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Fleming handles head coaching stint with humility

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On New Year’s Eve, Chris Fleming walked to the back of a multipurpose room that served as the Chicago Bulls’ media room inside Indianapolis’ Gainbridge Fieldhouse and exhaled.

“Just another night at the office, huh?” a reporter light-heartedly said.

Fleming, who had just witnessed the first of two ridiculous DeMar DeRozan buzzer-beating 3-pointers, smiled.

“This is what you work for though, right?” he said.

For Fleming, that’s what it always comes down to — the work. That’s why, as the lone holdover hired by Billy Donovan from the previous Bulls coaching staff, he fits so seamlessly into this culture.

And that's why players were so happy for the assistant coach that they won all five games while Fleming served as acting head coach when Donovan landed in the league’s health and safety protocols.

“He did a helluva job,” DeRozan said. “We congratulated him in the locker room. He held it down as best as you would want a coach to hold it down in the absence of our head coach. We were so happy for him. We wanted to give him the best resume as possible being a head coach out there. He made it fun for us. He made it easy for us. He trusted us as player to still be ourselves. That’s all you can ask for.”

Though it’s not official that Donovan will return to coach Monday’s home game versus the Orlando Magic, it’s likely.

“To be honest, I’m quite relieved I can give this back to Coach,” Fleming said.

The veteran assistant laughed before saying this, a nod to the dramatic endings and DeRozan game-winning shots on back-to-back nights to beat the Pacers and Wizards on the road. All five of these victories go on Donovan’s record, but players know what Fleming and the rest of the staff accomplished during Donovan’s absence.

“You gotta give Chris a lot of credit for stepping in and taking Billy’s role and doing a really good job of helping and managing guys,” Zach LaVine said. “This whole team has just really stepped up to play winning basketball and play for each other.”

Donovan stayed engaged and involved. He attended all coaches’ meetings via Zoom and addressed the team occasionally via the same medium. But still, Fleming made the in-game decisions and accepted the increased responsibilities with equal parts of preparation and humility.

“I was very fortunate to be able to experience this from a head coaching standpoint and see the guys maybe from a different side. I told them that afterward that I was thankful for the partnership and how hard they poured themselves into making this situation a good one,” Fleming said. “That’s pretty much how their character has been all season. They’ve been resilient. They’ve had other blows and different guys have been out and they’ve just kept chugging.”

That’s Fleming’s speed too. This is someone who coached in Germany successfully for a long time, even serving as that country’s national team coach, before accepting his first NBA assistant coaching opportunity with the Denver Nuggets. Artūras Karnišovas served as the franchise’s assistant general manager at the time.

Karnišovas thought enough of Fleming to interview him to succeed Jim Boylen before Donovan unexpectedly became available. Fleming also has interviewed for the New York Knicks’ job that went to Tom Thibodeau.

Still, these proved his first NBA games as an acting head coach. Fleming made sure to spread the credit around to Donovan and the other assistant coaches.

“It’s been humbling for sure in the sense that you realize how big the job is and how many people are dependent on you being prepared and doing the right thing,’’ Fleming said. “It’s also been extremely enjoyable to figure things out as a staff and interact with the players in maybe a little different way than you do as an assistant.

“I think for me on a very personal level it’s been super valuable in terms of helping me learn. The players have been really great partners in helping during this time while Billy’s been out.’’

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