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Following long stint with Bulls, Jeff Tanaka building relationships after moving to Fire

Tanaka became the Fire’s head athletic trainer last fall.

Former Bulls trainer Jeff Tanaka is in his first season with the Fire.
Former Bulls trainer Jeff Tanaka is in his first season with the Fire.
Courtesy of the Fire

After spending 12 years with one Chicago sports team, Jeff Tanaka is adjusting to working with another.

Let go by the Bulls in May 2020 after the team hired executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley to revamp the franchise, Tanaka became the Fire’s head athletic trainer last fall. When the Bulls moved on from him, the Sun-Times reported that Tanaka wasn’t being ‘‘scapegoated’’ for injuries but that the new brass wanted to bring in someone it chose.

‘‘It was disappointing, obviously,’’ Tanaka told the Sun-Times this week. ‘‘I had been there for 12 years, but you understand that that’s part of the business sometimes. New people come in and have the right to make decisions from a personnel standpoint.’’

The move to the Fire represents a shift for Tanaka, who was hired by the Bulls as an assistant trainer in 2008 after eight years with the 49ers. He was promoted to head trainer in 2014 and was a fixture in the Bulls’ organization during the Derrick Rose/Tom Thibodeau era, as well as during the team’s decline under John Paxson and Gar Forman that led to Karnisovas’ arrival.

Tanaka has experience he’s eager to apply to the Fire. At the same time, however, he’s leaning somewhat on the rest of their medical and performance staffs to learn some of the nuances about top-level soccer and soccer players.

One of the aspects Tanaka is adjusting to is the mindset of a soccer player compared to that of an NBA or NFL player.

‘‘I’m continuing to learn,’’ Tanaka said. ‘‘That’s one of the exciting things is to kind of branch out into another area that is newer and exciting for me.’’

While starting a new job can be tough at any time, Tanaka began a new one during an especially trying period.

Though vaccines are becoming more available and things are beginning to open up, the COVID-19 pandemic still is going and causes obstacles for Tanaka and his colleagues. That means managing COVID-19 protocols and handling issues that weren’t a part of the job description before last season.

Given all the challenges, Tanaka said he is ‘‘pretty happy’’ with how his new job is going as he spends more time with the Fire, builds relationships and gets into more of the soccer specifics. He said he has felt really supported since starting with the Fire and credited sporting director Georg Heitz, technical director Sebastian Pelzer, coach Raphael Wicky and the rest of the team for being ‘‘open-minded enough’’ to bring him on board.

‘‘They could have very easily stayed with a ‘soccer’ person,’’ Tanaka said. ‘‘That shows they’re kind of thinking out of the box, too. I’m appreciative of that. It’s still early on, but they’re on a good path with the staff, the coaches, as well as the players.’’