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Steve Aschburner

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has a shared history with the man who last led the Bulls to an NBA title.
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images

Thibodeau, Jackson mark opposite ends of Bulls' success

Posted Mar 12 2011 2:13PM

CHICAGO -- Phil Jackson's first road game as an NBA head coach was Tom Thibodeau's first home game on an NBA bench, period. They were sitting about 60 feet apart.

Thus began the greatest era in Chicago Bulls' basketball and, in a sense, the latest.

On Nov. 8, 1989, on a chilly Minneapolis evening, Jackson, Michael Jordan and the Bulls made their first-ever trip to face the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves. Jackson, after two seasons as a Bulls assistant, had replaced Doug Collins as head coach. Thibodeau was the low man on Wolves coach Bill Musselman's staff of two, recently hired after stints as an assistant at Harvard and head coach at Salem State.

The Bulls were 2-1 when they got to the Twin Cities, and 3-1 when they left; Jordan scored 45 points in a 96-84 victory at the Metrodome, the football/baseball stadium used by Minnesota in its inaugural season. An improbable crowd of 35,427 were giddy with the outcome regardless -- it was the first real NBA game in the city in 29 years, 229 days. The Minneapolis Lakers had played their final home game on March 24, 1960, a loss to St. Louis in Game 6 of the Western Division finals, before packing up for sunny Los Angeles that summer.

Thibodeau spent the night, and many more over the next two seasons, waiting for someone to tap him on the shoulder to say that it all had been a big mistake. His NBA hiring, that is.

"Time certainly flies by," Thibodeau said Friday, with a husky laugh. From his chair, at his desk, in the head coach's office at United Center. "It's unbelievable, when you think about it."

Jackson's job then. Thibodeau's now. Unbelievable.

Fast-forward 20 months to June 1991. Jackson was leading Chicago to the first of its six NBA championships in the 1990s, beating the Lakers in five games for a title that will be celebrated Saturday night with a 20-year reunion of that Bulls team. (Most of Jackson's players will be present for the ceremony at halftime of the game against Utah, but the coach will be working in Dallas, his Lakers facing the Mavericks on NBA TV.)

Thibodeau? He was looking for work in June 1991. Musselman and his staff had been fired two months earlier, at the end of the 1990-91 regular season. Then 33 years old, Thibodeau was hoping that his excellent NBA adventure wasn't over before it had barely begun.

"At that time, I had two years of experience with an expansion team," Thibodeau said, making that sound as meager as it was. Minnesota had gone 51-113, with the usual expansion birthing pains. "You don't know how it's going to turn out. You just plug away, do everything you can. You're hoping you can get another opportunity."

He did not have a Plan B. College hoops? The CBA? Overseas? Nope. Thibodeau wanted to stay in the NBA, in "whatever capacity." "I loved the NBA and I knew that was what I wanted to do," he said. "I had been talking to some people [in college], but I wanted to see if I could stay."

Musselman was out, too, but still was getting paid by the Wolves. He had ambitions of landing another NBA head coaching job. Said Thibodeau: "I was just trying to stay current so if he got another job, I could hit the ground running."

So Musselman mentioned Thibodeau to Bob Kloppenburg, a longtime NBA assistant he had worked with in Cleveland a decade earlier. Kloppenburg, an assistant/advance scout for Seattle, got Thibodeau some part-time scouting work with the Sonics. With a midseason coaching change, Kloppenburg got bumped up and Thibodeau took on heavier duty.

"It was a great year for me," Thibodeau said. "I learned a lot just doing the advance scouting. And then from there, San Antonio [1992-94] the next two years and then Philly. It was right when the Bulls got going. Of course there was the pain after I went to New York because ... it was pretty tough."

The Bulls being celebrated Saturday night morphed into the team that went for a second "three-peat" from 1996-98. Thibodeau worked alongside Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy through the last two Bulls' titles, with New York stymied so often by that Chicago team.

"I think 1996-97 was our best year in New York," Thibodeau said. "Well, we ended up going to the Finals in 1999, but we had a great team in '96-97. That was the year we had everyone get suspended against Miami and Miami played these guys in the conference finals." A brawl in Game 5, triggering a rush of New York players off the bench, led to multiple suspensions that cost the Knicks in the series' final two games.

Jackson and the Bulls dodged New York -- and Thibodeau -- en route to the 1997 and 1998 championships, and has since gone on to win five more NBA titles with the Lakers and rank, arguably, as the greatest coach in league history.

Thibodeau, after waiting 21 years, finally got a head coaching gig last summer when the Bulls called. He is on his way, with a 46-18 mark, pushing Boston for the top playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.

"When you think about Phil's career, it wasn't all easy for him either," Thibodeau said of the former banging, blue-collar forward, whose embrace of the, uh, counterculture made NBA teams wary when filling roles requiring leadership and discipline. "He had been a longtime CBA guy and finally got an opportunity here, and the rest is history. Now I can't remember exactly, but I guess Phil was involved with the Minnesota job at one time too."

It's true. Jackson had a connection to Bob Stein, a former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker who became the Timberwolves' first team president during their expansion push.

"Bob Stein and I were Democratic athletes for [presidential candidate George] McGovern back in the '70s," Jackson told me in November 2005 before a game at Target Center. "So there was some conversation. I anticipated [Bill] Musselman, because of his background here in Minnesota [coaching the NCAA Gophers], was the odds-on favorite."

Jackson never was formally interviewed and, indeed, Musselman was hired in August 1988, a year before the Wolves began play. Jackson spent another season on Collins' staff before getting bumped up. "I was lucky," the Lakers coach said. "I wasn't chosen [by the Wolves]."

Said Thibodeau: "It's funny the different twists and turns, and fate, and how everything works out."

For all of Thibodeau's job changes, for all the mentors he has had and the benches on which he has sat, he and Jackson never worked together. Instead, they have held the same job, so many years apart.

"You'd think the way I jumped around, I'd have hit him at some point," Thibodeau said, laughing again. "Just tell him to stick around a little longer."

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.

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