- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- There comes a time in even the most successful coaches' careers when perception is a problem. They appear too tough, too soft, too dull or too-over-the-top.
Seldom does it match what players see in the gym or on the field.
It will take a while for us to get to know Tom Thibodeau, who will be officially introduced Wednesday as the Chicago Bulls' new head coach, and it's anyone's guess as to what his public persona will be since he hasn't had to worry about having one as a career assistant.
But chances are most of us will never see him at his best.
Arne Duncan saw Thibodeau at his best. Thibodeau was only 25 at the time, but had already worked four years in college coaching, including one as a head coach, when the future U.S. Secretary of Education first met him at Harvard.
"I was a slow guy from Harvard who dreamed of playing professional basketball and everyone thought I was crazy," said Duncan, who grew up in Hyde Park and went on to become the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, but not before playing pro ball overseas for four years in Australia.
"Tom believed in me and worked to get me the opportunity, and he didn't have to do that. I was a long shot at best. He wasn't paid extra after the season to work with me. . . . He has just an extraordinary commitment to his players and the hours he will put in with them and the team are like nothing you've ever seen before. I'll never forget what he did for me."
Can Thibodeau make that sort of commitment as the man in charge of the Bulls? Basketball is still a teaching sport, more so than most, necessitating coaches who are active in practice, who can break a sweat instructing and often re-teaching young players the game, even at the pro level. Maybe especially at the pro level, where even LeBron James would benefit from good coaching.
It's not easy being the boss, and Thibodeau will undoubtedly find this out at some point. But he appears to be the kind of guy who won't particularly care what those of us on the outside think as long as he is serving his players. That's not necessarily a bad thing.
"His players are tremendously loyal to him," Duncan said. "Yao Ming took [Thibodeau] with him to China. Ray Allen and Paul Pierce were not known as defensive specialists, and they changed their fundamental approach to the game because of his coaching. You don't often find that at that stage of their careers. But [Thibodeau] builds a loyalty to players because they have a loyalty to him and his great work ethic."
Duncan, a longtime Bulls fan, has campaigned for Thibodeau to the only person with a vote, and Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf was won over in large part because of Thibodeau's commitment to defense. If any NBA coach can get an entire team -- a young or veteran group -- to buy into the kind of effort it takes to play great defense on a consistent basis, fans won't care if he has the personality of a gym locker. (With all due respect to Joel Quenneville, most Blackhawks fans didn't see him smile until he was hoisting the Stanley Cup, and no one is complaining.)
On the other hand, this is also Thibodeau's chance at the proverbial blank slate, an opportunity to create whatever kind of public persona he wants. If he even cares to think that much about it.
"He's a character, a really good guy," Duncan said. "He can laugh and joke, but he's all business on the court. He's really intense. I can still remember him yelling at me. He's going to push you. All he cares about is winning. A lot of guys are interested in the glamour, the money, the status, the prestige [of being a head coach in the NBA]. But Tom is a down-to-earth, humble guy who just truly loves the game and loves to win."
And apparently, he is a guy who loves the idea of doing that in Chicago.
"He had a couple other potential opportunities but he desperately wanted the Chicago job," Duncan said. "A couple weeks ago, he said, 'Arne, it's the one job I want. It's the only one.'"
We may never get to see Thibodeau create his brand of magic. But if Bulls fans are lucky, they'll see the result and won't mind a bit.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist at ESPNChicago.com.
Arne Duncan says the Bulls got it right with Tom Thibodeau.