Tom Thibodeau enters the United Center for Thursday’s game between the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks as a foe.
But that doesn’t take away from the memories he made during his run as Bulls head coach from 2010-15. Or the relationships formed with players on a team that battled adversity on multiple occasions.
One of those players will be honored during Thursday’s game, which is being termed “Joakim Noah Night.” After Thibodeau’s Knicks defeated the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday, he launched into a heartfelt reflection when asked about his relationship with Noah.
“I’m thrilled for him” Thibodeau told reporters. “He’s a special guy, had an incredible career. When you go to war with somebody like that — that team was special.”
Championship expectations for that team were derailed by multiple Derrick Rose knee injuries. But in their superstar’s absence, the Bulls continued to enjoy regular-season success through the years by way of contributions from two-time All-Star Luol Deng, 2015 Most Improved Player winner Jimmy Butler and, of course, Noah, their emotional leader.
“It was just a great group of guys,” Thibodeau said, also listing Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver as key pieces. “That team resonated with the city and Jo was the heart and soul of that team.”
Noah’s skill set at the center position was also rare — a defensive anchor, passing hub and energy nucleus all in one. In the 2013-14 season, he won Defensive Player of the Year and finished fourth in MVP voting while averaging 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.5 blocks. Without Rose, the Bulls finished 48-34 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs, largely on the back of Noah.
“When you watch those games, aesthetically his shot wasn’t pretty, but it went in. And the beauty of his game was his effort, his heart, he’d make two, three, four, five efforts on a play, and that’s special. And then his passing was incredible,” Thibodeau continued. “ I always feel that the way a player passes tells you how he sees the game. If you cut and you were open you got the ball. And so when Derrick went out we ran our offense through him. He was special, and he got the absolute most out of his ability.”
Rose and Taj Gibson, also a fixture of those early-2010’s Bulls teams, will also be in the house in Knicks uniforms on Thursday. Expect the bond they formed to take center stage during the ceremony.
“Taj and Derrick and Joakim were like brothers. They were about as close as you could possibly be,” Thibodau said.
The battles, and ups and downs, that that group endured together will be a theme as well.
“I loved him. I fought with him. I loved him. I fought with him. And he’s a dear friend now,” Thibodeau said of Noah. “That’s maybe the best part of coaching is the afterlife and there’s an appreciation for each other.”
Thibodeau will be lasered in on trying to get his Knicks a win against the 4-0 Bulls, no doubt. But perhaps there will be a moment for that sentimentality to seep through.
“I’m thrilled the Bulls are honoring Joakim because he’s really connected with that city. He’s a special person. He’s done a lot in the community. He cares about people,” he said. “It’s a well-deserved honor. That team played with so much heart every night and when you play like that you are going to connect with the fans. The fans there are great basketball fans, great sports town. I’m just thrilled for him and his family.”