Bulls

The other side of Tom Thibodeau

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The other side of Tom Thibodeau

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.

The Pecking Order: An evening with the Chicago Bulls

The Pecking Order: An evening with the Chicago Bulls

As if letting us attend Bulls Media Day wasn’t ridiculous enough, my fellow Outsiders and I were invited to the 31st annual “An Evening with the Chicago Bulls” charity event on Tuesday night. Granted, our invitations only came when NBC Sports Chicago received a few extra tickets on the final day people could RSVP. But our executive producer Kevin Anderson got three very quick “Um, hell yeah!" responses from myself, Big Dave and John. Fool them once, shame on us. We were in!

Before I get into my silly list of favorite moments from the evening, I did want to mention how much I enjoyed and learned from the evening’s speakers. Jens Ludwig, the faculty director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, spoke passionately and eloquently about our city’s crime problem, how it compares to other cities of similar size, and the ways his team’s research is creating new solutions.

Jack Solomon, a youth guidance counselor for BAM (Becoming a Man) and Jamille Thomas, an alum of the program, provided inspiring testimony of their experiences and the effectiveness of BAM’s operation for at-risk youth in Chicago.

We can talk about the Reindorf’s’ (un)willingness to pay the luxury tax for elite level talent at a different time. But when it comes to the work they do with Chicago Bulls Charities, they put their money where their mouths are. As they played a montage of some of their events from last year, I watched Zach LaVine – seated at the table next to me – look up at the screen with pride and joy as he watched himself bond with a family who received Christmas gifts courtesy of Bulls Charities. It’s so easy to forget that professional athletes are more than just stats, wins and losses that we watch on our TVs and discuss on social media. They’re human beings and they care. It was truly remarkable to see. Good job, Zach. Good job, Bulls.

Now, on to my favorite moments from the Outsiders experiencing our first “An Evening with the Chicago Bulls.”

1. We met Toni. THE Toni. Toni Kukoč. The Waiter. The Croatian Sensation. Sixth Man of the Year for the legendary 72-win season and 3-time NBA Champion for your Chicago Bulls. What the what? In case you think that John, Dave and I are starting to get a little too Insider-y for our role as Outsiders, this is what we look like when we get to talk to Toni. Us? Starstruck? No way.

We tried to get some intel from Toni on the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “The Last Dance,” chronicling the Bulls’ final title season in 1997-98. Namely, when the hell is it going to debut? All they’ve given us so far is that it will be released some time in 2020. At least we’re getting closer, but still no exact release date? Come ON, people! Sadly, Toni couldn’t tell us the release date. Either because he doesn’t know or it’s a secret.

No matter. Meeting Toni was a major bucket list check mark of my Bulls super fandom, and he couldn’t have been nicer to us. Thanks to his daughter Stela for helping when Toni obliged our photo request!

2. OK, this one is a second-hand story of something that happened to Big Dave before John and I arrived. Dave’s wandering around upstairs at the Advocate Center and he runs into Gar Forman. Dave introduces himself and explains to Gar that he does a fan-centric show called Bulls Outsiders. Gar, who hadn’t heard of our show, asks Dave, “Are you nice, or are you mean?”

*Insert several cry-laughing emojis here*

Dave tells Gar he thinks we’re fair. As they continue to chat, Gar’s wife, Leslie, emerges from around a corner and recognizes Dave. “Hey, you’re one of the guys from that show!” Apparently, Leslie had caught our episode following the first Bulls preseason game last week. She told Dave that she enjoyed it and told Gar that he needs to watch.

So, we have at least two confirmed viewers of Bulls Outsiders. Zach LaVine’s dad and Leslie Forman. Now we just need to find a way to get Gar hooked on the show. Hmm…I’ll do some brainstorming. Have I mentioned how much younger and more athletic the Bulls look this season?

3. Kevin and I had a great chat with Zach. We asked him about his recent trending quotes; both people “talking sh*t” about his defense and the midrange shots controversy that got blown way out of proportion. You could tell Zach didn’t take kindly to the, shall we say, bold headline of a particular Bulls reporter on his story about Zach’s midrange quotes. Zach even responded to the article on Twitter, saying it was the farthest thing from the truth. He took the tweet down eventually, and it appears as though he and said reporter cleared up the confusion.

I agree with Zach’s assessment, and told him so during our chat. Yes, the league is trending away from midrange shots in favor of attacking the basket and shooting threes. He knows that. But when your team needs a bucket, get the ball to your best scorer. That’s Zach. If the shot he gets is a midrange shot, he’s going to take it. That’s the right answer. It’s that simple. Everything else about that midrange story was so ridiculously overblown.

Whether it’s Zach having the confidence to know any shot he takes is going in – midrange or not – or his newly inspired efforts we’re seeing on the defensive end, everything about Zach looks poised for a dominant season. As we were saying farewell at the end of the evening, I gave Zach a fist bump and told him, “Go get that All-Star nod.” He told me, “Oh it’s a done deal. In the bag." I believe him.

4. Luke Kornet finally got to hear John’s pitch for the “Luke Kornet’s Corn Nets” bit that he didn’t get to do at Media Day. He and his wife both thought it was hilarious. Dave was even quick to pull out his phone and show Luke a picture of the corn and nets that John brought to Media Day. Turns out, Luke’s wife wants Luke to write and perform a sketch for her upcoming birthday present. Methinks that John “Second City” Sabine and Luke have a bright future as comedy writing partners. First thing on their to-do list: Shoot the Kornet’s Corn Nets commercial and convince the necessary people to play it on the new videoboard at the United Center during a timeout of the home opener.

5. The Chicago Children’s Choir performed to kick off the evening’s festivities. Oh my God, they’re so talented. They sang two songs and I wanted at least two more. I asked Cristiano Felicio, who was seated with his girlfriend at our table, if he ever sang in a children’s choir. Sadly, no. I’d love to go searching for that footage. Remember how much Cubs fans freaked out when somebody unearthed that video of Kyle Schwarber performing with his high-school show choir? I’d pay top dollar to see a young Felicio in a similar setting. (Side note: Felicio is a really nice guy. It must be tough to be aware of how the fan base sees you and still put on a brave face. I’m sure the paycheck helps. But truthfully, the guy is delightful.)

6. Dave and I met Daniel Gafford and got to tell him how much we’re enjoying watching him play in these preseason games. In the annual NBA GMs poll that was released Thursday morning, we saw his name on the “others receiving votes” list for the category of biggest draft steal. The 38th overall pick could prove this season that he deserved a lot more votes. Assuming a healthy roster, his minutes will be hard to come by on a consistent basis. But he’s doing everything he can in this preseason action to show he’s significantly farther along in his development than people thought as they passed him by on draft night.

7. John and Benny the Bull crossed paths again. As Benny walked by us, he stopped dead in his tracks, whipped off his sunglasses and gave John a death stare that could darken the sun forever. There was another uneasy handshake between the two after the initial moment of terrifying tension.  Benny has nothing but love for Big Dave and me, but I’m still worried about his relationship with John. At some point soon, this could lead to fisticuffs. Or would that be hooficuffs?

8. Bulls assistant coach Karen Stack Umlauf has been with the team for decades and earned another promotion last year when became the first female assistant coach in franchise history. On Tuesday night, we met her husband, Mark, who is apparently another fan of Bulls Outsiders. (Hey, that’s three!)  He engaged us, and we ended up having a delightful conversation. He had some great stories about Bulls seasons of years past and teased us that he has several more. I’m hoping we run into him again soon.

Mark told us that Karen must always warn him to not “nerd out,” as she puts it, before he enters a room with various Bulls celebrities. Apparently, she gave him that very same warning when he wondered if he would run into us at this charity event. Us. Us three doofuses? C’mon, Mark. That’s hilarious. I assured him that we give each other the same warning before we’re about to meet Bulls legends of past and present, too. Mostly, it’s Dave doing it to me. 

I will continue to nerd out upon meeting Bulls heroes. They can deal with it. They’re used to it. I’m definitely still not used to it. (In case he’s reading this: Hey, Mark! Pleasure meeting you. And please, nerd out whenever you like. That’s what true fans do. Also, thanks for watching!)

9. Jim Boylen. Oh my god. I don’t know what planet this guy came from, but its beings are made with way more energy than the average human. Jim came up to us while we were sitting at our table, and joked, “Who let you guys in here?” Good question. We still don’t know who, but they made a mistake. Jim looked like a pinball all evening, bouncing around and conversing with seemingly every individual at the event. Maybe he felt like he needed to soak it all in, this being his first time attending the annual event as the team’s head coach. The face of the franchise. Gotta shake all the hands and kiss all the babies, as it were. But the dude certainly has the energy for it.

Then, as the evening was winding down, Jim came back to find us and engaged us again. He wanted to pitch us on what happened last season, the work they’ve done this offseason, and the positive changes we’re about to see on the floor. He told us that he wants us – all media, for that matter – to just be honest and fair. Critique his job performance and the team’s when it’s deserved. Most importantly, only speak on things you see and understand. 

Last season, plenty of people didn’t have a flipping clue what was going on. If there’s one area where I do have some sympathy for Jim and the Bulls front office, it’s that a lot of Bulls “fans” who checked out a long time ago still hurl insults in their direction for their own entertainment. And that’s not constructive. Often, it’s based on false information.

But we wouldn’t be doing our job as Bulls fans with our platform if we only talked about the positives. If something or someone is bad, we’ll call it out. I did warn Jim, too, that we’ll still be making jokes at his expense this season. And not to be “mean,” as Gar feared we might be. But because we’re fans, he’s the coach, and he’s got to roll with those punches. And let’s be honest, Jim’s epic quotes are ripe for joke picking. I think he understands that.

The last thing I told Jim, after I gave him that fair warning, is that I do sense a great deal of optimism among the fan base about this season. It’s been a long offseason of waiting, but there’s great belief that this team might finally be ready to turn a corner. We’re ready. We hope that Jim and his players are too. As Big Dave has stated repeatedly, and I couldn’t agree more: “I want to like Jim Boylen the coach as much as I like Jim Boylen the man.”  I’m certainly rooting for both.

Thanks for reading.  Attending this event was all kinds of stupid. I don’t understand why people let us do this, but it’s super cool that they do. Till next time.

See red, be good. - Peck

Bulls Talk Podcast: Thoughts after the preseason finale

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Thoughts after the preseason finale

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Kendall Gill and Will Perdue join Jason Goff to recap the preseason and look ahead to the regular season opener

0:55 - On Wendell Carter Jr aggravating his thumb injury, how to treat it
7:00 - On the backup bigs, Luke Kornet’s role
8:45 - On Tomas Satoransky and Lauri Markkanen’s importance
10:30 - On how Lauri gets his points, does that matter?
13:45 - Are Bulls playing the right style of basketball for this roster?
17:25 - On Zach LaVine, how can he become an elite player?
20:10 - The traits of a good defender
22:50 - Kendall on how he decided to be a good defender
23:45 - Will on how Tim Duncan held teammates accountable on defense
27:15 - Kendall giving Will a hard time for calling Jordan ‘an average defender’

 

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