Ten years ago Tuesday, the Bulls officially hired Tom Thibodeau.
Serving as associate head coach on Doc Rivers’ Celtics staff at the time, Thibodeau and the Bulls actually verbally agreed to terms on June 4 between Games 1 and 2 of the NBA Finals. But both the Celtics and Bulls agreed to wait to confirm the news, which was widely reported as done, until after the matchup with the Lakers concluded.
My employer at the time, the Chicago Tribune, agreed to fly me to either Los Angeles or Boston at considerable expense to talk to Thibodeau about his first head coaching job on one condition — that I was guaranteed an interview. Even if the interview only lasted five minutes.
We put the request into the Celtics. A day later, we received official word: Tom respectfully declines because he’s focused on his current duties working for Doc Rivers and the Celtics.
In retrospect, the request was naïve, borderline laughable. One now imagines a bleary-eyed Thibodeau, locked in a darkened film room, looking for any defensive edge to gain against Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and the Lakers.
But on this anniversary, it’s important to remember how that resolve and dedication proved the perfect ingredient for the Bulls at the time. And how the hire helped usher in one of the golden eras of the franchise’s history, albeit one that ran its course without a championship.
At 255-139, Thibodeau possesses the second-best regular-season winning percentage in franchise history. His .647 trails only Phil Jackson’s .738.
Thibodeau’s 23-28 record in the playoffs represents the second-most victories — well behind Jackson’s 111 — and third-best postseason winning percentage behind Jackson and Scott Skiles.
Under Thibodeau, the Bulls led the regular-season in victories twice and navigated numerous injuries with his “next man up” mantra to qualify in all five of his seasons. In that time, the Bulls posted three top-five defensive ratings and one top-five offensive rating.
But beyond the numbers, Thibodeau’s personality — and philosophy — meshed with the serious, like-minded pros assembled by John Paxson and Gar Forman to establish an identity embraced by Chicago. He, Jackson and Dick Motta are the only Coach of the Year winners in franchise history.
The anniversary is also an opportune time to correct two misnomers about Thibodeau, whose reputation as an obsessive taskmaster has unfairly clouded matters. He’s actually great to cover from a beat writer’s perspective — accessible, honest and a good quote. He enjoys the give and take.
And he possesses a dry humor that flashes as long as things are going his and his team’s way. When they’re not, well, let’s just say things can be a bit dour.
Thibodeau used to bristle at the phrase “old school” that many used to categorize him. He’d say something along the lines of, ‘What’s so old school about preaching accountability, professionalism and a strong work ethic?’
And his demands always were more mental than physical. Kyle Korver used to joke about walking through defending a team’s fifth out-of-bounds play at some random shootaround in February.
The players he played heavy minutes — Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler — embraced it and merely mirrored the big minutes that Jackson played Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Or Gregg Popovich played a young Tim Duncan.
This isn’t to mythologize the man. The messy cold war between him and management that led to his firing was real. And the retelling of it sometimes obscures two crucial elements: He lost the support of Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, once his biggest advocate and ally. And some crucial players privately started second-guessing some of his methods.
Today, those same players, given the perspective of time and distance, fully embrace Thibodeau and his ways. A common theme from many of his former players is that it may not always be easy playing for him, but you never can question the results.
Out of work, he remains in touch with many of them.
There is considerable talk around the league that Thibodeau stands poised to land the Knicks job. He owns a longstanding close personal and professional relationship with Leon Rose, the Knicks’ new president.
Thibodeau speaks fondly of his Bulls tenure. He has returned to a good place with Paxson. He enjoyed his trips to the United Center when he coached the Timberwolves.
If he returns to the UC with the Knicks, perhaps it can rekindle an old rivalry. The Bulls haven’t had many of those — with any team — since Thibodeau prowled the sidelines for them.
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