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Steve Aschburner

In just one season, Tom Thibodeau's intense work ethic has the Bulls moving in the right direction.
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Bulls' workaholic coach ready to trade film work for whistle

Posted Dec 3 2011 9:44AM

DEERFIELD, Ill. -- The NBA and college landscapes are strewn with coaches who are workaholics and basketball junkies. But in Tom Thibodeau's case, it goes way beyond that, even in normal circumstances.

Thibodeau is single and, at 53, always has been. He's devoted to his parents and his extended family but they're mostly in New England, far from the office he keeps at the Chicago Bulls' practice facility and the home where he changes clothes a few miles away.

Until 18 months ago, Thibodeau was a lifetime assistant coach, which means a relative grunt, which means a plugger, which means a no-lifer in the basketball hierarchy. Coaches run practice, practice ends, players go home ... coaches get to work.

Don't get the wrong idea -- Thibodeau has loved every obsessed, devoted hour. But that "10,000-Hour Rule" of high achievement that Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote about? Thibs has those logged by lunch time Wednesday. Week after week.

That's why the, er, extended offseason of 2011 was such a challenge for him. One year earlier, Thibodeau was in daily communication, sometimes multiply so via text and cell calls, with young Bulls star Derrick Rose. He lurked at the Berto Center constantly enough to catch center Joakim Noah every time -- every time! -- Noah dropped by, prodding the Chicago big man onto the court to work on this or that.

Thibodeau immersed himself in the opportunity of his lifetime -- NBA head coach, finally -- and got nearly every reward possible for the time, the sweat, the dedication he logged. Sixty-two victories in his first year, making him only the third head coach to reach 60 (joining Paul Westphal, 62 in 1993, and Bill Russell, 60 in 1967). Best record in the NBA last season. An MVP award for Rose, the youngest player ever to win it. A trip to the Eastern Conference finals before falling to Miami. And for Thibodeau, NBA Coach of the Year honors.

Then pfffft! nothing. After The Finals, the league conducted its June draft and then plunged into darkness. Thibodeau plunged into, ugh, free time. No contact with the players, at the risk of six-figure fines from NBA headquarters. No X's. No O's either.

It was one of those existential tree-falling-in-the-forest things. If a coach isn't coaching, well, what is he then?

"I heard he's been going crazy," Rose said when he showed up at the Berto Center Thursday afternoon. "I heard he's been showing up at, like, DePaul games and things like that. Hopefully he's been coaching somebody. But I know he's going to be on us hard this year."

The Bulls' young star arrived in time to stop upstairs from the practice gym and say hello to Thibodeau and staff. Heeding pre-CBA ratification rules, though, the coach and general manager Gar Forman were seen pulling out of the parking lot a few minutes later.

If Thibodeau couldn't talk to Rose for five months, Rose couldn't talk to his head coach either. It's a close relationship that benefited both of them last season, along with the other Bulls and Chicago fans, starting from the day Thibodeau got the job in June 2010.

"I missed everything, man," Rose said. "Berto. The people that work here. Thibs, just talking to him every day. Just picking his mind, him picking my mind. Just pushing me as a player, me pushing him as a coach."

Thibodeau, who spoke with reporters two hours earlier, said: "The thing is, what you do realize is how much you miss the players. Not having them around every day, that was tough. And we've got good guys. The challenge was for us to maximize our time, so it gave us more time to watch film, to work on the playbook, to study, to come up with new ideas, to go visit with coaches, things of that nature."

By all accounts, Thibodeau spent more time watching film than Robert Osborne and Roger Ebert combined. He couldn't help but take a few work breaks, and he made several round trips to New England. "I got a chance to get around Chicago a little bit," he said. "I also had the opportunity to go home for Thanksgiving, which is the first time in about 20 years to have a holiday with my family, so that was great."

Thibodeau also had knee surgery, attending to an old injury that had him gimping pretty good on the sideline last spring. Asked how his rehab has gone. he said: "I'm ready, I'm ready."

For wind sprints? "I'm not that ready."

In watching all that video, Thibodeau saw the things the Bulls did right last season and, no doubt, several things that went wrong. The team's offense too often was Rose-driven and one-dimensional. By the playoffs the Pacers and the Hawks were loading up on him and Miami's LeBron James stymied him at the end in the Eastern Conference finals.

The onus now is on Thibodeau and staff to add options and relieve some of the burden, particularly in a compressed schedule. The Bulls might seek free agent help from the outside via their mid-level exception. Maybe they'll deal. Or maybe Thibodeau will push again for the players he valued last season -- Keith Bogans was almost a oxymoron as the team's shooting guard in 2010-11 -- and try to find the answers in the lab.

"Well, there's never enough [video to watch]," he said, chuckling.

Thibodeau knows labs. And TV remotes. But he likes his whistle, too. And soon, real soon, they'll be together again.

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

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