Posted May 1 2011 6:57PM
DEERFIELD, Ill. -- From the start, the biggest question about Tom Thibodeau's coaching style in his first year with the Chicago Bulls was: How would it wear over the long haul?
Thibodeau brought impeccable credentials, a wealth of NBA knowledge accumulated over two decades and an indefatigable work schedule along with him last June when he became the 18th head coach in Bulls history. The concern among some -- both the skeptics and those rooting for him -- was how Thibodeau's workaholic, singleminded ways would mesh his players' rhythms across seven, eight, maybe ninth months.
Basketball is king from October to June, sure, for the best and the most fortunate ones. But even then, real life occasionally intrudes. Personalities grate. Mental and physical breaks become the "less" that often prove to be "more."
Thibodeau always had been a grinder. The bachelor married to his job. The trusty assistant burning the overnight oil, unlocking the gym at odd hours for a player in search of tutoring. No one doubted his drive to improve, to try harder, to try again, to win. But like any drive filled with twists and turns along the way -- an NBA season surely has that -- easing up on the gas can be just as vital as stomping on it.
Would he wear out or burn out his team in a month? A year? Maybe by next Tuesday?
Asked Sunday if he learned to back off this season, Thibodeau deadpanned: "Never."
Laughter broke out at the news conference, the one at the Bulls practice facility announcing Thibodeau as the winner of the 2011 NBA Coach of the Year Award. Guess that proved Thibodeau's way could work after all.
"I know there's a lot that's been said that I never sleep, I never eat, I never go home. Nah," the Bulls coach. "I do go home. You have to be balanced. It's a long season, and once we get the work done, we go home, we relax like everybody else and get ready for the next day.
"How you pace your team in this league is very important. We're fortunate because we have the right guys. I can't say enough about John [Paxson, Bulls' vice president of basketball] and Gar [Forman, general manager] how they've selected the right people."
There is that. Starting from scratch with eight new players helped avoid any strong "that's not how we did it last year" undercurrent. Of the returnees, guard Derrick Rose struck Thibodeau as a budding leader equally driven to improve. As with any team where the biggest star falls in line with the coach's agenda -- Boston with Kevin Garnett, Oklahoma City with Kevin Durant and so on -- teammates almost necessarily follow.
That's why Thibodeau didn't necessarily have to change. He -- and the lieutenants he and Forman seeded in the locker room -- just sold this Bulls team on the rewards of busting one's hump.
The results? A 62-20 finish in the regular season that matched the record for most victories by a rookie head coach. A likely Most Valuable Player Award for Rose. The No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. A first-round elimination of Indiana in five games followed by a second-round opportunity against Atlanta in a best-of-seven series that starts with Game 1 Monday night.
And the honor that came Sunday, validating Thibodeau as one of those overnight sensations 20 years in the making. Twenty years in the grinding.
Devoted to his job but also to his parents back in New England, some nieces and newphews and the Who's Who list of mentors before and once he reached the NBA, Thibodeau became the fourth coach in Bulls history to win the COY award, joining Johnny (Red) Kerr (1967), Dick Motta (1971) and Phil Jackson (1996). He doesn't pass out books to his players like Jackson, the Zen master, to challenge their minds; instead, Thibodeau picks up one now and then to turn his off.
"I like to read before I go to bed -- leadership, a little bit of history -- it makes me relax and then I go to sleep," he said Sunday. "But sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night. You have an idea or you just ... but that's coaching. That's all coaches. Anyone who tells you that they don't? No."
Too grinding? Too demanding? Thibodeau apparently hasn't been too anything at this point. Besides, he has been where his players want to go: Fourteen trips to the playoffs and three times to The Finals (New York in 1999, Boston in 2008 and 2010), with a championship with the Celtics. If he could take them places like that, the Bulls seemed to agree, they were willing to flip him the keys. No matter how hard he drove.
"I think training camp was fine," backup forward Brian Scalabrine said, "so let's say October, November, right around that time -- December -- people were like, 'Oh man, this is tough, man. We've got to do this, we've got to do that.' I was like, 'Listen, man, I've been on a duck boat in downtown Boston, 2 million people. And it's all worth it. Trust me.' "
Scalabrine had been with the Celtics for Thibodeau's three years there. Like Kurt Thomas and Keith Bogans, he was brought to Chicago in 2010-11 to work almost as a trustee, selling and shepherding Thibodeau's ways to the rank-and-file.
"Trust me. I can only imagine, down Michigan Ave, what it would be like," Scalabrine said. "You keep that goal in mind, you can grind out the 15 minutes of stuff that's unbelievably difficult to do, to push your body past that. You've got to keep that in mind: Yeah, there's a reason why people love to win and once you get that taste, you'll understand and want it, more and more."
The Bulls got it, in regular-season terms, beyond their or their fans' wildest expectations. They were 36-5 at home. A 15-1 mark within the Central Division, which they won by 25 games. Never more than two losses in a row.
No mutinies. Few dramas. There was that flare-up in New Jersey after forward Carlos Boozer got benched for coasting on defense, but it all was smoothed over within a day. And while Boozer and center Joakim Noah missed significant time with injuries, the rest of the team was remarkably sturdy. No games missed on account of grinding.
"That's part of coaching," Thibodeau said. "I think you learn as you go. When you're young, you tend to maybe push when you shouldn't. And I think when you gain experience, you learn, maybe it's more important to have a day off."
No kidding. After Chicago beat Indiana in Game 5 last week, Thibodeau gave the team two days off in a row, which to him might have felt like a fish spending two consecutive days out of water. But it was what the Bulls needed, he had decided.
Scalabrine said he saw the most important traits of a good coach -- "being able to manage your players, manage their egos" -- in Thibodeau as long ago as October 2007, when the coach was new to Doc Rivers' staff and getting to know everyone on a preseason trip to Italy and England.
"When we were in Rome," Scalabrine said, "and we were grinding out in training camp and he was taking over in practice, [it] was like, 'This is not what we're used to. We're not used to an assistant coach going in there, grabbing guys by the shirt, telling guys, 'Here is where we need to be right here.'
"Most guys in the league had not seen that. When he was doing that -- especially when you saw Kevin Garnett like, 'I'm buying into this, I like this' and then you could see Kendrick Perkins coming along -- you could see the relationships start to build. Like 'We're the backbone of this defense. We're grinding it out. If it's not for us, we're not going to win any games.' Thibs makes you feel that. For a coach to do that, that's very difficult to do. It creates swagger into guys."
Swagger feels good, even when your legs are a little rubbery.
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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