Tom Thibodeau preps for C's reunion
Chicago Bulls coach returns to Boston to face his former team
He's coming back, but, honestly, is Boston any more of an emotional reunion for new Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau than Houston or New York? After all, he spent only three seasons alongside Celtics coach Doc Rivers in Boston. He spent 11 seasons with the Rockets and Knicks.
So is Boston really that big of a deal?
In a word: Yeah.
"It's going to bring back a lot of fond memories,'' Thibodeau said by phone this week, before his Bulls met the Knicks on Thursday night. The Bulls meet the Celtics on Friday night in Boston on ESPN (8 p.m. ET). "What that [Celtics] organization did for me, from ownership to [director of basketball operations] Danny [Ainge] to Doc -- it put me in the position that I'm in today. There's a great appreciation of that on my part."
Thibodeau was hired to coach the Bulls during June's NBA Finals, but he had to give it the zipper treatment until the series was over and he could be properly introduced. That wasn't a problem; Rivers doesn't let his assistants talk to the media anyway, and Thibodeau will never be confused with Conan O'Brien.
But the man can coach. The Bulls' basketball operations chief, John Paxson, had been after Thibodeau for a while before finally getting the green light to reel him in. He gave Thibodeau wide-ranging power, from the ability to bring in his own full staff of assistants (at the expense of capable holdover Pete Myers) to having a big say on personnel matters.
The Bulls players seem to have embraced the highly organized, attention-to-detail, no-nonsense style of their new coach. Joakim Noah was stunned to see Thibodeau at the practice facility every day to help him with workouts. That was this past summer, Derrick Rose joked that he never could sneak out of the gym, lest Thibodeau spot him.
Thibodeau is constantly teaching, even during games, when he rarely, if ever, takes a seat on the bench. He has been the anti-Pat Riley in terms of long, arduous workouts; the team had Tuesday off after its win Monday night against the Portland Trail Blazers. But he spends a lot of practice actually coaching rather than delegating. His offense has helped unleash the scary talent of Luol Deng, who dropped 40 on the Blazers. He is building a team with eight new players; Noah and Rose are the only two current Bulls who played against the Celtics in that epic seven-game series in 2009. (New Bull Brian Scalabrine played in that series for Boston. Deng was hurt.) On defense, well, they are actually playing it instead of talking about playing it.
All of that and more make Chicago an interesting story this season and Thibodeau a coach to watch. He had drawn some interest before, but there were either too many strings or not enough potential. Sacramento talked to him a couple of years ago and it went nowhere. He wasn't all that enthused about the situation in New Orleans, understandably. Ditto with the Nets. He probably could have had any of those jobs had he just said the magic word. He didn't.
"The Boston situation was a great situation for me,'' Thibodeau said. "I wasn't going to leave unless a great opportunity came along. The Bulls situation was exactly what I was looking for. They had a good, young nucleus. They had cap space. They did a great job of planning. And I was fortunate to be in a position where I could take it. It looked like the best fit."
The great unknown in every story like this is whether the 12-inch move on the bench consumes the new coach or liberates him.
Jimmy Rodgers was one of the best NBA assistant coaches in the past quarter century, picking up a handful of rings in Boston and Chicago. But he bombed as a head coach. Thibodeau certainly paid his dues (20 seasons as an NBA assistant) and drew his defensive leanings from the many years working next to Jeff Van Gundy in New York and Houston. But he was always seen as Mr. Capable Assistant who was known for a ridiculous, tireless work ethic and a passion for defense.
He had been that way with Van Gundy. But their relationship ended in 2007, when Van Gundy left the Rockets after Houston lost an excruciatingly painful first-round playoff series to Utah, dropping Game 7 at home. That made Thibodeau available.
How he got to Boston is a story in itself, for he at first said no to the Celtics after they wouldn't give him a long-term contract. He then agreed to a deal with the defensively challenged Wizards as an assistant, but three days later had second thoughts and decided not to go.
Meanwhile, Rivers was courting the underemployed Larry Brown, who accepted the job and then, in typical Brown fashion, unaccepted the job. Rivers then called Thibodeau and brought him on board to devise and implement what would be the league's top defense, anchored by Defensive Player of the Year Kevin Garnett. (Oh, and after Thibodeau had accepted the Boston job, Brown called Rivers back to see if it was still available. That's classic Larry.)
Thibodeau's star really took on supernova status in Boston. The Celtics' success in winning it all in 2008, and their surprising run to the 2010 NBA Finals, made it a question of "when" and not "if" he would finally get a chance to run his own show. He was visible. He was respected around the league as a fundamentally sound coach who shied away from self-promotion. He had Van Gundy and Rivers constantly singing his praises.
And just as important, he had an aggressive and determined suitor in Paxson, who offered an opportunity no one could match.
There was youth, talent, potential, support and authority, which made it your basic Godfather offer. How could a guy who first cut his coaching teeth at Salem State and Harvard say no to that?
Many like the Bulls to not only make the playoffs, but possibly to get the coveted No. 4 spot behind the three presumptive Eastern Conference titans, Miami, Boston and Orlando. They should have marquee free-agent signee Carlos Boozer back after Thanksgiving; he has yet to play since breaking his hand. They are still thin at shooting guard, as newcomer Ronnie Brewer has been injured and unimpressive.
Friday night in Boston, the Celtics and their fans will get their first look at what Thibodeau has managed to do in a few short months.
"I'm happy for him. I don't know if anyone paid more dues,'' Rivers said of Thibodeau, adding that the two talk regularly, maybe more than when they were on the same staff.
"It's going to feel a little weird. I know Doc, I know the team,'' Thibodeau acknowledged. "They have a great competitive spirit and that is something we're trying to do here."
So, yes, it will be a big deal. For one night, anyway. Then it's back to trying to figure out how to stop Carmelo Anthony & Co. on Monday.
And really, if you're Tom Thibodeau, and you've waited two decades for this moment, does it get any better than that?
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.