No time to rest in dream job
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau's work ethic sets the path for his first-season success
Tom Thibodeau's reputation, once circumscribed to the inner circles of the NBA, is now public knowledge.
The scouting report on Thibodeau is that he's the Basketball Bachelor, a man committed only to defending the pick-and-roll and drawing up out-of-bounds plays. A romantic night for "Thibs" includes a VCR and the beauties of the Eastern Conference, right?
He's not married, he has no kids, and he spent the last quarter century as one of the hardest-working assistant coaches in the NBA. His prowess at coaching defense became nationally known during his championship run with Doc Rivers' Boston Celtics.
His name, which has been pronounced incorrectly for decades and only corrected by the coach himself before training camp, became synonymous in recent years with "hot assistant coach," the guy who is always an interview away from the top job.
He finally got that job and it has turned out to be everything he could have wished for during those long nights cutting tape. He came into the perfect situation, with the Bulls ready to spend money to complement Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.
And Thibodeau's workaholic reputation has become his calling card. With Chicago sitting at third in the East at 38-16, he's getting credit for the team's success, along with Rose.
A perpetual motion machine on the court, Thibodeau is known for his tough, professional practices and an emphasis on teaching. He was renowned as an assistant, most notably in New York, Houston and Boston, building a cult following among players.
But don't believe that the 53-year-old is all basketball, all the time. For one thing, he's interested in Oscar-nominated movies. Well, kind of.
"I wanted to see 'The Fighter,'" he said in an enjoyable 35-minute phone conversation. "'The King's Speech' is supposed to be good. I'd like to see those two."
But Tom, I said, you just had three days off for the All-Star break, and you stayed in Chicago. Why didn't you see them, then?
Of course I knew why. He was watching that other kind of film. He's the Roger Ebert of the Berto Center.
"Yeah," he said. "I was going back through some stuff. And we have Jo coming back. So I was getting ready."
Contrary to the opinion around the team, the coach actually has a house. He's renting in Highland Park. So, no, he doesn't really sleep at the Berto Center, as players have joked about.
"No," he said, with a booming laugh. "Heck no. I think those guys just like messing around."
Also, if we're dispelling rumors, the workout warrior, and gritty Salem State University player, doesn't bench 300 pounds like his old mentor Jeff Van Gundy has insinuated.
"At one time, yeah," he said. "I'd like to get down there. I should probably start exercising more."
Can he still bench more than Noah?
"That would be easy," he said.
During his break, Thibodeau also caught some of the All-Star Game, and part of the rookie-sophomore game, which he coached in 2008.
I have a hard time imaging him, or any coach, enjoying the All-Star Game, a defense-free affair, not to mention the execrable rookie-sophomore game. But Thibodeau, who seems to truly love the NBA, has the right perspective on it.
"I think you watch and enjoy it," he said. "Everyone is just having fun. I like watching the guys interact with each other. I get a kick out of watching the coaches."
He also enjoyed watching Rose, who moved effortlessly into the spotlight as a legitimate MVP candidate on the national stage.
"He was great with the way he handled himself all weekend," Thibodeau said. "It's such a joy the way he carries himself. He gets it. I thought it was a great weekend for him."
Thibodeau said he's not worried about getting another scoring guard before this week's trade deadline, praising the work of Keith Bogans, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver. He didn't find fault with the whole Carmelo Anthony saga, calling it good for the league from a publicity standpoint.
Thibodeau raves about Rose, and the point guard said this is the first coach who never harps about his offense, only the defense. Both care only about winning, so the match is seamless. "It's hard to believe the type of guy he is," Thibodeau said. "You see the talent from the outside, what you don't get to see is his makeup, his drive, how humble he is. It's great."
Thibodeau gave Rose an impromptu pep talk before the team's last game against the Spurs. It worked, as Rose went off for a career-high 42 in the victory.
"When you've got a coach getting emotional like that, it's going to make you want to play hard, especially me," Rose told reporters that night. "You can't be too nice as a coach; you have to have some meanness in you."
I asked Thibs about that General Patton speech. He laughed. It wasn't so much that they were playing the Spurs.
"I don't know if it was any big speech," he said. "The message was, 'Be ready'. As a leader of this team, he has to set the tone of the team, along with Carlos [Boozer] and Luol [Deng]. You worry about the last game before the break, looking ahead at the wrong things."
While Thibodeau isn't the perfect coach just yet, he's certainly head-and-shoulders above his predecessor Vinny Del Negro, a first-time head coach with zero experience, aside from a nice career as a player. Del Negro got the job over the perennial candidate Thibodeau.
The post-Phil Jackson era in Chicago was highlighted by Scott Skiles' brief tenure. But Skiles hit a wall in Chicago, just as he hit a wall in Phoenix, and his players tuned him out. They weren't better off for it, but really it's worked out for the best for team, given that the Bulls got Rose because of it.
And while the remaining Bulls from last season always said the right things about Del Negro, this season's team raves about its coach.
"He's as consistent a coach as I've had," Boozer said in late January. "And I've had some pretty good ones in my day. Very consistent. Every day focused, on the grind, always has the big picture in mind. And you need a leader like that. You need a guy who always has the big picture in mind."
If that sounds like typical player apple-shining, consider this: Thibodeau benched Boozer for an entire half a few weeks before that comment. In the NBA, that's a public spanking and Boozer never let on he was bothered.
Thibodeau has been solid with the media obligations of the job, choosing to answer questions in detailed explanations, rather than vague "He just needs to play" statements. He doesn't throw out zingers, or use his status as a bully pulpit. And while some coaches have to look immaculate before cameras, he greets the media before games in a dress shirt slightly unbuttoned to show his undershirt. He sways back and forth like a freshman in Public Speaking 101. It's very authentic, and you don't feel as though you're dealing with a phony.
"I think as an assistant, I was fortunate to work for guys who gave me a lot of responsibility, so I felt comfortable with the basketball part of it," he said. "The biggest adjustment has been managing my time with the other things you have to do, meeting with media, meeting with management. I was fortunate with Doc and Jeff, they embraced working with media."
But like Rose at Simeon Career Academy, Thibodeau couldn't talk to reporters with Boston, his last stop on a peripatetic coaching journey that started at his alma mater in 1981. But he said he always kept one eye on how his bosses talked to reporters, especially Rivers and Van Gundy.
"I was watching them very closely," he said. "A lot more closely than they knew."
He laughed at the thought of Van Gundy the ESPN announcer and Rivers, the amateur comedian.
"Then I realized they were just preparing for their future careers," he said.
Thibodeau said he has picked up pieces of coaching philosophy along his journey, and not just from his head coaches.
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Under his leadership, the Bulls are one of the top defensive teams in basketball, holding opponents to 92.4 points per game, second-best in the NBA behind Thibodeau's old team. (Skiles' Bucks, incidentally, are third at 92.8 with much less talent.) Opponents are shooting a league-worst 46.4 percent against Chicago.
According to Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus, the Bulls' defense has improved since defensive anchor Noah has been out. Since his last game on Dec. 15, the Bulls have gone 22-8 and outscored teams by a league-high 7.6 points per game, while giving up 100.6 points per 100 possessions, down from 102.5.
With Noah back for the stretch run starting this Wednesday in Toronto, people are expecting big things from this team. Rose has become a de facto MVP leader and Thibodeau a coach of the year candidate.
Things haven't looked this bright for the Bulls since Michael Jordan's final season. So you could say it will be difficult for the Bulls to achieve, or overachieve, in the playoffs, but that's only if you haven't been watching.
"See I don't think it's tough," Thibodeau said. "We have to remember how we got to this point -- that's through work and commitment, and keeping our edge and continuing to strive to improve and not get lost in the hype that's not important. We don't want to look ahead or behind. Everything we do will either put us closer toward winning or closer toward losing."
Thibodeau's intensity has been well-covered, but he swears he's content with the balance between work and life.
"Well, I enjoy the job and I love coaching," he said. "To me it's not work. But when the work is done, I leave like everyone else to get away from it. I think you have to come in fresh every day.
"You don't have to worry about me burning out. I've done this thing for a long time. The real joy with me is winning."
In truth, it's perfectly fine that Thibodeau is defined by his job. He's happy, the Bulls are happy, Chicago is happy. The fit is perfect. The 2010-11 Bulls season is looking like a movie that even Thibodeau could find time to watch.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.