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

other way.

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

leave.”

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