Out of a job for first time since 1991, ex-Bulls coach on 'sabbatical'
POSTED: Sep 30, 2015 12:18 PM ET
USA Basketball Mic'd Up
Listen in as USA coaches Monty Williams and Tom Thibodeau introduce concepts at mini-camp.
CHICAGO — Mike Dunleavy's aching back and the 10 weeks or so it might sideline him, that's something to which the Chicago Bulls head coach has to react and adapt.
Derrick Rose's left orbital fracture? Ooh, now that really is something lousy dropped in the lap of the Bulls head coach on the brink of a new NBA season, equal parts surgical setback and ominous omen.
The thing is Tom Thibodeau isn't coaching the Bulls anymore. So he can stroll into an upscale diner on Chicago's near North Side on a late September morning with a smile on his face. That smile, rarely seen or caught by the cameras in his former workplace of United Center, gets flashed a lot more these days, because the Bulls' problems are Fred Hoiberg's problems now.
"So," he says, midway through a leisurely breakfast the other morning, "who do you think they're gonna start?"
The questions are flipped now, roles reversed, Thibodeau curious and seeking insights and opinions rather than providing them (sometimes grudgingly so). How is Joakim moving? More 3 or more 4 for Mirotic? How's Gar?
But it's kept light, just part of the conversation, and doesn't seem all that important to him anymore.
He's wearing a gray T-shirt and dark blue jeans, and clearly has shed a few pounds. More trim even than during his Team USA stint in Las Vegas in mid-August, coaching relatively care-free as a member of Mike Krzyzewski's staff. Next summer, they'll all head to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics.
That's a long way off, though, with a lot of basketball from now till then from which Thibodeau will remain largely unplugged.
"I really want to treat this year like a sabbatical," he says.
He goes with egg-white omelets these days, all veggies, no ham and no cheese. Hold the hash browns. Side order of mixed fruit, plus a banana. He picks the whole wheat toast but when the server claims the kitchen doesn't have peanut butter (!) it goes untouched.
Were he still employed, Thibodeau's days and nights already would be spoken for, long hours logged in the Bulls' Advocate Center prepping for and navigating through training camp, the preseason and another 82-game schedule, during which Chicago would contend, overachieve through injuries or both.
Only, Thibodeau is unemployed now. For the first time since 1991, shortly after he had been swept out with Bill Musselman's entire staff in Minnesota from his first NBA assistant's gig, he isn't coaching in the league. He has a reported $9 million or so coming to him, guaranteed, over the next two years from what's left on his Bulls contract, but his time is his own.
It might be idyllic, if it weren't for all the idle.
Most days, the non-coaching coach puts himself through two-a-days. The mornings are for walks along Lake Michigan, often from Oak Street Beach on the north to the Bears' Soldier Field to the south and back. Later in the afternoon, he's likely to be at the East Bank Club, the city's go-to exclusive health club for executives and celebrities. All that work he used to grind his guys through, occasionally stealing a few minutes to lift or hop on a treadmill, Thibodeau pushes himself through.
Chicago's vast selection of restaurants are a nightly diversion, though again, he's eating better and smarter without the postgame and late-flight meals, not to mention the stress, that come with coaching. He rents in a luxury high-rise building not far from the diner and plans to stay for the time being.
"Coaches ask me why here, but I love Chicago," Thibodeau says. "And it's so easy to get everywhere. You can fly east, you can fly west, everything's a shorter flight."
Thibodeau, as in offseason past, spent time with his family in New England. Still single at 57, he made good on a promised vacation with a nephew. Fans and media who might not recognize him without his fluorescent-light gym pallor might be shocked to hear him rave about the beaches and water around St. Thomas, a particularly relaxing escape this summer.
But his internal rhythm is tugging, so Thibodeau's current project is a tour de camps through the NBA. He hit Charlotte over the weekend, spending a few days with his friend Steve Clifford as the Hornets coach readied his team for its imminent trip to China. Thibodeau was in San Antonio Tuesday as Gregg Popovich and the Spurs got underway. When the Los Angeles Clippers get back from their own trip to China, Thibodeau will hook up with pal Doc Rivers for a stretch in L.A.
"I think he'll do what he always does, he'll utilize this time to become an even better coach," Clifford said recently at the NBA coaches meeting in Chicago. "He's already one of the best coaches in this league, but one of the reasons he's so good, he has such a passion for coaching and he's constantly studying. He's on top of trends. So I'm sure he'll be visiting with people, watching."
Rivers was in town for those meeting too and caught up with Thibodeau for dinner the night before.
"That's my guy. He was in a great mood," the Clippers coach said. "I think he's excited, as far as the mental part, that a year off is good. He still coaches every day. We walked probably a mile back to my hotel and, every light; we were going over a pick-and-roll set. So he's not gonna stop coaching. What I think he's gonna do is watch everybody and learn more."
Thibodeau spent time 90 miles north in Milwaukee with MLB Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa, now chief baseball officer of the Diamondbacks, when Arizona came through to face the Brewers this season. Like Rivers, he admires the execution of football coaches, who have the luxury of constant stoppages in play to orchestrate their strategies. Thibodeau has taken in Cubs and White Sox games and figures to take up a few college friends on their invitations to attend practices.
He remains plugged into the NBA. He doesn't deny that he wants another head coaching job, by 2016-17 if not sooner, and claims to have no particular conditions for the type of roster or management team he joins. His view of this season is long on a coach's typical preseason optimism. A lot of "They're gonna be good" or "They're gonna be better," mixing in the occasional "Stan's gonna surprise people with that team."
About the Bulls, though, Thibodeau only comes with questions. He lays down one ground rule for whatever is written off the breakfast conversation: "My name's not next to anything critical about the Bulls, right?" But then, for nearly three hours, he assiduously avoids saying anything critical, never mind negative, anyway.
In his former team's first practice of 2015-16, Hoiberg had the team on the floor for more than two hours. Afterward, players talked were prodded by reporters to talk about the new coach's style, as a way to compare it to Thibodeau's notorious demanding approach.
"It's good to have a lot of coaches giving their opinions on things," forward Taj Gibson said. "We were able to get a lot of feedback from each of the coaches, so it was cool."
Said Jimmy Butler: "He really cares about how our bodies are feeling."
Nothing too harsh was said publicly though by players who realize, even if they didn't always like it, that they pocketed playoff checks and found individual success under Thibodeau.
He led Chicago to an overall record of 255-169 (.647) in five seasons, a winning percentage surpassed by only a few coaches in league history (think Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach). Thibodeau earned Coach of the Year honors as a newbie in 2011, the same season Rose became the NBA's youngest-ever Most Valuable Player. Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and Butler all reached goals -- All-Star selections, annual awards, fatter contracts -- while playing for him.
The achievement about which Thibodeau is most proud remains the playoff berths, going 5-for-5 despite a flood of injuries. Keep in mind, of the 394 regular season games and 51 playoff games he coached for Chicago, 213 and 23 respectively were without Rose. The Bulls' combined winning percentage even in those: .555.
Still, Thibodeau did get fired. His impending dismissal hung over last season like a storm cloud and seemed to many to mar the season and postseason. It gave any player who wanted one an easy scapegoat and way to dodge responsibility, which never seemed more apparent than in the lifeless second half of Game 6 against Cleveland, the one that eliminated the Bulls and ended their coach's tenure.
Thibodeau, looking back, shrugs off the finale, blaming no one. In his view, injuries, up to and including Gasol's hamstring in the East semifinal series against a banged-up Cavs team, wrote last season's story. Rose had another surgery and only played 51 games. Noah never was right after offseason knee surgery. Dunleavy and others missed significant time, and so on.
The rap on Thibodeau through it all was that his grinding style contributed to players' breakdowns, though he says he would change nothing about his approach. The other gripes that led to his firing -- put out in the street so bluntly in team owner Jerry Reinsdorf's extended press release on May 28 -- stemmed from communication issues between Thibodeau and the front office, specifically general manager Gar Forman and VP of basketball John Paxson.
"You learn from everything you go through," Thibodeau says, "and you want to put that experience to use."
Getting fired is, of course, part of the job description for NBA head coaches. Of the 30 working in the league this season, 14 have been fired at least once. Of the other 16, 15 are with the first teams that hired them, from Popovich's long run in San Antonio to Hoiberg and Billy Donovan as newcomers just getting started.
Getting fired after success is different, though. Lionel Hollins helped Memphis go 56-26 in 2012-13 and reach the Western Conference finals, only to find himself unemployed after that season. He sat out one year, and it started uncomfortably.
"This time of year, you start getting depressed," Hollins said. "Because you're used to planning, preparing for camp and getting ready for the season. Tom's situation is similar to mine [getting fired from a playoff team]. There's a little bit of depression and wondering about 'What did I do? What could I have done?' Or maybe 'I didn't do it the right way.'
"But in the end, you bounce back. You've just got to find other things to do. For me, it was about a month and a half before I got my bearings back and got on my feet. Then I started doing NBA radio, and then NBA TV was calling ... Doing that got me out and back in the game, and got me focused on other things than just a self-pity party."
Thibodeau doesn't appear to be holding one of those but then, who sees him 24/7?
Rivers offered one possible therapy, should his good friend need it. "His outlet will be all his phone numbers," the Clippers coach said. "He'll be calling, saying, 'You know what you should have done?' "
Thibodeau, normally prone to an understated "Heh heh" when amused, laughs heartily when that's relayed to him over breakfast. He also laughs when it's suggested that he might be spotted some October afternoon voluntarily barking "Ice! ICE!" at a bunch of guys on asphalt at one of Chicago's West Side parks.
At the moment, though, his mind is on a long weekend, or even a short one, soaking in the fall colors at one of the resorts outside the clamor of Chicago, north of the Illinois border.
"What do you know," Thibodeau said on a day the rest of the NBA was girding itself for another nine months of battle, "about this 'Lake Geneva' place up in Wisconsin?"
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