If the NBA lockout had gone on any longer, a secret meeting between Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau might have been in order. Not to flaunt league regulations, but simply to make sure the pair, winners of awards honoring them as the best in their respective fields last season, didn't go through withdrawal from being apart so long.
Seeing Rose at various times over the offseason, including Monday at his alma mater, Simeon Career Academy, he often asked how Thibodeau specifically was doing, seeming actually concerned about his well-being (such as his summer knee surgery) during the work stoppage. When I told him that I had run into Thibodeau a handful of times -- at a DePaul basketball game last month, for example -- he relaxed, knowing his coach might not be at peace with the labor situation, but at least he was keeping occupied, aside from watching film.
"I heard he's been going crazy. I heard he's been showing up at games, like DePaul games and things like that," Rose said Thursday. "But hopefully he's been coaching somebody."
At that DePaul game, I didn't ask Thibodeau any lockout questions in a casual, off-the-record conversation -- we mostly talked about local high school and college basketball -- and he didn't ask me about any of the Bulls players, but I did take his unsaid hint and voluntarily update him, including Rose, I had been in contact with during the long layoff. You could almost see him chomping at the bit to learn more, but the fact that Rose had basically stayed in the gym all summer -- not that he wasn't concerned about other players -- working out with other NBA players in California, was enough for the time being.
"At the end of last year, we didn't have a lot of time to spend with our players," Thibodeau said Thursday. "But the one thing about Derrick, you know he's going to be in the gym every day, you know he's going to study, watch film, he challenges himself. I expect him to be great this year. He showed last year how great he is and now the challenge is to do it again and to do it better, and I think he will. He's our leader."
Separately from the mutual admiration these two have for each other, best exemplified by their frequent post-practice one-on-one film sessions and late-night text-message exchanges to discuss strategy, is the fact they're constantly on the same page. Both independently uttered the same phrase, "last year is last year" Thursday, without the benefit of prior consultation, an excellent sign for Bulls fans and proof that neither plans on resting on their laurels.
"I'm not worried about it, knowing that Thibs, he's very comfortable with us, knowing he can talk to us any way and really practice any way that we want to," Rose said about the Bulls adjusting to the shortened season. "We have the same guys coming back, kind of veteran guys -- I'm becoming a vet, this being my fourth year -- and hopefully, we can just go out there and forget about last year. This is a whole other year."
"I think that last year, our training camp was pretty hard -- that was his first year coaching, too, being a head coach -- but this year, I think he knows us a little bit better. But you never know with Thibs. He'll probably has us running a lot," he continued. "I know he's going to be hard on us this year."
The thing is, Rose likes that. It might seem strange, but Rose was actually one of Thibodeau's whipping boys last season, something almost unheard of in this era of coddled superstars, but not only does Rose enjoy being treated as just another player, he thrives off the coach continually pushing him to reach new heights.
"I missed everything, man. The Berto, the people that work here, Thibs. Just talking to him every day, just picking his mind, him picking my mind, just everything about Thibs," he said. "Just pushing me as a player, me pushing him as a coach and I know he's going to have us prepared, definitely, when the season starts."
Added Thibodeau: "Can't be the MVP without being great, but the thing that I really admire about him is he's never satisfied; he always wants to do everything better. I think defensively, he made great strides last year. I expect him to make another step this year and then, I think his leadership improved and he has to be the leader of this team this year."
Under Thibodeau's guidance, expect Rose to continue his growth as both a player and a leader; the symmetry will be complete, as Thibodeau, already one of the league's top coaches, should also be even better with his elite point guard leading the way. A perfect pair, back together.