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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Tom Thibodeau- Work Ethic

The following is a great story from the New York Times on Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau.


KENSINGTON, Conn. — The unofficial Chicago Bulls fan club of central Connecticut gathered around a 110-inch television one Thursday earlier this month. One family composed most of the club, four parents and two siblings who live here within half a mile of one another, the entire brood close by, always, except for one.




The face of the absent one filled the screen midway through the first quarter of the Bulls’ game against the Miami Heat. Career mementos sat nearby, decorations for the fan cave, autographs from Yao Ming and Patrick Ewing and Derrick Rose, a framed Ray Allen jersey, a signed box score from N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern.
The assembled knew him as Tommy, son of Tom Sr. and Ann, brother to Janet, Dennis, Nancy and David. The N.B.A. knows him as Tom Thibodeau, 54, the reigning coach of the year, the fastest ever to 100 regular-season victories and perhaps the most obsessive person in a profession populated by those proud to be obsessed. He took his last vacation to, well, no one can recall when he took his last vacation. Confidants describe him in terms usually reserved for addicts.
His family says Thibodeau (pronounced THIB-uh-doe) — who inspired his mother and her friends, a group of women in their 70s and 80s, to invest in the N.B.A. League Pass television package and swear at officials working Bulls games — is not the drone they watch at news conferences, not a recluse who spends his days in a basement studying game tape in his pajamas.
Their Tommy has a personality. They swear to it.
His face, again, was on the television. He looked haggard, bags under his eyes, hair in continual retreat, voice so hoarse an announcer suggested lozenges.
“There he is!” David said. “Mr. Happy!”
The camera inched closer.
“That was kind of a smile,” Janet said.
“We saw teeth, anyway,” Nancy added.
“It was,” David said. “But only his family would know that.”
They connect with him on most days, even if they rarely see him, at least in person. His family understood when, over the years, he missed weddings, funerals, baptisms and birthday parties. He came home in late November during the N.B.A. lockout and took part in a family holiday for the first time in 20 years.
Even then, he spent one afternoon teaching his nephew the proper defensive stance.
Thibodeau was engaged once. He was in graduate school, an assistant at his alma mater, Salem State. Her name was Debbie, one of two Debbies that college teammates said he dated simultaneously, D1 and D2 at first for short.
They canceled the wedding about six weeks out, and Thibodeau’s mother made him return what gifts the couple had received. Reasons for the engagement’s end varied, but John Galaris, Thibodeau’s boss and the athletic director at Salem State, said Thibodeau told him, “There’s no room in my life for a woman if I’m going to be a basketball coach.”
Dennis Grube, a college roommate, added: “Tommy was devastated. That entrenched him so much into his devotion to basketball. It took his mind off it.”
Ever since the first coach forced players to run wind sprints, the profession for grown-ups who work in track suits has produced an inordinate share of the obsessed, the eccentric and the paranoid. Consider Thibodeau at the extreme. One of his former players, Nate Bryant, described the way Thibodeau approached his craft as an “addiction, without question.”
And the most prominent manifestation of that addiction, as described by two dozen friends, family members, former players and associates, always comes back to video. Every person Thibodeau ever met, it seems, has a tale of the tape.
First story: when Bryant arrived early at Salem State in the early 1980s, his dorm was not ready. He stayed in Thibodeau’s apartment, which was mostly empty, save for a couch, a TV and a VCR. The athletic department did not install its own video system for 10 years. In that time, Thibodeau watched many hundreds of hours of tape. And perhaps even a few movies.
Fifth story: An assistant at Thibodeau’s alma mater, New Britain High School, went to visit him at Harvard, where he was an assistant after leaving Salem State. He could hardly see Thibodeau behind the tapes stacked atop his desk.
Fourteenth story: when one of his Harvard players visited Thibodeau in Minnesota, where he first entered the N.B.A. as an assistant in 1989, the player found the refrigerator empty. The player and his wife went to a Timberwolves game, then returned to the apartment, where Thibodeau taught the player’s wife how to break down game film.
The player was Arne Duncan, now the secretary of education. He pushed Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls’ chairman, to interview and hire Thibodeau.
“This is his life,” Duncan said. “For better or worse, he doesn’t have a lot of other interests. Maybe he has no other interests.”
It runs in the family, apparently. Thibodeau’s mother said she records every Bulls game. The ones she likes, the ones they win, she watches repeatedly. Thibodeau chuckled. “That’s right,” he said. “Throw the losses away. The family mantra.”
Friends and family find themselves in the unusual, uncomfortable position of defending Thibodeau’s interests outside basketball without giving away too much of his personal life. They say he loves children, his mother’s pasta sauce, grilling, biographies and the beach. They say he is relaxed.
No, really.
College friends painted Thibodeau as a ladies’ man and jokester, a serious weight lifter and voracious eater who could consume a loaf of bread and would snarl if anyone came near it. He was not, they said, the neatest roommate, but he was persuasive. And cheap. Thibodeau kept his First Communion money, four friends said, unprompted, in separate interviews.
“One of our friends used to say to him: ‘Thibs, there are only so many ways you can defend a screen and roll. Come out and have a beer,’ ” Don Doucette, his college coach, said.
Some believe that reputation, deserved or exaggerated, held Thibodeau back, kept him from the move he most coveted, from assistant to head coach, for some 20 N.B.A. seasons. Jeff Van Gundy, who met Thibodeau in the 80s and hired him with the Knicks, noted that N.B.A. teams asked Thibodeau about his hobbies in job interviews, something Van Gundy said never happened to him. He called Thibodeau brilliant, the best coach on those Knicks staffs, “myself included.”
“It would have been like having a coaching draft and someone with the talent of Anthony Davis going undrafted every year,” Van Gundy said of the Kentucky star who is projected as the next top overall draft pick. “That’s how good Tom was. This guy is not a drone. This guy is passionate.”
Asked to expand on Thibodeau’s supposed hobbies, Van Gundy said, “Just because I said he’s multidimensional doesn’t mean I know what those dimensions are.”
New Britain Roots
Word arrived from the Bulls’ brass: Thibodeau would consent to an interview, but with conditions. One, he did not want team executives or assistants to be interviewed about him. Two, he did not want to address his personality, hobbies, or lack thereof. Three, he wanted to limit the discussion to basketball and coaching.
On the phone, Thibodeau relaxed on his conditions. He recalled the ways he begged and borrowed to obtain tapes early in his coaching career, compared with the plethora of information now available with a mouse click. He loves the beach. “That’s accurate.” His life is not well-balanced. “But I don’t know any coaches that are.”
Van Gundy, he said, might seem relaxed now — now that he is no longer coaching.
“Look, it’s not like this is all I do,” Thibodeau said. “I never look at a clock. When the work’s done, the work’s done. I go home and enjoy myself like everyone else.”
Thibodeau views himself as a product of his experiences, an amalgam of the coaches from which he developed his own blueprint. That started in New Britain, where the Thibodeaus lived in the three bedrooms on the second floor of a brick house on Hillhurst Avenue.
Tom Sr., with a background in accounting, worked as a purchaser; Ann for the state in licensing. Sixteen years separated the oldest child, Janet, from the youngest, David.
All learned basketball on the small hoop in the basement, near the washer and dryer. Tom Sr. listened to Knicks games on the radio and never missed an opportunity to extol his fellow St. Bonaventure alumnus Bob Lanier. Eventually, a hoop went up in the yard. Tommy fashioned the backboard himself.
At Dennis’s house, in the fan cave, the siblings reminisced about Tommy. Like how, as a young coach, he put 50,000 miles each year on his maroon Chevette, a hole below the brake pedal covered in cardboard, as he consumed pizzas that were still frozen. Or the way he dressed as Santa Claus each Christmas. Or the time he invited David, the youngest, to visit, then woke him to paint the house.
Thibodeau retained a certain toughness from his hometown, once the so-called Hardware Capital of the World, its factories open 24 hours, its streets filled with Polish and Italian immigrants. Hard Hittin’ New Britain, his friends still call it.
The old gym, with its rubber floor and wooden bleachers, became Thibodeau’s second home. Now his mural is painted on the wall outside the gym.
“TOM MADE IT!!!” it reads, in part.
Defense, Defense, Defense
Thibodeau carved his N.B.A. reputation as a defensive guru, a notion sure to draw laughter if not outright indignation from anyone who played with him. Before he learned how to teach others to contest shots, he hoisted more than his fair share of them.
In all seriousness, his teammates credit him with leading Salem State to three consecutive Division III national tournaments. At 6 feet 2 inches, maybe 6-3, he played an undersize power forward. He built a crafty inside game, boosted by a body strong and wide and hair so long it looked like an Afro. Teammates joked he shot 3-pointers only because 4-pointers did not exist.
The coach now known as a defensive wizard did not seem to appreciate the finer points of defense. One teammate, Pat Veilleux, said they used to remark that someone named Jesus must have played on those teams — because that is what Thibodeau exclaimed each time an opponent blew past him.
Thibodeau compensated for what he lacked in athleticism with that patented New Britain mean streak. Veilleux recalled one time he found himself in a postgame scrap outside the locker room. There came “Superman T, fully airborne, right into the fray,” Veilleux said. “That might have been the highest he ever jumped. He won me over at that point.”
“He was a junkyard dog,” Galaris added. “He ground on defense. I was bigger, stronger than him. Better than him. But it was like we played in the same sneakers. I used to say to him, ‘You’re going to have to take me to the hospital after one of these.’ ”
Thibodeau said he took a “machine-gun approach” in his early years of coaching, which started in 1981. He said he studied offense, scouted, worked on game plans. He noted that Van Gundy later hired him for his offensive acumen.
Those who played for and coached with him do not exactly remember it that way. They remember his laserlike focus on defense, which took up three-quarters of each practice. They remember he spent more time on the nuances of the defensive stance than most coaches did on defense altogether.
Bryant remembered one particularly sadistic drill Thibodeau employed at the end of practices. Players moved laterally, back and forth, for 10 or 15 or 30 seconds, until the whistle blew. Sometimes, Thibodeau would pretend to blow the whistle. Other times, he would blow it again immediately to restart. They called it the “foot-fire drill.”
“Because after it was over, it felt like your feet were on fire,” Bryant said. “It was his way of saying, ‘nobody is going to outwork you.’ We were going to play like him.”
The intensity of the film study meant Thibodeau could relay the tendencies of not just the next opponent, but of individual players. He knew this center liked to set up on the right block, liked to get the ball early in the possession and would likely perform one of two moves. Thibodeau drew defensive plays in notepads, on computers, even on place mats in Chinese restaurants.
For these reasons, Bryant said the opposing team’s best player rarely scored his average, in the same way Thibodeau, as an assistant with the Boston Celtics, regularly gave superstars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant fits.
Much of Thibodeau’s defensive philosophy came from John Killilea, who coached Doucette in college and became an assistant with the Celtics. His son played with Thibodeau at Salem State. Killilea died in 1996.
Killilea, said his friend Bob Licare, focused on man-to-man defense, in particular away from the ball, an emphasis that was ahead of its time. He also changed his strategy each game based on detailed scouting reports. One game, he took away the baseline. The next, he gave it away. Thibodeau, not coincidentally, has taken a similar approach.
Licare said he talked defense with Thibodeau on a few occasions, Killilea’s defense mostly.
“Most coaches say they want to know something, but before you can give them an answer, they do all the talking,” Licare said. “Tommy Thibodeau wasn’t like that. He would listen. He didn’t talk too much, didn’t try to impress me. I knew then. This guy would be a great defensive coach.”
The numbers bear out Licare’s premonition. Matt Kamalsky, an analyst at Synergy Sports Technology, found that over the past seven years, the three teams Thibodeau coached for (Houston, Boston, Chicago) allowed 149 fewer points a season, based on average possessions a game, than the typical N.B.A. team over an 82-game season.
The Bulls ranked ninth in defensive efficiency, Kamalsky said, before Thibodeau arrived two seasons ago, and 10th in defending shots near the rim. They finished first or second in both categories in the two seasons since.
“His numbers are going to be way above the standard,” Kamalsky said.
Waiting for a Break
Defensive coordinator? Thibodeau laughed at that one. In professional basketball, as opposed to the N.F.L., defense and offense are more intertwined. Good teams can slide by with one. Great teams need both.
“I don’t know where all this stuff comes from,” Thibodeau said. “This guy is an offensive guru. This guy is a defensive guru. I don’t even understand that. To me, you’re a basketball coach.”
At Salem State and at Harvard, Thibodeau used his breaks to visit other coaches. He watched Jim Calhoun at Northeastern, Gary Williams at Boston College and Rick Pitino at Providence. He borrowed from them all, too, along with Don Chaney and John Lucas and Jerry Tarkanian and Doc Rivers, a veritable coaching all-star team.
Thibodeau idolized Bob Knight at Indiana. Thibodeau once went to Bloomington to see Knight, but he mistakenly flew to the wrong Bloomington — in Illinois, not Indiana.
The more clinics that Thibodeau attended, the more he realized that he gained the most insight from watching practice. Pitino left him spellbound. Thibodeau called him a great coach, teacher, offensive mind, defensive mind and motivator with “great energy” and “great command.” Thibodeau especially loved that Pitino practiced three times on the weekends.
At Harvard, where Thibodeau worked with his boyhood friend, Peter Roby, they installed some of Pitino’s matchup press. It worked wonders, Roby said.
Thibodeau also gained a reputation for individual instruction. He flew to China to train Yao, went to USA Basketball’s training camp to work with Rose and instructed Duncan for an entire summer so that Duncan could play professionally in Australia. “Never would have happened without Tommy,” Duncan said.
Throughout, Thibodeau longed for the N.B.A. His break came when he befriended Bill Musselman, then the coach of the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association.
The Patroons’ practices, the attention to detail, the efficiency, the sheer number of offensive sets, fed into Thibodeau’s addiction. He wanted to learn all that, to teach all that. When Musselman took over the expansion Timberwolves in 1989, Thibodeau went with him, then to Seattle, San Antonio, Philadelphia, New York, Houston, Boston and Chicago. As a 76ers assistant, he tutored a teenage Philadelphian named Kobe Bryant.
Yet as the years flew by, Thibodeau seemed more and more destined to remain a lifetime assistant. When one team called Musselman for a reference, he said, “Look, hurry up and make your decision, because if you don’t hire him, I’m going to fire all three of my guys and hire him here. Because he’ll do more work than the three of them combined.”
Then, as the 2010-11 season approached, Thibodeau went from zero offers to three. Duncan was privy to the Chicago negotiations, and what impressed him was how Thibodeau turned down a sure deal for a possibility in Chicago, which had not yet decided. That took guts, Duncan said, to walk away from a guarantee for the one job Thibodeau wanted.
For Thibodeau’s first game as a head coach, his entire clan descended on Chicago. Nancy drove their parents from Connecticut.
In his first two seasons, Thibodeau contended with injuries to several of his best players — Rose, the league’s most valuable player, included. Thibodeau molded an average team with above-average talent into a championship contender, while he worked as hard to shun the spotlight.
“I thought he’d be great,” Van Gundy said. “I didn’t think he’d be this good. What he’s done in the last two years is the stuff legends are made of.”
Sharing the Dream
It can be odd now, for the Thibodeaus, when fans in Chicago interrupt meals to ask for Tommy’s autograph, when siblings pass his image on the Wall of Fame at Gibsons steakhouse. Strange, too, to watch Thibodeau stalk the sideline, clipboard in hand, eyes narrowed.
“Watching you,” Galaris said he told Thibodeau, “is like watching a tennis match. One way. The other way. Always, these problems with the officials.”
Those closest to Thibodeau want to help him with his news conferences, to polish his public face. They want to tell him to make eye contact, loosen up those shoulders, turn on the family charm. “I can see how uptight he gets,” his mother said. “I want to call and say: ‘Make sure you’re sleeping. Make sure you get your rest.’ ”
None are ready to hold a basketball intervention. At least not yet.
“Selfishly, we wish it were different sometimes,” David said. “That we’d be able to see him with the family, mess around with his kids, the way he messes around with ours, normal stuff. If I could choose fame over that, I would take him here in a second. But this is his dream. So this is our dream.”
The words lingered, the table silent.
A few weeks ago, David’s wife gave birth to their first child. He sent his oldest brother a picture of the boy dressed in a Bulls baby outfit. The boy’s name? Thomas Thibodeau, of course.

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