DEERFIELD, Ill. — Saying he was "not at all proud," Chicago Bulls executive John Paxson apologized Tuesday to the organization and newly fired coach Vinny Del Negro for their late-season altercation.
Paxson also made it clear: He plans to stick around.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday for the first time since his confrontation with Del Negro in late March, Paxson said he accepts the criticism and "people saying I should probably be fired or released, whatever. I'm not going anywhere because I believe in what the organization stands for and what I stand for."
He said he plans "on contributing to the Bulls' organization for a lot of years."
Del Negro's time is up, however.
General manager Gar Forman insisted the post-game altercation on March 30 played no part in the firing, that the Bulls simply needed a change "in order to take this team to another level" after Del Negro led them to 41-41 records and first-round playoff exits in each of his two seasons.
Del Negro said he was "grateful" to chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, the organization and his players while praising his assistants and the fans in a brief statement outside the team's practice facility. He did not address the dispute with Paxson, the team's executive vice president for basketball operations, or take questions from reporters.
Paxson, however, said: "I'm not at all proud of how I handled the situation. I felt that at the time, I was representing and standing up for a policy that we had put in place. I felt that way, but I was wrong in how I handled it."
Yahoo! Sports reported in April that Paxson grabbed Del Negro's tie and shoved him before being restrained by assistant coaches in a dispute over Joakim Noah's playing time after a game against Phoenix on March 30. The report said Paxson was upset that Noah, who was having his minutes monitored, played too much in the game.
Paxson wouldn't detail exactly what happened that night, although he did acknowledge acting inappropriately.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who cares more about the Bulls organization," he said. "That's probably why I'm most embarrassed, because I put the Bulls in a bad position."
Forman said Paxson wanted to address the altercation with reporters at that time, but the general manager asked him not to, thinking that would be a distraction for a team trying to make the playoffs. The Bulls ultimately got in as the Eastern Conference's eighth seed but were eliminated in five games by Cleveland.
There was rampant speculation that Del Negro would be fired in December after a slow start, but the team rallied for a while. Then, injuries set in, and the Bulls lost 10 straight at one point with Noah sidelined.
Del Negro's firing was the first move in the most important offseason in recent memory for the Bulls. They're armed with enough salary-cap room to offer a maximum contract in a star-studded free agent summer that could include LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Joe Johnson.
That and the prospect of working with a young star such as Derrick Rose figure to be major selling points for whomever replaces Del Negro.
Forman said free agency will play at least a small role in the hiring, although he added: "As we start this search, I don't want it to be about that. I want it to be about finding the best coach to fit this personnel."
He also said there's no rush to find a coach and he's not ruling out assistants or college head coaches.
"Will experience be necessary?" Forman said. "I don't want to put it in a box today, because I want to have an open mind as far as looking at all the different candidates that might be available. But obviously, a thorough knowledge of the NBA game, NBA players, will be something that will be factored into it."
He's not ruling out an NBA assistant or college head coach, though.
Del Negro was hired out of Phoenix's front office with no coaching experience after a nearly two-month search in which negotiations with Mike D'Antoni and Doug Collins fell through.
Why not rule out a rookie coach this time?
"Obviously, experience and knowledge of the league could come into play, but if we feel somebody's a strong candidate that maybe doesn't have as much experience, that doesn't mean we wouldn't consider him," Forman said.
Asked if Collins could again be in the mix, Forman said, "It really wouldn't be fair of me to comment on any particular candidate."