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Bulls' Johnny Ligs Cleans up in Vegas
by Sam Smith
Posted on Jul 17
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LAS VEGAS — Everyone knows this is a heck of a place for partying, so what better place to celebrate a milestone, like your 50th birthday. That’s what John Ligmanowski did Wednesday.
So as the blazing sun settled into the desert and Sin City lit up, Ligs, as they call him around the Bulls, hit his favorite spot.
“Yep,” Ligmanowski said with a laugh. “I did laundry for my 50th birthday. We were supposed to have a scrimmage today (Thursday against the D-league All Stars), but it got cancelled. So I had to wash the game and practice gear after our game (Wednesday). It was funny. I was in the laundromat and these guys came in and are asking how you use the washing machine and dryer. Some gal is showing them. But I had to get our gear ready to go.”
And so it continued for perhaps the one principal constant around the Bulls traveling band. Coaches and players and executives and media and doctors and trainers and scouts come and go, and always there is Ligs.
Ligmanowski is there so much you don’t see him. He’s the guy who looks like a light-on-his-feet offensive guard, a kind hearted, garrulous man who has been with the Bulls since 1976, the last 19 years as head equipment manager.
It may be the most glamorous least glamorous job in the world.
Ligmanowski has been in the Bulls locker room for every championship, almost every game Michael Jordan ever played, with the team meeting three U.S. presidents and Hollywood’s greatest stars.
“I liked Jack Nicholson,” says Ligmanowski. “Bill Murray always was hanging around the trainers’ room when Michael was here. Funny guy.”
And then someone needed another pair of socks and off went Ligmanowski.
He’s a big part of that traveling support staff always there but never seen, like trainer Fred Tedeschi and assistant Jeff Tanaka, strength coach Erik Helland and security director Tom Holbert.
Ligmanowski is the senior man, having worked part time when he was in high school at East Leyden, and joining the Bulls after graduation in 1978. He got the head job in 1990 and thinks he’s missed two games since then.
You know the old joke about it being a dirty job but someone has to do it. It’s usually some slick remark about making millions and playing a lot of golf. Ligmanowski’s literally is a dirty job, and someone better do it.
So he spends about 15 hours on game days in the United Center, assisting the visitors for the morning shootaround, then getting the home locker ready for the game and after every game washing the jerseys and practice gear for the next day.
I was thinking about Ligs here when Wednesday during the Bulls Summer League game against the Bucks, the p.a. announcer noted it was Ligmanowski’s 50th birthday. Ligmanowski is a fixture around the NBA and got his share of good natured ribbing. The NBA cancelled its annual league meetings in the early 1990’s when it began international tournaments, so the Summer League serves mostly as a gathering place for coaches and team executives. There’s little gained from the games with rookie draft picks and free agents, most of the latter who are auditioning for jobs with dozens of scouts from international teams in the stands.
There are meetings with agents as just about every one is in attendance and special workouts. Former first round pick Sean May had one this week the Bulls attended with several teams, though I get the sense the Bulls likely will bring back Aaron Gray as their insurance big man.
The Bulls extended Gray a qualifying offer, which he has yet to accept. The Bulls were scheduled Thursday to play the D-league All Stars, who were 2-0 against NBA teams of rookies and free agents, but the game was cancelled when a few of the D-league guys got hurt in their Wednesday win over the Kings. The Bulls, instead, went to practice at the famed Impact Basketball gym, where top NBA stars come in the summers for bruising pickup games.
When the Bulls arrived Gray was working out and talked with Bulls staff.
“I’m going to do what’s best for me and the organization,” Gray said. “There’s other interest out there. I love the city of Chicago. I’m just going to play basketball and worry about getting better and whatever happens happens. Right now my responsibility is working on my basketball and my agent is handling that stuff. I feel I can help the team. It’s a good young team and I feel we’re going to be better next year. Hopefully, I’ll make a decision soon. My agent told me, ‘I’m going to put you in a good situation. Just worry about basketball. You’re going to be in the NBA next year and a good position.’ That’s all I need to know. I love Chicago. If there’s a better opportunity who knows at this point.”
The Bulls can pull the offer anytime in the next week or two if they decide. Gray seems to be the front runner for that last roster spot, though former Illini star James Augustine has played well. I’ve asked about other possibilities, like former top Hawks pick Shelden Williams, but there doesn’t seem much else going.
Augustine and Taj Gibson are the only Bulls shooting at least 50 percent in the two Summer League losses with Augustine at 82 percent. Overall, the team is shooting 39 percent. Gibson didn’t practice Thursday as he experienced some tendinitis and may not play in Friday’s game against Oklahoma City. Derrick Rose had a similar situation last summer. The Bulls were cautious, as they will be with Gibson, and Rose missed just one game all season.
Gibson has had foul troubles, though it’s seemed mostly with the guards being broken down on penetration and Gibson always helping. He always was in motion trying to stop players at the basket, which was a good sign.
And he’s impressed everyone around the team as a classy young man.
Perhaps not the kind of kid who sends a relative to pick up his gear, as one of the young guys did. Ligmanowski counseled the kid that wasn’t offering the proper respect to his family member.
No, it’s not all dirty jock straps.
Though some of the guys who wear them can be a bigger problem.
Ligmanowski says he’s never had many issues with Bulls players, though one exceptionally highly paid player back a few years always was asking for extra stuff. Ligs never says whom. What happens in the locker room stays in the locker room as well.
Ligmanowski said Jordan was one of the easiest to deal with because Michael had his routines. He needed his Carolina shorts to wear every game under his Bulls shorts and Nike took care of a new pair of sneakers for every game of his career (most players get about six pair a month).
It was the shoes.
“His shoes were very comfortable,” said Ligmanowski. “He could stretch out a pair quickly. He did like new socks for every game, though.”
The team has about a half dozen sets of practice gear for each player and nine sets of game uniforms, three in each color, home white, road red and alternate black. Then they usually add two for specials like St. Patrick’s Day and Los Bulls. The team then gets new jerseys for the playoffs.
Ligmanowski said when Dennis Rodman was with the Bulls he had it written into his contract he’d get 82 jerseys since he liked to throw them into the stands after games. Once, Ligmanowski said, a Rockets player did so on the first of a back to back and arrived in Chicago without a jersey. They got a blank jersey and took got some numbers to stitch on for the game. You always have to be prepared.
Ligmamowski said unless there is a special team request, he decides what games they’ll wear the alternate jerseys.
“Sometimes if we’re on a bad roll I’ll bring them out to see if it can give us some luck,” he says.
He said the players decided to wear the black sneakers on the road last season, and then didn’t as the playoffs opened, but switched after the series began in Boston.
Ligmanowski generally sets up the uniforms, towels and gear at the Berto Center after the day’s practice for the game day shootaround. Home teams usually are responsible for equipment for the visitors, so Ligmanowski generally arrives at the United Center on game days at 9 a.m. to set up for the visiting shootaround, preparing towels, drinks and equipment.
He’ll then do washing and set up the home locker room with equipment until the players begin to arrive for the game at night while Tanaka does the laundry at the Berto after shootaround so it’s ready for the next day.
During games Ligmanowski generally is in the locker room washing towels and gear and keeping an eye on the game so if there’s blood on a uniform he can bring out a spare and begin washing the dirty one.
“The washing machines always are going,” he said.
After the games, the players generally throw their gear onto the floor and some kids who work the locker rooms gather it up for the cleaning and washing ritual, which usually lasts until midnight.
Until it starts again the next morning.
“I’ll tell you,” says Ligmanowski, “it’s always fun.”