CHICAGO -- Gar Forman knows how to work a room, but he's got nothing on his wife Leslie.
Forman, the Chicago Bulls general manager and reigning NBA executive of the year alongside Miami's Pat Riley, has spent decades working in basketball as a coach, scout or executive. But even he would admit he doesn't hold a candle to the bubbly personality his wife exudes on a daily basis. Leslie Forman has become a fixture at Bulls games, chatting up fans, players, even Derrick Rose's mom Brenda.
She has also become more of a force within the community relations arm of the Bulls organization, the Chicago Bulls Charities. As usual, she bounced around the halls at the United Center on Tuesday as the Bulls hosted their annual charity benefit, just one of many new endeavors she's undertaken in recent months, alongside another new and more public face to the re-formatted organization, Nancy Reinsdorf, the wife of President and COO, Michael Reinsdorf.
Back in January, the Formans, along with John Lucas III, Jimmy Butler and other Bulls personnel, spent an evening at Mercy Home, described by the organization as a place which "gives children who have suffered abuse, neglect, poverty and even abandonment the opportunity to rebuild their lives and the encouragement to realize their dreams."
The Bulls caravan made a special appearance for "Hoops to Homework" night, an NBA draft-like event in which kids from the home who kept their grades up throughout the year were drafted onto teams and played against each other throughout the rest of the season. Forman, Lucas and Butler were among some who made speeches, but it was Leslie Forman, playing the role of cheerleader, who had the crowd energized before the festivities.
"She's got a lot of coaching in her background," Forman quipped. "Her dad was a longtime coach. I guess that's where it comes from."
For the Formans, giving back is something that comes from within.
"Gar and I used to be foster parents, so we look for things that are in our community, that give back to kids," Leslie Forman said. "And that help kids overcome adversity and learn how to be a team player, learn how to succeed, learn how to connect with other people, and then eventually learn how to get back. A lot of these coaches that are sitting here that volunteer are former residences of this school. They're giving back to the school, so I'm just thrilled that we could be a part of this draft."
So were some of Forman's players. Butler told the kids at Mercy Home that he used to be in their shoes. He talked of how rough his childhood had been until he found Michelle Lambert and her family. His message was that if he could succeed in life after all the challenges in his life, so could they.
"I can't tell you what it means," Mercy Home Vice President of Advancement Mimi LeClair said, "These kids don't think that any of the youth care workers can really relate to them. And when have an occasion to meet somebody who's lived a life that they've lived and who kind of understands where they came from, those guys they hang on to. I know what's going to happen, there's going to be photographs of Jimmy in their rooms. They'll go online tonight, they'll Google [him]. It makes all the difference in the world. We are constantly looking for male role models, especially for the boys, because they've had very few male role models in their lives. Ninety-nine percent of them don't have a father figure, so that's what we work really hard on trying to find."
Lucas was proud of his rookie teammate.
"It makes me feel like he's willing to share his story because it will influence others who might be dealing with the same thing he went through," Lucas said. "Your life story may help somebody else make it through their life. When they feel like they don't have nobody to talk to, or they feel like they're the only ones going through that, that nobody else is going through that with [them]. Everybody is dealing with something. Everybody has something they're dealing with. Or they have a past, a background, something they're not proud of; when you share that then you can touch that person that's dealing with the same thing. That's what Jimmy did, that's huge."
Lucas was so touched by his experience with the kids at Mercy Home that he made a pledge. If they promise to do their homework during the year, he vowed to send them all Nike shoes. As somebody who has grinded their way into an NBA career, Lucas can appreciate a group of kids who need a boost.
"When you have something like this, it's not about who is the best basketball player," Lucas says. "It's all about academics, and that's real big with me. Education is everything. My grandfather was the president of Charlotte University, then became the principal of the high school my mom and dad attended. My grandma was the English teacher [at] the high school, and then [my grandfather] became the president at the North Carolina School Board. So education to my family is everything. When you see kids work, and people kind of doubting them out, and saying they're not going to be able to do this and proving them wrong, I'm all for that."
That's music to the ears of LeClair, who is always looking for ways to motivate the kids at her campus.
"This is sort of the culmination of the year for these kids," LeClair said. "They hear about it all year long from the kids who have done it the year before and it is really one of the few things, the incentives that we can give them to make them really go through school.”
Having been in Chicago for over a decade now, the Formans know how popular the organization has become again. They also understand that they have the platform to make a difference.
"After going to Northbrook Court and just seeing the love of all of our players, it doesn't surprise me anymore," Leslie Forman said, referring to a preseason event in which thousands stuffed the suburban shopping mall to catch a glimpse and autograph from their favorite Bulls players.
"But what's really touching is watching these kids here, how important it is for them to come and meet these players, and to find a connection with these players. They know that these players have had to work through their own adversity to get to where they're at. And so hopefully that will give them so motivation to continue to push through and find their own success. I think it's exciting to see, and I think it's thrilling for our players to come here and inspirational for our players to come in and connect with them."