Click here to Skip to main content

Steve Aschburner

Tom Thibodeau (far right) got his start as an assistant to Bill Musselman (left) in Minnesota in 1989.
Ken Levine/Getty Images

Early days with Wolves helps Thibodeau forge his NBA style

Posted Jul 29 2010 11:33AM

Too often, the pursuit of an opportunity -- a job, a promotion, a relationship with a certain someone -- is so consuming, so fervent that it becomes an end unto itself. Then when you finally get it, whatever your particular, elusive "it" is, you might feel like Robert Redford's title character in the old political film The Candidate, where he exhales at the end of election night and wonders to campaign manager Peter Boyle, "What do we do now?"

There won't be any "what do we do now?" moment for Tom Thibodeau this season as rookie head coach of the Chicago Bulls. If Thibodeau and the Bulls start fast in 2010-11, he'll be one of those overnight successes that was 21 years in the making.

And if he and his team falter early, it won't be because he wanted to be a coach more than he wanted to do the work of a coach. We've all seen those types, in the league and outside it.

"This is not a thing where he got the job and now it's, 'What do I do?' " said Eric Musselman, the former Golden State and Sacramento coach who has known Thibodeau for a couple decades. "It was very well thought out, very well planned for at minimum three to four years, where Tom thought he could get a job at any moment."

It did seem only a matter of time, given the credits piling up on Thibodeau's resume, the extended exposure he was getting from the Boston Celtics' long playoff runs and the platforms and credibility of his biggest boosters (Jeff Van Gundy, Doc Rivers). Thibodeau's preparation and hire-ability was obvious from his stints in San Antonio, Philadelphia, New York, Houston, Orlando and Boston, and sheer longevity -- familiarity with the players, an insider's knowledge of teams' systems -- suggested his phone would ring sooner or, as it turned out, later.

But none of this happens without a leap of faith, without someone opening an NBA door for the first time. None of this happens without somebody in the position to help seeing a little extra in the former coach at Salem State and assistant at Harvard.

None of this happens without Bill Musselman, Eric's dad, inviting Thibodeau to assist him in 1989 with a crazy-quilt team built from scratch in expansion, trying to plant a franchise where the Lakers had given up 29 years earlier, staging games in a football stadium and somehow making it work.

The Timberwolves, later with Kevin Garnett around, would go on to make the playoffs eight years in a row, reaching the Western Conference finals in 2004. But a lot of fans in the Upper Midwest never had more fun than in the club's first two seasons, first at the Metrodome (where their debut attendance remains the NBA single-season record) and then at the new (and now aging) Target Center.

The roster was full of overachievers, discards and square pegs seeking round holes. The style was described as pesky, feisty, scrappy and, OK, ugly in its defensive bent. The coach was already notorious for his competitiveness, his drive and his determination to right a career derailed by an ugly brawl during his days coaching at the University of Minnesota. It was no surprise that a biography in which Musselman participated fully was titled, "Obsession: Bill Musselman's Relentless Quest to Beat the Best." It was published in November 1989, just as the fledgling Wolves were taking their first steps.

Thibodeau stepped into the middle of all that.

"The thing about Bill, I mean, obviously during practices and games he was very intense," Thiobdeau said. "But off the court, he was very enjoyable to be around. I was expecting to see these all-out crazy practices, but he had a great feel for pro basketball. His practices were never real long. They were sharp and focused and there was a lot of precision, and he certainly believed in fresh legs."

More important, he believed in Thibodeau, a basketball junkie not known as a foam-at-the-mouth pit bull the way his first NBA boss was. So how did fire pick ice?

"My dad was scouting at the Big East tournament [before the inaugural season]," Eric Musselman said, "and the agent Frank Catapano ... came to a game with Tom and they sat with my dad. My dad was really impressed just talking basketball with him and liked his aggressive nature in asking questions."

Turns out, Thibodeau had driven with Catapano a few times to Albany, N.Y., when the elder Musselman was coaching the CBA Patroons (and Catapano clients Scott Brooks and Sam Mitchell -- future NBA coaches -- were playing). Musselman invited Thibodeau to work out players at some Wolves free-agent camps in the summer of 1989 and, soon thereafter, to join him and Bob Zuffelato on that first Minnesota staff.

"More than anything, what stands out is he was a worker, always in the gym, very player-friendly," said Scott Roth, a forward on that club. "But you didn't know whether he was going to be in the league for one year or five years or be out. The good thing is, he prepped himself off some very good coaches. But in the NBA, you can be a head coach with no years of experience or you can be like Tom and do it for 20 years."

Somehow, some way, they drove the 1989-90 Wolves to 22 victories, more than any of the other three franchises that debuted in the late 1980s (in their first seasons, Miami won 15, Orlando 18 and Charlotte 20). A year later, Minnesota went 29-53 but Musselman and his staff got axed for not giving playing time to youngsters like Gerald Glass -- Gerald Glass? -- and costing the club lottery chances. Thibodeau began his travels through the league, and various coaches' tutelage, as an advance scout for Seattle in 1991-92.

"Everyone thought Bill wouldn't be able to handle expansion, but that wasn't the case at all," Thibodeau said. "His thing was, 'Are you getting the most out of your team?', and there was no question in my mind that each and every night he got the most out of that team."

Thibodeau made his bones by starting early, staying late, rebounding for whichever player asked, focusing on big men such as Felton Spencer and Randy Breuer and acting "like a sponge," said Eric Musselman, who joined his father's staff in 1990-91. "The players respected him because he wanted to make them better."

Said Thibodeau: "I don't think anyone has ever taught half-court execution half as well as Bill did -- timing, spacing, concentration, shot selection. Bill also studied the type of guys he wanted. They were guys with great will to win, smart players, they were tough, they were students of the game."

They all must have done something right. An inordinate number of coaches have come from that rag-tag group, including NBA Coach of the Year winners Brooks and Mitchell. Eric Musselman had three seasons with the Warriors and the Kings. Scott Roth, a blue-collar player who teamed with the younger Musselman on the Brecksville, Ohio, high school squad, is about to surface as an assistant on another NBA staff. Tod Murphy, a slim power forward and another ex-Patroon, coaches at Gordon College after six years working at UC-Irvine. Musselman himself surfaced for three seasons on Mike Dunleavy's bench in Portland before passing away at age 59 in May 2000.

And always, in the background, there was Thibodeau. Now at center stage. Ready for a close-up that once seemed impossible from the NBA's lowest rung, if not for a quieter, gentler, less obvious sort of obsession.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

photoFantasy Tip-off: Monday's Late Game
Jared Greenberg gives you the inside scoop on how tonight's Blazers / Clippers matchup will impact your lineup.
photoThe Starters: Kobe's Retirement Reaction
The Starters break down what they were thinking when they heard the Mamba was hanging up the sneakers.
photoThe Starters: NBA Bloopers
There were a few funnies from this past weekend in the NBA ? The Starters have them all for you.
photoThe Starters: Kobe Bryant - Best Moment
The 81-point game? The alleyoop to Shaq? Not flinching in front of Matt Barnes?
photoDurant and Westbrook on Kobe
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook of the OKC Thunder talk about the legacy and impact of Kobe Bryant.

Copyright © NBA Media Ventures, LLC. All rights reserved. No portion of may be duplicated, redistributed or manipulated in any form. By accessing any information beyond this page, you agree to abide by the Privacy Policy / Your California Privacy Rights and Terms of Use. | Ad Choices Ad Choices is part of Turner Sports Digital, part of the Turner Sports & Entertainment Digital Network.