For Thibodeau, no time to celebrate coaching award
Tom Thibodeau’s NBA coach of the year celebration was two
decades in the making and nearly over before it began. It will be
old news by the time the Chicago Bulls wrap up their second-round
playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks. He wouldn’t want it any
Too bad. Lost in all that haste is a tale that owners and
general managers around the league should be required to memorize.
It’s about a guy who studies like mad and does everything right,
but gets passed over time and again because he doesn’t have the
pedigree or look the part.
Thibodeau played basketball at Division III Salem State, and
after three years as an assistant there, worked his one and only
season (1984-85) as a head coach until owner Jerry Reinsdorf handed
him the keys to the Bulls last summer. In between were four years
as an assistant at Harvard and 21 more at a half-dozen NBA stops,
where every defense Thibodeau touched got better – and someone else
got the credit.
That changed in a few important ways Sunday, if only for a short
time, when Thibodeau received 76 first-place votes to finish well
ahead of Philadelphia’s Doug Collins in balloting for the award.
For once, there was a reason to celebrate how much loyalty
Thibodeau had inspired in others, instead of the other way around.
He reacted the way you’d expect.
”I never doubted that it would happen. I knew I had to be
patient,” he said. ”I recognized that these jobs were hard to
get, and I was hopeful that I would get a chance. Then, I wanted to
make the most of it.”
And then, likely because he’s a very smart man, or simply by
force of habit, Thibodeau spent the rest of his allotted time
trying to make everyone else around him look good.
”I realize how fortunate I am to be here,” he said. ”It’s a
great city, great fans, great organization, great players … it
was well worth the wait.”
There’s plenty of truth to that, of course. Most rookie pro
coaches catch their first ride with a team that’s cratered, or is
about to. By that point, the players are coaching themselves more
often than not.
What Thibodeau inherited instead was a team that had gone 41-41
under Vinny Del Negro, but was clearly on the rise. Derrick Rose
was already the best young player in the league. Veteran Carlos
Boozer came over during the offseason.
So, yes, Thibodeau was fortunate. Just don’t confuse that with
luck. It may have taken him way too long to get noticed, but he
wasn’t exactly a secret anymore. He was just coming off a stint as
project manager of the Boston Celtics’ championship-caliber
defense. In 16 of his 21 previous seasons, Thibodeau-coached units
ranked among the NBA’s top 10; during one memorable stretch of his
stay in New York a decade ago, the Knicks set a record by holding
opponents below 100 points in 33 straight games.
He achieves that by endlessly breaking down games, possession by
possession, then drawing up a plan to win every one. Not
surprising, every place Thibodeau has been, players crack jokes
about wandering into the practice facility at all hours and seeing
the light from a video projector illuminating his office.
”Every time,” Bulls forward Luol Deng recalled. ”I don’t know
if he gets here at 5 or 6. He’s here early and he’s the last one to
That work ethic made a similar impression on Arne Duncan, the
current U.S. Secretary of Education and a former basketball student
of Thibodeau’s at Harvard. Duncan somehow wrangled the keys to the
school’s gym while a player, often ran into Thibodeau and started
spending offseasons working out under his tutelage. Duncan went on
to play four seasons in the top tier Australian pro league after
graduation. The Chicago native returned the favor when the Bulls’
job opened up, lobbying Reinsdorf to hire his mentor.
Persuading Rose to buy into his hiring required no high-level
intervention. Thibodeau promised to plot every possession, making
as many switches or substitutions that were necessary to get
matchups he wanted, then gave Rose responsibility to press that
advantage. Instead of resting him late in the regular season,
Thibodeau piled up minutes on his star’s slim shoulders. The Bulls
pulled away to win 21 of their last 23 games, snare homecourt
through the playoffs with the league’s best record – and an MVP
award that Rose is expected to collect on Tuesday and celebrate
just as long as Thibodeau did his coaching award.
”His job is to come up with the game plan,” Rose has said more
than once. ”My job is to execute it.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated
Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org