Vinny Del Negro’s dad is in his corner — on the court and off
As homemade gifts go this holiday season, does it get better than this?
“I never, never, ever said this in front of my son before,” says Vin Del Negro, his boy Vinny sitting beside him.
“I’m very proud of my son.”
It’s a few hours before the Clippers will win a record-setting 12th-straight game on his son’s watch, and old school is in session.
Vincent Augustine Del Negro names his middle child Vincent Joseph because “there’s only one Vincent Augustine,” he says. And amen to that.
Vin is now 76, married to Peg for 53 years, and much more easygoing today, he proclaims. And ready to smack anyone who disagrees.
He’s explaining a life lived caring but never, never, ever letting on. The bleeps that punctuate his wonderful storytelling are better left unwritten here.
While Vinny doesn’t always remember his dad being there, when he’s a sixth-grader playing basketball against eighth-graders, his dad sneaks into the back of the gym.
When the kid needs a sponsor for his team, Vin finds an Italian restaurant that can’t say no to him.
When Vinny scores 30, Vin wants to know why it isn’t 40.
When it’s Vinny’s job to sweep a barroom floor, finding $1.25 as he does so, Vin wants to know why it isn’t $1.50.
“That’s what I put on the floor,” Vin says.
When the kid is better served attending a boarding school with the rich kids, Vin works harder to make it happen.
The kid gets his number retired at the boarding school, then again at North Carolina State playing for Jim Valvano and finishes as one of the San Antonio Spurs’ all-time top 25 players.
“He turns out fantastic, doesn’t he?” Vin says. “His mother did a great job.”
Now the kid has the Clippers playing better than at any other time in their existence, and Vinny’s dad says, “I have to be careful what I say here.”
Vinny laughs, because that’s not going to happen.
“I’d like to sit down with Mr. Sterling,” Vin says. “Everyone is afraid of him, but he’s just a person. He’s got a lot of money, but big deal. He wants to win and he’s lost all these years.
“Now he’s got somebody who has changed the culture around here, someone the players like, and Vinny should already have a contract extension of three to four years.”
Well said, dad.
“You know, I was a workaholic, running two bars and a [liquor] package store. My job was to make money, my wife’s to raise the kids. But I remember coming home for dinner for the first time in months and Vinny says to me, ‘You never sit down and eat with us.’
“Then I get a call the ice machine is broke in the Fifth Alarm, so I go, and it’s my bar so I don’t get home until 2:30.
“But the next day I tell the missus I’m selling the bar.”
He doesn’t get much warmer and fuzzier than that until he starts to demonstrate how his 8-year-old grandson leads him around the house to save him from tripping.
Vin is legally blind, one bad eye and one not as bad. When he’s home, he wears dark glasses to reduce the glare and sits in his special chair directly in front of the TV to watch the Clippers.
He cannot make out faces, but he knows shapes and where Blake Griffin should be on the court.
“He loves Blake,” Vinny says, “because he loves work ethic.”
Vin knows his son’s basketball routine, timing his daily phone calls so he doesn’t interrupt the work his son should be doing.
Friday night Vin is behind the Clippers’ bench, L.A. cool in his dark shades with Peg next to him to tell him everything he cannot see. There’s no indication he’s handcuffed to his seat, but it’s advisable.
When his son’s Bulls throw a playoff scare into the Celtics, Vin works his way down to the court and sits on the end of the bench to see better. He joins the huddle during timeouts.
“We win and I turn around and there’s my dad,” Vinny says. “I’m thinking maybe he’s having a heart attack or something before I have to tell him to get off the court.”
Vinny has been in L.A. almost three years, but folks really don’t know him. After all, he’s a Clippers coach and they don’t hang around long.
But to hear his father talk with such passion, and commitment — every morning at 8:30 calling his boyhood friend Johnny D’Angelo — the kid might be tough to shake.
“I came from a neighborhood where everyone stayed connected,” Vinny says. “I now talk to my team about living like that and what it means to be there for each other.”
Dad is 6-foot-5, Mom 5-foot-4, but it’s still a jump ball who frets more about Vinny getting criticized.
“My wife can’t take it,” Vin says.
When ESPN’s Bill Simmons reports inaccurately last season that Del Negro will lose his job, Vin asks his son if he wants him to take care of the guy.
When the Bulls hire Vinny and two years later fire him, well, he’s still a little worked up about that.
“I’d love to have their top three management guys sitting here right now,” Vin says. “I’d knock the heck out of them.”
Yet when his son calls from college to say Valvano isn’t playing him, Dad tells Vinny he must not be good enough to play.
“Other kids call home and their parents are telling them the coach is wrong,” Vinny says.
But Vin was a basketball player too, playing for Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp before telling Rupp what he could do to himself. Repeatedly.
Vin eventually quits, vowing later if he ever has a son, he won’t behave the same way.
It explains why Vin has a tattoo and if Vinny ever got one, “I’d kick his butt,” Vin says.
The interview over, and no one getting smacked, the tough-guy father mentions his wife. He says she’s the luckiest girl alive for marrying him.
Then just as quickly the big marshmallow says he would never say that in front of her.
“People say I’m tough, but not that tough,” Vin says.
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