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Tom Thibodeau moves into the spotlight

After 21 years as an NBA assistant, Tom Thibodeau's patience has been rewarded

Tom Thibodeau

Thibodeau’s past teams have consistently ranked in the top 10 in team defense, earning the first-year Bulls coach a reputation of being a defensive guru. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

While instant gratification seems to be the norm these days, there are some who still believe in the old-school philosophy that good things come to those who wait. If that is the case, Tom Thibodeau must be a graduate of Patience University.

With nearly 30 years of coaching experience, including 21 in the NBA, on his resume, Thibodeau has finally received the opportunity of a lifetime—to be an NBA head coach. “It’s sure been a long wait,” chuckles Chicago’s new headmaster. “In the back of my mind, I always knew the chance to be a head coach would come. I thought, if I kept working hard and my teams continued to win, eventually something like this would happen. Some team would give me a chance.”

Tom Thibodeau

Thibodeau’s past teams have consistently ranked in the top 10 in team defense, earning the first-year Bulls coach a reputation of being a defensive guru.
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

The Chicago Bulls did just that, offering the highly regarded Thibodeau a three-year deal behind the wheel. But, upon agreeing to head up the Bulls in mid-June, Thibodeau was forced to practice a bit more patience, as he was deeply involved in another important venture with his the last employer, the Boston Celtics: The NBA Finals.

While Thibodeau is best known for his defensive ingenuity, what ultimately impressed the Bulls was his offensive creativity and plans for player development. “After sitting down with Tom to talk about the possibility of becoming our head coach, it quickly became apparent that he was a perfect fit,” says General Manager Gar Forman. “Tom is a great communicator and teacher of the game. With his experience and knowledge of the NBA, I’m confident he will be a great leader for our team.”

Since that 18-day stretch from his hiring to his official introduction, Thibodeau had little time to bask in his newfound good fortune. The very next day brought the NBA Draft, shortly followed by the highly-anticipated free-agency bonanza and the summer league schedule. “It’s been a whirlwind,” laughs Thibodeau. “After Game 7 (of the Finals), it hits you: ‘Okay, I’m going to Chicago. I have a new team. I have to move. I have to clean out my office.’ There’s a lot of stuff coming at you.”

Thibodeau’s plate may be a bit overloaded at the minute, but it appears that’s the way he likes to work. Many league observers have labeled him a workaholic. Even his former player, Celtics All-Star Paul Pierce, joked, “Coach Thibs has square eyeballs from watching so much videotape.”

But Thibodeau has his own spin on the subject. “Everyone is always trying to put you in a box. I guess you could be called worse things than a workaholic. But I don’t see it that way. I’m serious about my job. I’m going to come in and work. And, when the work is done, I’ll leave. I don’t think I have to change that one bit. I’m not going to apologize for that.”

Tom Thibodeau with Doc Rivers

For the last three seasons Thibodeau worked side-by-side with Doc Rivers in Boston as the team’s Associate Head Coach. During that tenure the Cs made two trips to the Finals, winning the 2008 title.
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

The 52-year old also won’t have to express any regrets for leaving Boston to come to Chicago. He recently had a couple of other head coaching opportunities presented to him, namely from the New Orleans Hornets and the New Jersey Nets, but his main focus was the Bulls’ job even as far back as a couple of years ago, when his name first came up during the memorable opening-round Boston/Chicago playoff series, where nearly every game went into overtime. “I would not have left Boston if this wasn’t an opportunity to become a championship-caliber team,” he said. “The thing that stood out to me from that series was how hard the Bulls competed. And they had no fear.

“When you look at the future of the Bulls, it has everything—a great young nucleus, the ability to add through free agency, a great city. I certainly understand the great tradition and history of the team. Those were some of the qualities that made this job very attractive.”

Of course, he already knew more than enough about the city of Chicago, thanks in large part to Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who grew up here. “Doc’s always talking about Proviso East, and Michael Finley (another former Proviso East alumnus) just confirms it all,” laughs Thibodeau. “Obviously, Doc loves Chicago and can talk forever about all the sports teams, not just the past Bulls teams. He’s a big football fan, and I swear some of our toughest practices were on Mondays after the Bears had lost.” But Rivers did warn Thibodeau about one area of Chicago that can be very dangerous. “He said I should be careful of all the great restaurants. I may gain a lot of weight.”

In all seriousness, Rivers couldn’t be happier for Thibodeau. “Tom’s absolutely terrific, with unbelievable knowledge. He knows the game. In some ways, he’s so good defensively, people overlook his overall knowledge.”

To better explain it in a way only a true Chicagoan would appreciate, Rivers goes on to say: “Thibs isn’t Buddy Ryan (the Super Bowl XX Bears defensive coordinator). He knows much more about [the overall game of] basketball.”

Of course, Thibodeau has had some pretty good teachers along the way. In addition to Rivers, he has worked under the late Bill Musselman and former NBA head coaches John Lucas, Jeff Van Gundy and Don Chaney.

Tom Thibodeau with Jeff Van Gundy

Prior landing the Bulls job, Tom Thibodeau was an NBA assistant for 21 years. Over that period his teams won 896 games and made the playoffs 14 times, including three trips to the NBA Finals (1999, 2008 and 2010).
(Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images)

A four-year letterman at Salem State College in Salem, Massachusetts, Thibodeau took his first coaching job as an assistant for his former team immediately after graduation. Three years later, he was awarded the head coaching position. Then, an opportunity came along to be an assistant coach at Harvard University, where he spent the next four years. Thibodeau then made the jump from college into the NBA when Musselman was tabbed to be the head coach of the then-expansion Minnesota Timberwolves.

Since then, he has worked in Seattle, San Antonio, Philadelphia, New York, Houston and Boston. “There are not many things in coaching that I haven’t seen,” explains Thibodeau. “I’ve been through championship teams, I’ve been through expansion teams, and I’ve been through rebounding teams. And the fact that I’ve worked under some great coaches will definitely help me a lot.”

But, even with all the great tutoring he has received over the years, Coach Thibs is determined to have his own style. During his initial meeting with his new team, he stressed that there are five things he wants to establish in terms of who the Bulls are.

“We will set the tone that we are a defensive team, a rebounding team, a low turnover team, an inside-out team and an unselfish team. If we want to build a championship team, it has to happen right from the start.”

As for the players he’s inherited, here are some of Thibodeau’s comments for each:

  • Joakim Noah: “I just love Noah! Look at the things he brings to the table—his passion, energy, rebounding. He has the ability to make other people better and he always plays to win.”
  • Taj Gibson: “For a rookie to come into this league and play the defense he did last year is very impressive.”
  • Luol Deng: “You always have to pay attention to Luol because he’s in constant motion. He hurts you in a lot of different ways—his midrange game, post-up game and slash game.”
  • Derrick Rose: “When Derrick’s coming at you with a full head of steam, watch out! I know what it’s like to be sitting on that other bench when he’s got the ball in his hands. Believe me, it’s not a good feeling.”

When asked for his thoughts about Rose’s lack of calls from referees when attacking the basket, Thibodeau argues that from where he sat Rose had received plenty. “But, now that you mention it,” he laughs, due to his new position. “I do think that you’re right. Derrick needs to get more calls.”

Time will tell if the Bulls made the right call in choosing Thibodeau. Although it has taken him many years to move just one seat over on the bench, if he can get his new team to the next level, everyone in Chicago will be sitting pretty.

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