I asked him questions, like one specific thing I wanted to know was why we didn’t wait for a healthy team before we fired (Fred) Hoiberg. I thought we should have gave him a shot. I was asking him legit questions and he was responsive in answering them very truthfully. He wasn’t really giving me the generic BS, I guess you could say. That was pretty cool and I respected him a little more after that, that he was being straightforward and honest with me.”
Reinsdorf appreciated the call from his end, too, and related to the experience of watching games as father and son.
“We had a really nice conversation,” Reinsdorf said. “You could tell that he was really passionate. He just sounded like a nice young man, talking about how he was going to games with his dad and they go to all these games. And as a father, I was like, wow. That must be an amazing experience for Matt’s father to take his son to games. So I said to Matt, next time you’re here for a game, come down (to the owner’s suite) and have dessert at halftime. I’d love to meet you.”
Dervin sent Reinsdorf a follow-up email to take him up on his offer, and the two planned to meet at an upcoming game. The day of the game, he received another call before tipoff.
“My season ticket rep called me and said, ‘I have a surprise,’” Dervin said. “‘I know you were supposed to meet up with Michael but he ended up leaving you tickets to his box for the whole game.’”
Dervin and his father made their way to the owner’s suite and received a VIP experience. They were treated to a full bar, rows of televisions, a buffet of food, personal servers, and three other guests: Toni Kukoc, Horace Grant and Forman.
“The whole game I sat with Toni, Horace and Michael and watched the game and talked to them about the game, things going on,” Dervin said. “I was asking them free agency questions, draft questions. It was surreal. Michael actually hung out with me and my dad for the whole game, which was wild.
“They treated me honestly like I was one of their friends or peers. They talked to me the whole time. We talked about who I thought would come out of the East, who they thought would come out of the East. We were kind of just chatting like I was watching the game with one of my friends. For them to take the time to talk with me, sit next to me, was unreal and kind of unexpected.”
Reinsdorf didn’t do it for the attention.
“It turned out that I had a light crowd in the suite that night so we extended the invitation to have him and his father watch the whole game with us,” he told The Athletic. “I didn’t even tell Toni and Horace who (Matt) was. They just happened to be up there that night. It was all organic. That’s just not my personality. I can’t put on a show. I can just be who I am. A regular guy.”
It may be strange to think of Reinsdorf as “a regular guy,” but Dervin echoed that sentiment.
“The one thing that I did realize that you may not just watching on TV is that Michael and Gar and all of them watched every minute of the whole game. They were into it,” Dervin said. “If it was a travel or out of bounds or a missed shot, they were into the whole game.
“That was kind of the one thing for me, like, ‘Oh shit.’ They actually watch the games and care. They put their time into it. I know it’s sad that it’s come to that for Bulls fans. That you would think a GM or owner wouldn’t care or watch their team, because that’s their job. But just seeing that they definitely care and watch the game and put everything they have into it, that was a huge jolt of energy and boost of confidence for me. Whether or not that turns into success or not obviously is a huge question mark. But seeing that they actually do care and put so much into it, that’s half the battle.”
Although the public rarely gets to see that side of Reinsdorf, those who have watched games with him privately know that level of passion is the norm.
“I was on my best behavior because Matt was there,” Reinsdorf said, laughing. “Over the years, there’s some great stories going back to the days of the old stadium where I would take our game notes, crumple them up. Every time something bad happened, I’d rap the bar in front of me. I think my dad’s group in front of us, they just thought I was insane. I’ve been known to kick things and smash the wall.
“I don’t know how else to get my aggression out sometimes. That’s because I just want to win. I understand how difficult going through a rebuild is, and I still want us to compete. And I still want fans who are coming to the games and really committing to us, not just financially, but from a time standpoint, I want them to at least always see that we’re trying our best and our effort is there. Nothing drives me more crazy than when we have a home game and the game’s not competitive. That’s just, it’s hard for me to stomach at times.”
Dervin’s experience is certainly unusual, and he is aware that most fans probably wouldn’t get the same chance that he had.
“Obviously I know being a 25-year season ticket holder, all the money my dad and I have paid, I’m sure that had something to do with it,” he said. “But just the fact that he would reach out made me feel good. Made me feel like he cares.”
Dervin also noted that although it may not seem like it, the Bulls are listening on some level. Even to the #FireGarPax fans who send them angry emails.
“(Michael) mentioned to me, especially on our first phone call,” Dervin said. “‘Look I get other emails. I know fans are mad. I know we want to turn this around. I know people probably don’t believe this or think about it but we want to win and turn this around as much as you do.’ They know the blowback and the feedback. I’m sure they’re getting way worse emails than what I sent.”
Reinsdorf is not going to extend this kind of offer to every fan. But he does read the emails he gets, and he tries to answer all of them.
“Obviously I don’t have room to invite every fan into our suite,” he said. “But I really believe that our fans that come to our games, they’re part of the Bulls family. They may have different perspectives and views, but at the end of the day I’m pretty good at overlooking some of the rhetoric in these emails. And believe me, there’s a lot of rhetoric in there. Instead, I focus on the passion and love that the fans have for the Bulls.”
Reinsdorf is aware that there is a very vocal segment of the fan base that does not agree with the way he’s running the franchise. Rather than getting buried in the flood of negativity, he focuses on the things they share in common.
“Matt, no question, is a devoted Bulls fan and we both want the same thing,” he said. “And that’s for the Bulls to be winners again. As soon as you look past the rhetoric and the comments that aren’t so nice, you get to the bottom of what our fans are trying to say, which is we want the Bulls to be winners again. We have that in common. So that’s how I approach stuff like this.”
(Top photo: Courtesy of Matt Dervin)