Although just four players remain from Tom Thibodeau’s last season in Chicago, his first trip back as a coach who’ll be on the opposite sideline brings about some feelings of nostalgia, even though he wouldn’t be confused as some sentimental sap.
“Yeah, like when you come back you look at the building, you look at the time that you spent here,” Thibodeau said after his Minnesota Timberwolves finished shootaround at the United Center Tuesday morning. “Obviously you build a lot of relationships over that time. And I know what a great organization, the history, the tradition, being part of it. It was a great run for me. It was a great experience. You think about the players, the organization, the arena, all the people you see, the fans, the city itself, when I look back it was unbelievable.”
Saying “90 percent” of his time in Chicago was great, Thibodeau was classy in discussing his former employers.
“When I look back, you can focus on the 10 or 15 percent that didn't end up going the way you would like, but there were a lot of good times,” Thibodeau said. “And overall, the organization treated me great. I have no regret.”
In a way, he can’t even escape the specter of Chicago. He spent his season-long sabbatical last year as a Chicago resident, often being spotted around town through the year and living in Minneapolis currently is a place he calls “a smaller Chicago”.
“I was there at the start of my career. It’s a great city,” Thibodeau said. “There’s a lot going on. Great sports town, behind their teams. It’s a lot different than it was 25 years ago. Downtown is great. I’m enjoying it.”
Taking over as president of basketball operations along with assuming the title of head coach this summer—as one would think he coveted the former due to his acrimonious relationship with Gar Forman and John Paxson—he reiterated again he has no hard feelings toward either, or Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
Many will remember Reinsdorf issued a strong public statement from the team when the Bulls fired Thibodeau after their second-round playoff loss to the Cavaliers in 2015.
“I don't have a problem with those guys. I really don't,” Thibodeau said. “They have a job to do, I had a job to do. Unfortunately, we had some injuries along the way, and so it didn't end up maybe the way we all would have liked, but I don't have any problem with those guys.”
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As for Reinsdorf, with whom he shared a close relationship, Thibodeau said he hoped to run into the Bulls chairman at the Hall of Fame but didn’t get a chance to.
“Jerry was great to me. I've got great respect for him,” Thibodeau said. “I spoke to Michael (Bulls President and COO). But at some point, I'll sit down with Jerry.”
He called his first season, the 2010-11 campaign that saw the Bulls claim the number one seed with Derrick Rose winning MVP and Thibodeau himself winning Coach of the Year as his best.
“When I look back, I think that start the first year was such a remarkable year,” Thibodeau said. “And it was all the guys. The team was such a deep team, and for Derrick to have that kind of season, and then Joakim (Noah) growing, Luol (Deng) growing, Taj (Gibson), Kyle Korver, (Omer) Asik...It was an unbelievable group of guys. I had great fortune to be coaching those guys. And the organization, they gave me an opportunity. I'll always be grateful for that.”
He’ll get a hero’s welcome when introduced to the United Center crowd but he knows the warm feelings from at least one of his former Bulls players will dissipate at tip-off.
The player is the one he spent the most time with over the summer with USA basketball, the player he desperately tried to acquire on draft night, Jimmy Butler.
“I know when that ball goes up tonight, he’ll be trying to kill me and we’ll be trying to kill him,” Thibodeau said.
Butler was one of the players who developed the most under Thibodeau’s unrelenting style, qualities he believes he has in the young players he inherited on the Timberwolves’ roster like Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine.
“I don’t think any of us could’ve said that we thought he would be who he is today but we knew he would be good,” Thibodeau said. “We knew he would be a good rotation player. We knew that he was smart and tough and driven. And those guys always get better. And it’s his dedication and commitment.”