Once upon a time, Tom Thibodeau wasnt all about defense. In fact, it was the complete opposite.
When he was in high school, he would get a few feet over halfcourt and it was like he was already looking to see where he could get his shot off because he had tremendous range and he wasnt afraid, but part of that came from him feeling really confident because he had put all the work in. He was not afraid to shoot the ball, he was really clever not necessarily going to beat you with speed or overall athleticism but he was going to outwork you and he was unafraid, recalled Peter Roby about the man. When he got to college, it was kind of funny because he was such an undersized kind of guy, but he was so schooled in footwork and positioning, and getting guys pinned under the rim.
He did a lot of damage by getting fouled and getting guys off-balance, and he still had some range to shoot in college, but he did it in multiple ways. It was just kind of indicative of how much of a student of a game he was, even as a player, trying to squeeze every ounce of whatever talent he had out and he was that kind of player, but he wasnt make his living of getting out on the floor because of his defensive prowess, continued Roby. He was a clever offensive player and he was a team player, and the irony is, hes become such a defensive expert, but I think that just speaks to the fact that hes smart enough and observant enough that when he got into the NBA and he started to learn from some people.
Roby would know. Now the director of athletics at Bostons Northeastern University, he grew up with Thibodeau in New Britain, Conn., and the pair coached together at Harvard where he coached U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, among others with Roby serving as head coach and Thibodeau as his assistant following a college career at Salem State and a head-coaching stint at his alma mater.
We both we went off to college and got into coaching separately, when he was coaching at Salem State, head coach, and I got the job at Harvard, I reached out to him and asked if he wanted to come be my assistant and help me do this thing together, and he did, so thats kind of how it all evolved, Roby said of the man a college teammate referred to as Jesus to a Boston Herald reporter because of the coaching staffs habit of exclaiming, Jesus Christ, whenever the undersized power forward missed a defensive assignment. Tom worked with our big guys when we were at Harvard and really made a difference with them because he was so smart about using leverage and positioning, and footwork and that kind of thing, even for a guy that was barely six-feet tall.
The NBAs reigning Coach of the Year would go on to impart those same lessons to the likes of Yao Ming when he was coaching with the Rockets and Bulls center Joakim Noah, upon his arrival in Chicago. But while Roby believes Thibodeau was destined for a successful coaching career, he describes Thibodeau, from childhood to the present, as having another side to him than the taciturn individual the media sees or the sideline screamer fans are privy to watching.
Well, we grew up playing Little League against each other, so we grew up in the same hometown and weve been friends since Little League, competed against each other, played with each other on different teams in basketball, baseball and all-star games. Our families knew each other. As we got older, started playing ball together, he had a family car that he used to get access to, hed to swing by and off we went, looking for games. So, weve been friends since childhood, Roby remembers. Weve always had a lot of fun together when we were growing up a lot of laughs, a lot of goofiness, a lot of fun, typical kid stuff and as we got to working together, we always had a lot of fun.
"Toms a funny guy. He was always dedicated to what he was doing, serious about it when it came to the players, but he always had good, positive relationships with the players didnt have a problem having fun and joking with them so as serious as Tommy appears and takes his profession, hes got another side to him. If you get to know his family, you know that he comes from real blue-collar, real humble folks and thats the way I think of Tommy. Hard-working, for sure, comes from a humble background, never asks for anything, always wants to earn it and he certainly has done that with his NBA career.
I knew that Tom was going to end up being a coach, there was no doubt. Once he jumped into it, you could see how focused he was and how much of a sponge he was about trying to learn. Thats one of the things that I think is a constant about Tom is that whatever level he was on, he was always in search of knowledge, trying to learn from other people who have been successful, trying to figure out what the keys were and making himself better. He never sat back and just said, Well, now Im a head coach in Division III, Ive made it or now, Im an assistant coach in Division I, Ive made it or now, Im an assistant in the NBA, so I can just kind of cruise. He always wanted to the best that he could.
"So, once Tom got to the NBA and started associating with guys like the late Bill Musselman the first coach of the then-expansion Minnesota Timberwolves and others, I had a feeling that if he got the opportunity at some point, he was going to be really successful because I knew he was going to be prepared and I think a lot of people did, too. They knew that he wasnt going to take it for granted and he was going to make the most of every single opportunity, and hes had a lot exposure to a lot of different coaching styles and philosophies. Hes been in winning situations, hes been in not-so-winning situations, so he knows the difference and hes always had strong relationships with players because hes that kind of guy and they played their expletive off for him. Its pretty obvious.
While working alongside Roby at Harvard Thibodeau networked, as many college assistant coaches do, but instead of making the leap to a bigger college program, he got an opportunity of a lifetime.
What happened was that Tom and a number of us on the staff, but Tom had a strong relationship, a friendship with Frank Catapano, who was a local guy around here, real knowledgeable business guy and basketball guy, who lived in the North Shore, where Tommy was at Salem," recounted Roby. Frank was in the Marblehead area and Frank was a very knowledgeable basketball guy and had been representing basketball players, a lot of them that were BC guys, but some that were CBA guys, that had played for Musselman in Albany, so Frank was a guy that people in the industry really respected for his knowledge of players and the way with which he represented them, always with their best interests in mind, never about the money and Tom got to know Frank really well, and Frank was very good friends with Musselman because he represented so many guys that played for Musselman, like current Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scotty Brooks.
Tom was introduced to Bill through Frank and Bill was on a tour, going to see practices and kind of getting back into it when he got named the head coach of the Timberwolves, so that year or so before they really kind of ramped up, Bill was on kind of a fact-finding tour, going out and seeing players, watching practices. He came by Harvard and watched us work out, got to meet Tommy, saw him in action, stayed in touch with him and Tom stayed in touch with Bill, and Tom was invited out to the Timberwolves free-agent camps when our season ended, before the Timberwolves got started and Bill obviously liked Tommys work ethic and his enthusiasm, and he hired him and so, he got started that way. Needless to say with his schedule and Bill Musselman being a demanding guy, he didnt have a whole lot of social time, but I would stay in touch with him to hear how he was doing and wed stay connected as best we can when both of us are in that business.
After landing a spot with the Timberwolves under Musselman, who was regarded as a defensive guru, the story is already familiar to those who know what Thibodeau endured, a 20-year apprenticeship before the Bulls hired him as a head coach. During that frustrating period, he often discussed the situation with his childhood friend, who worked in different fields, such as being a marketing representative for Reebok and running the renowned Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern.
We talked about that and many times, it was a bunch of things. He didnt have the sexy resume. He was just what people would refer to as he was a grunt, he was doing all the work and he wasnt looking for a lot of credit," said Roby. "He was working with the players, would come in at any hour to work with guys, would shoot straight with them and they liked his honesty, and they kept getting better. So, he wasnt a former player, he didnt have the hype of being a big-time NCAA successful college coach. He really earned everything and thats what makes all of this so much more rewarding and sweet for those of us that know him.
He didnt get the job because he had a big reputation, he didnt get the job because he was a former player not that the guys that are former players dont deserve it; theres plenty of examples in the league where former players have done quite well but he had to really convince people that this wasnt a grand experiment and that it wasnt a risk, that he was prepared probably more so than just about anybody and all he needed was the opportunity, and the Bulls were smart enough to do that and I think it speaks for itself now.
Of course, his fellow Connecticut native wasnt at all surprised when Thibodeau was wildly successful right out of the gates, leading the Bulls to a 62-win regular-season campaign, the top overall seed in the playoffs and the Eastern Conference Finals.
Tom would be the first one to tell you he and I talked about this when he was trying to weigh some options before he ended up getting selected by the Bulls is that that was a perfect situation. He had really talented players and hed be the first to tell you, and he had an ownership group that was committed to winning and they had a history of knowing how to win in a great market for basketball, so youve got to get lucky and have good fortune on your side, with respect to the situation that youre coming into, and keep in mind that most guys, when they get this opportunity, theyre not always inheriting a really positive situation," Roby observed. "The reason they got hired is because somebody probably got fired because they were underachieving or things didnt work. That was a .500 team the year before with some superstar-type talent, as well as a bunch of guys that were so unselfish.
"Joakim Noah is, what a coachs dream, with respect to the guy just wanting to win and doing whatever, and being so talented, and then, Derrick Rose, what more could you want from a guy? Hes a warrior, hes talented as it comes. So, he inherited a great situation, so I wasnt surprised by any of it and it was just a matter of whether the system would take as quickly as it did, would the guys buy into it and would they get lucky, in terms of staying healthy and that sort of stuff. You knew that Bulls would spend some money, guys would want to play there and it was just about him getting the opportunity and he got the best one that was out there that year, in terms of coaching opportunities.
Toms really smart, so I think Toms always observed what other people are doingphilosophies, defensive schemes, offensive strategiesbut more importantly, how best to get players to play to their maximum every night and play unselfishly. Youve got to say that they play unselfish and they play extremely hard, and all they want to do is win and I think thats a tribute to Tom because theyve bought in, they trust him and like in any relationship or any organizational structure whether its a team, an athletic department, a corporate entity or a family if people dont trust each other, then dysfunction starts to raise its ugly head and you dont see that in that program, in that franchise and I think its because theres a trust factor, and they know that theres nobody thats out-working Tom, so when he asks them to work hard and sacrifice, hes got all the credibility in the world because hes got a 20-plus year track record of out-working everybody and sacrificing, he continued. He learned his lessons well and he applied them to the NBA, but bottom line is that no matter what kind of schemes you have, if the guys dont buy in and play their expletive off, schemes dont matter.
According to Roby, at the core of Thibodeaus success past, present and future is his incredible drive, something honed by growing up in a gritty New England factory town.
Its the work ethic. He just refused to give in to the temptation to take it easy or take things for granted, or to say that he made it. He was always motivated and its hard work. If you go back and look at how we grew up in New Britain, that was an industrial town. People worked in the factories, pounding out steel or working in the machine shops or working on the press, he said. Tommys family, they were hard-working folks and my family worked in the factories for 40-some odd years, to raise a family and put food on the table, so when you have that as a backdrop and you get a chance to fly first-class or on a charter, or youre working at Harvard or whatever, then you dont take that for granted. I dont care what level you get to and weve been instilled with a set of values about how to treat people and not to take things for granted, and keep a perspective about our lives, and I think thats all part of why weve been able to do what were doing.
That being said, Roby knows that as intense as his friend is, when he coaches the Eastern Conference All-Star team Feb. 26 in Orlando, hell likely dial it down a notch for the exhibition. But will Thibodeau compromise his defensive principles for the exhibition?
That would be the ultimate acknowledgement, huh? I think Tom is smart enough to understand hes gotten some experience from having been with Doc when they were the All-Star coaching staff, Roby chuckled. I think he knows what time it is for the All-Star games and hes not going to push people too much because they need to take it easy and not get hurt, put on a good show and he wont make it about him. Hell make it about the players, so I think hell have fun with it.