Bulls' Thibodeau, Paxson and Pippen remember 9/11

Tom Thibodeau, John Paxson and Scottie Pippen share their personal experiences from September 11th and reflect on how that day changed life as an American
 Bulls' Paxson, Pippen and Thibodeau remember 9/11

By Adam Fluck | 09.09.2011

All of us who were old enough to remember can share precisely where we were and what we were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001. Our personal accounts vary greatly in perspective and the same can be said of the firsthand recollections from three members of the Bulls organization—Tom Thibodeau, John Paxson and Scottie Pippen.

As the ten year anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Thibodeau, Paxson and Pippen share the story of the moment when they first heard the news, the events that transpired for them that day, and how the attacks impacted them personally.

Thibodeau: “Never lose sight of what happened”

On the morning of September 11th, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was busy preparing for his sixth season as an assistant coach for the New York Knicks.

Thibodeau, then 43 years of age, had spent the majority of his life on the East Coast. Born in New Britain, Connecticut, he went on to be a four-year letter winner in basketball at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts. He spent four years coaching at his alma mater—including one as the head coach—prior to four seasons as an assistant at Harvard University, his last stop before entering the NBA ranks and stops with Minnesota, Seattle, San Antonio, Philadelphia, New York, Houston, Boston, and currently, Chicago.

Tom Thibodeau with Don Chaney
“All we could think about were all those people in the buildings,” recalled Thibodeau, who was a Knicks assistant in 2001. “There was all this damage that was being done, but no one really knew what was happening.”

(Al Bello/NBAE/Getty Images)

As fate would have it though, despite the teams he’s coached for in the league, Thibodeau was back on the East Coast as a member of the Knicks organization on 9/11. Specifically, he was at the Knicks practice facility in Purchase, New York, roughly 25 miles northeast of Madison Square Garden, when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. ET.

Thibodeau, who had a residence in Connecticut at the time, recalls several other Knicks coaches and players being there with the offseason starting to wind down. Most of the players were in the weight room that morning, where a television off to the side alerted everyone to the news.

“Everyone paused for a moment and watched the initial report,” remembered Thibodeau. “But occasionally you would hear about a plane flying low in New York City. So most of us figured that was what occurred; that it was some sort of accident. Of course, when the second plane hit, that brought everything to a stop. Time stood still and we all knew it was different.”

The Knicks’ old facility was comprised of three levels, with coach Jeff Van Gundy’s office upstairs. Thibodeau said Van Gundy, like most Americans at that point, was glued to the television. But he was also frantically trying to reach a very close friend who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, a bond trading firm which had its corporate headquarters located among several of the top floors at One World Trade Center. The two never connected.

“All we could think about were all those people in the buildings,” recalled Thibodeau. “There was all this damage that was being done, but no one really knew what was happening.”

As he looks back now, ten years later, Thibodeau applauds the job done by the city, state and nation’s leaders that day, specifically commending the efforts of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Governor George Pataki and President George Bush. But it was the citizens of New York on whole who impressed him the most.

“The sadness surrounding the loss of so many people was terrible,” said Thibodeau. “But we all watched the heroism of the first responders and saw the resiliency of the city. It was amazing.”

“How we responded to that tragedy was about as good as you could have done,” added Thibodeau. “We saw a lot of heroism, and our leadership was outstanding. There were no politics or taking sides. Everyone worked together, and hopefully, we learned lessons from that.”

In the weeks and months that would come, New York City would begin the re-building process and all of America would attempt to move forward from the tragedies. And as Thibodeau points out, sports played an important role in that healing process.

That fall, with the Yankees back in the World Series and facing the Arizona Diamondbacks, President Bush was in New York for Game 3 to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. He took the mound wearing a New York City Fire Department (FDNY) fleece and received an overwhelming, emotional ovation. It was critical, in Thibodeau’s mind, for the President to have such visibility and a rare occurrence as well, being the first time an acting President threw out a Word Series first pitch since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956.

Whether it was the Yankees, Mets, Knicks, Giants, Jets or Rangers, sports helped the people of New York, as well as those across the United States, move forward and return to their normal lives.

“It helped put things into perspective,” said Thibodeau of 9/11. “Sports are sports—they aren’t life or death. But what sports did was give people an outlet. For a few hours, they could get away from everything.”

Thibodeau and the Knicks visited Ground Zero that season and he’s been back several times since.

“It never changes when you go down there,” said Thibodeau. “You have the same feelings and you remember that day. You think about how it impacted so many people in so many different ways. And you always think about those who lost their lives that day.”

“We had no control over anything that day other than the way we responded to the adversity,” added Thibodeau. “I think our country rose up to that challenge and we are better because of it. It really changed the way we live. We can never lose sight of what happened that day.”

Paxson: “We have to live our lives”

John Paxson, then set to enter his sixth season as the Bulls’ radio analyst at the age of 40, was at home with his family on the morning of 9/11.

Paxson’s oldest son, Ryan, had already left for high school, while his other son, Drew, was getting ready to head out. His wife Carolyn’s family was in town to celebrate Drew’s birthday, as he turned 12 that day.

John Paxson with Neil Funk
“It gave us a sense of reality in that the world can be a dangerous place,” said Paxson, who was the Bulls radio analyst in 2001. “A lot of things can happen. But you can’t let them deter you from living your life.”

(Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls)

When reports broke around 8 a.m. CT that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers, what exactly had happened was initially unclear. Paxson was a little skeptical of the speculation that an aircraft had hit it on accident, given that it was a clear day with blue skies in New York City. Once the second plane hit, it quickly became evident that calculated attacks were taking place.

“Right then and there, it began to make sense in my mind that something really awful was happening,” recalled Paxson. “It became obvious that New York, as well as our country, had been attacked. Like most people I’m sure, from that point on, I couldn’t take my eyes off the TV that entire day. I was stunned.”

Paxson’s first thoughts were with his family. He wondered how his son, Ryan, was doing at school and if he was aware of what was happening. But he felt fortunate that they were all safe.

However, he was initially unclear as to the whereabouts of his younger brother Michael, who lived in Lower Manhattan at the time and travelled often. It turned out that the night before, Michael had flown from Newark to Dallas, but missed his connecting flight to Las Vegas for business. So he stayed at an airport hotel on September 10th and caught the early morning flight out of Dallas around the same time the World Trade Center had been hit. Shortly thereafter, his plane was grounded in accordance with a Federal Aviation Administration mandate and he landed in Lubbock, Texas.

“He eventually found his way back to New York, but it was an adventure,” recalled Paxson.

Paxson agrees with Thibodeau that sports helped Americans ease back into their regular routine, citing a specific example from his own life.

Just eleven days after 9/11, Paxson and his son Ryan were in attendance when Notre Dame, his alma mater, and Michigan State met in South Bend. Several emotional moments preceded the game as the 80,000 fans on hand honored those lost in the attacks while also saluting the brave firefighters and police officers who helped save lives.

“Sports played a huge part in people feeling normal again,” said Paxson. “Maybe it was a diversion in some ways, but there is no question that being able to attend that game was part of the healing process.”

What happened at Notre Dame and Yankee Stadium was happening throughout the United States—patriotism on display at sporting events across the country.

“It was a reminder of what the United States stands for and how proud we all are of it,” said Paxson. “There will always be disagreements between political parties, but we’re still one country at the end of the day.”

Ten years later, as Paxson thinks back to the events of 9/11, he does so with a new connection to the United States and its armed forces. That’s because his son Ryan enrolled in the Marines three years ago.

Ryan is currently stationed in Okinawa, Japan, with plans to be in Korea for training in the coming months and deployment to Afghanistan in January. Though John and Ryan have never specifically discussed whether the events of 9/11 influenced his decision to enlist, the perspective that young people gained on that day likely had some bearing.

“I think that for Ryan and a lot of other young people who saw that happen in their lifetime, it brought out something inside of them in terms of how they feel about their country and the patriotism that resides within them,” said Paxson. “I’m not sure that 9/11 had an impact on Ryan joining the Marines or not, but I do know that when he made that decision to enlist, it was because he wanted to serve his country. He told us that in some small way, he wanted to do something for our country. And that’s what he’s doing.”

Because of that, Paxson has acquired an even greater appreciation for those who serve the United States.

“I have such a great respect, not only for Ryan, but for all the young men and women who volunteer,” said Paxson. “They all have their own story, but the one thing that we’ve learned since Ryan enlisted is that your family, in a way, enlists too. Even though it is Ryan who is taking it on physically and mentally, we tend to go through it mentally as well, and he’s not even in Afghanistan yet. But we’re incredibly proud of what he has chosen to do. He’s invested himself in our country and shown it the respect it deserves. It’s a very admirable act on his part.”

As Americans reflect on the tragedies of 9/11, Paxson views that day as a wakeup call of sorts for the current generation that should better prepare the United States moving forward.

“I was born after World War II and a little too young to fully grasp Vietnam,” said Paxson. “This was the one thing that was a wakeup call and it really shook me to the core. It gave us a sense of reality in that the world can be a dangerous place. A lot of things can happen. But you can’t let them deter you from living your life. And sometimes that reminder is good because you put things into perspective.”

Pippen: “Overwhelming feeling of sadness and sorrow”

News of the 9/11 attacks took a little longer to reach Scottie Pippen, but given that he was 4,000 miles away from New York City that morning, it’s understandable.

Pippen, along with his wife, Larsa, and infant son, Scotty Jr., were in Milan, Italy as part of a promotional trip with Nike.

Scottie and Larsa Pippen in Italy
Scottie and Larsa Pippen were in Italy for a Nike promotional trip on Sept. 11, 2001. “Even though home seemed like it was one of the more dangerous places in the world at the time, all we wanted to do was get back,” recalled Larsa.

(Courtesy of Scottie and Larsa Pippen)

One month before Pippen would begin his third season with the Portland Trail Blazers, Pippen, his family, Nike representatives and a team of security guards traveled throughout Italy making appearances, opening new basketball courts and instructing young campers throughout the region.

It was 2:46 p.m. local time in Milan when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center tower and the Pippens were out and about on the streets of the city shopping. They happened to walk by a television store and couldn’t help but notice the disturbing reports on each and every screen.

They tried to make sense of the images, but the broadcast was in Italian and they were unclear of what was happening. And, given only one plane hit initially, they were under the impression that it was an accident. So they went on with their day. Scottie returned to the hotel, while Larsa continued to shop. But not for long, as soon thereafter, her security guard was alerted of the situation in New York.

Larsa quickly returned to the hotel as well and a few hours later, it was determined that they would be relocated to a more remote spot in Lake Como, Italy due to concerns about Americans’ safety in larger European cities. Their hotel, specifically, had a heavy American concentration and they didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks.

Once they were settled, they kept up with the events of that day, following various world news broadcasts on BBC and any other English-speaking channels they could find.

As that was happening, they also reached out to their Nike contacts about returning home to Chicago as soon as possible.

“Even though home seemed like it was one of the more dangerous places in the world at the time, all we wanted to do was get back,” recalled Larsa.

With Nike’s assistance, the Pippens were repeatedly booked on flights, only to have those flights cancelled. It would be a few days before domestic airline travel would resume in the United States, let alone international.

About five days after the tragedy, they were able to confirm travel on a commercial flight and finally made it back to Chicago.

“We were so excited about getting home, but we were also very paranoid on the flight back,” said Larsa. “Everyone looked suspicious to us because we were so on guard.”

“It was a very insecure feeling,” agreed Scottie. “We still didn’t know a great deal about what happened at that point. All we knew is that multiple planes had been involved, and there we were, getting on one for 14 or 15 hours. We couldn’t help but wonder what was going to happen next and if we’d make it back.”

Scottie Pippen in Italy
“Those of us old enough to witness that day will remember it for the dangers of what can happen,” said Pippen. “My kids won’t have the same perspective. They will grow up in a post-9/11 era and it’s the only life they will know.”

(Courtesy of Scottie and Larsa Pippen)

The flight seemed to take forever, but eventually, they made it back safely. Along with Americans across the country, they did their best to return to their normal routines and live their lives. For Pippen, that meant reporting to training camp in Portland a few weeks later.

Early in the 2001-02 season, Pippen’s Trail Blazers faced the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Following a win in Detroit on Sunday, Nov. 11, they traveled to New York for the game, which was played Nov. 13. For many players and coaches, it was their first visit to the city since the attacks.

Pippen was invited to ring the closing bell at the American Stock Exchange on Nov. 12. Afterwards, he and Larsa were among those who made their way to Ground Zero, where they met firefighters and families who lost loved ones on 9/11.

“It was very eerie to be down there,” recalled Scottie. “So many people lost family members, best friends, co-workers, guys who they spent countless hours in the firehouse over the years. It’s hard to imagine what they endured on that day and the days the followed. It was an overwhelming feeling of sadness and sorrow, but I have to say, the way the people of New York responded was very inspiring.”

It was a chilling and surreal experience for the Pippens, who could still smell the burning of the buildings and see the destruction that had occurred just two months prior.

Scottie and Larsa’s first child, Scotty Jr., was too young to remember the tragedy of 9/11. The couple has three more children now, and as Pippen notes, it’s a new world in which they were born.

“Those of us old enough to witness that day will remember it for the dangers of what can happen,” said Scottie. “My kids, from Scotty Jr. who was not quite one at the time, to the others who hadn’t been born yet, won’t have the same perspective. They will grow up in a post-9/11 era and it’s the only life they will know. They will be more protected and more observant. Things like heightened airport security won’t be a big deal to them, because that is all they will know.”