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By Sam Smith | 5.29.2015 | 6:15 a.m.
Sometimes it’s just time. Time for a change, a divorce, a breakup, too much water under the bridge—or minutes throughout the lineup—as it were. That time came Thursday for the Bulls and coach Tom Thibodeau when the Bulls announced Thibodeau was being dismissed as head coach.
There is no episode or incident that truly reveals the measure and nature of a person. But there was one Tom Thibodeau story I love that provides a rare glimpse at the makeup of this man that was both his success and eventual undoing.
It was late June after Thibodeau’s rookie season as an NBA coach, his most successful in what seemed like the culmination of an arduous road and unlikely dream. Passed over and denied many times when he was certain he was more qualified, rookie NBA coach Thibodeau took the NBA by storm, the Bulls winning a league best 62 games and scaring, if not defeating, LeBron James’ Miami dream team in the Eastern Conference finals. Thibs was a Chicago hero for rescuing and resuscitating the Bulls, for the first time since 1998 legitimate NBA title contenders thanks, in great part, to Thibodeau’s defensive system and demanding methods. The players responded, and Thibodeau was hailed.
So Thibodeau, now a local celebrity who was soon dining with the mayor and receiving congratulations from the president, was invited to throw out the first pitch before a White Sox/Cubs game. Great honor; easy work.
Not for Thibs. There is no such thing. Thibs is no Benjamin Franklin, but he lived by such dictums as Franklin’s “failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” Like Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I’ll spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
So Thibs revealed his edge, preparing to prepare, much like he demanded of his team and enabled the Bulls to win so many of those games, especially in the regular season. Opposing coaches remarked on it regularly with awe. No team was as ready as the Bulls were, every day, every game. It was proving to be a great partnership, a management that provided hard working players of high character who enjoyed practicing hard and responding to the demands of the hard charging, vocal coach.
It’s not just throwing a baseball 60 feet, or 45 as few usually climb the mound, and Thibs wouldn’t that day at U.S. Cellular.
There is no just with Thibodeau.
Thibodeau enlisted a Bulls staffer and he went out and purchased several dozen baseballs a few days before the game. Then after a typical off season day of preparing for the NBA draft and already combing game film for next season, they adjourned to a nearby baseball field.
Thibodeau went to the mound about 50 feet away with the bucket of baseballs and started throwing one after another until sweat was pouring off him on the hot, humid afternoon. For perhaps an hour, Thibs practiced his throw. Almost all of them were perfect as Thibs still is a pretty good athlete and despite a late night appetite still was in good shape before knee surgery to come. But another and another. Like his practices and walk throughs in his philosophy of life and basketball, it’s in the preparation and the building of habits.
But there was more than just throwing the ball.
Thibs practiced walking the 50 or 60 feet back and forth; he practiced a wave, which he would do so casually and professionally that night. A little league team showed up after a while to practice on the field. Thibs persuaded them to give him a little more time and again he went through the routine as they watched.
When I first heard the story, which has circulated around the Bulls with some amusement for a few years, I shook my head as well. But then I began to think about the methods of success, it’s victims and longevity.
I don’t much subscribe to the easily tossed around notion of so many geniuses around. There aren’t that many, and in some 40 years in journalism I haven’t found any. So perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough.
But there are people who will simply outwork you, be there before you arrive and after you leave. We hear such stories everywhere, and it doesn’t always translate to success. But it’s one way to get there.
Thibodeau isn’t the smartest person I’ve met or been around or the best coach. He probably understood that as well with a limited sports background, small time coaching and one vague assistant’s job after another with big dreams. Here was this kid from New England without the natural charm or Pat Riley good looks, no particular resume, though with the great dreams of so many. Then how do you get there when others seem more qualified?
Preparing more intensely and working harder doesn’t guarantee anything, and it would be 21 years kicking around the edges of NBA assistant coaching before Thibodeau would get his own corner office. But he always knew what he’d do when he got there. He was like the guy in the minor leagues batting .215 and screaming if you’d just give him a chance he knew he could do it, that the minors didn’t show who he was, dirty balls and rocky fields. He was a man for the Show.
So was Thibs as he brought with him his defensive fundamentals and relentless demanding nature. After all, if he could do it why not them? And it worked.
The Bulls became a revelation, players with talent but without enough drive, like Luol Deng, became All-Stars. Players with drive but not enough talent, like Joakim Noah, became all-league. Derrick Rose with both exceeded even that to become the league MVP. The Bulls became a feared and respected opponent, delighting fans and supporting the decision of management to trust Thibodeau when no one else in the NBA would for the previous two decades.
Everyone carries a reputation, and Thibs’ was a lack of the convivial coaching personality, a man with his head down. There weren’t many good morning greetings from Thibs, assuming he knew if it was morning. It would eventually prove his downfall in many respects since sports require partnerships, give and take, sacrifice and compromise.
Not that they do that in Congress, though I’m not suggesting Thibs for president quite yet.
Thibodeau never was a great one for compromise, perhaps because his life hasn’t included much. No wife, no kids, nothing but basketball. It became legendary around Thibodeau, the late nights and early mornings in the office, bolting out when a player arrived to run him through some drill, players even laughing how they’d tip toe in sometimes so Thibs wouldn’t catch them and put them through some midnight exercise. It was all fun and smiles when they were winning 62 games.
To Thibodeau, though, it was proving his methods did work in the NBA, and better than almost anyone, winning Coach of the Year, setting alltime NBA records for wins by a first time coach. It was heady stuff, though you wouldn’t see Thibodeau on Rush Street.
He preferred the film room and drawing up more plays, studying other coaches, adopting and adapting, coaching. Just coaching. Preparing, and demanding. Being ready for the moment when it came. No surprises. The practices often became ph.d lecture halls of the essence of basketball down to each cut and curl and movement. Nothing left to chance.
And then just in case they forgot, there he was reminding them—loudly—throughout the game. The players embraced it for it led to team and individual success. As much as anything, players, particularly the serious and dedicated ones, want to be coached, want to improve. And if they do then they get paid more as basically everyone with the Bulls did under Thibodeau, from the stars to the annual little guards that could.
The hardships and disappointments the Bulls faced are well chronicled, Rose’s multiple injuries and surgeries, the uncertainty around a return, debates over whether guys played too much and when, who played and how much, what playing style was employed, all the stuff every organization eventually faces in the historic divide between coaching and management: The coach is assigned to win the next game; management is assigned to provide ongoing success over the next several years. Though everyone’s goal is each season’s title, the methods can be in conflict.
It’s why the shelf life of the NBA coach isn’t long; in his fifth season, Thibodeau ranked fourth senior NBA coach with his team. The other three all had won titles. Thibodeau, though it took him longer to get there, became a fixer, a culture changer as they like to say these days in the NBA. There are many coaches like that and you are lucky to get one, like Larry Brown, Scott Skiles, Doug Collins. They make your team better the day they walk into your building. It’s like your players go, “Oh, that’s what it’s like to be coached!” They improve; the team improves.
But they don’t stay around too long because what made them who they are, enables them to succeed as they do also stands in the way of longevity. They know exactly what they want and what they want to do, and they are not changing. Most of us have employers we’re sure we are smarter than. But we work for them. Coaches like that are as tough to tame as frogs; not to make any direct comparison. But you don’t change people like that. They are driven and successful.
And so eventually difficult to live with.
We all know this but don’t like to accept it. You never truly know someone until you live with them. Being part of a professional sports team with the relentless travel and responsibilities are as close as you may get. Fans believe they know their favorites because they watch and hear from them so much, especially now with remorseless media. But you never really do. The Bulls had mostly great years with Thibodeau as their coach. To quote Harry Chapin, they’d both gotten what they’d asked for such a long, long time ago.
Thibs wanted to fly with the best in his field, coaching an NBA team and in one of America’s major cities. The Bulls got their change of coaching culture, their team organization, their goal of being back among the league contenders for an NBA title. Management supplied the right players and Thibodeau drove them in the right direction.
But it began to break down and fall back this season.
There was all the talk about minutes limits that upset Thibodeau and playing rotations that upset management and a relative lack of communication that was leading to an inevitability that basically every sports organization faces. This was Thibodeau’s fifth season, a natural life cycle for most NBA coaches. Few last longer. Thibodeau almost did and was perhaps the officials spotting a David Blatt timeout or one fewer LeBron James shot away from going to the NBA Finals, and as John Paxson reiterated Thursday no time to be making any changes.
It didn’t happen, and sometimes it’s the difference between success and failure.
But there was more.
One of the things I most admire about LeBron James—other than his talent, of course—is the joy to basketball around him. Sometimes it seems a bit much, but his teams generally do look like they are having fun. Players talk about fun a lot, though it often seems a rote answer. But it does matter.
It sometimes gets said around the Bulls that their failures in the playoffs—65 percent regular season winning under Thibodeau and 45 percent in the playoffs—come from the team working so hard all season and being unable to raise their games. While other teams don’t play to their absolute best like the Bulls do all regular season. There’s also the theory they wear out physically. I believe it can happen more mentally, and it seemed that way this season.
The Bulls looked like a team drained, which could explain the raging inconsistencies. When you are like that it’s difficult to summon an extra gear. It’s a job and a business, we so often hear from players. But it’s also a game. The Cavs look like they have fun; the Warriors look like they have fun.
The Bulls have mostly a quiet group of players. They generally relied upon Joakim Noah to provide that LeBron-like emotion and enthusiasm. But Noah was hampered this season both by injury and a position change that negated his effectiveness. He obviously lost confidence in his game. It proved difficult to play with that flair and enthusiasm when he was questioning so much about himself. In the playoffs, players often talk about that joy to the game enabling you to get through the difficult times. It seemed mostly a joyless Bulls group this season, less the issues between Thibodeau and his bosses and just that the inexorable and unforgiving nature of it all catching up to them.
It didn’t mean Thibodeau was a poor coach. He’s an excellent coach and will make a team better. It didn’t mean management had ruined a good thing or the players had surrendered. It just meant it was time for a pitching change, a little relief and perhaps a save with the lead that was built while Thibodeau was out there.