Tom Thibodeau

Tom Thibodeau watched the transformation, curiosity of Kobe Bryant

Tom Thibodeau watched the transformation, curiosity of Kobe Bryant

In the mid-90s, Tom Thibodeau served as an assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers when a certain Lower Merion High School senior would stop by the team’s practices at St. Joseph’s.

“He’d come real early,” Thibodeau said by phone Sunday of Kobe Bryant. “Anytime he had any time off from school, he’d come there and hang out all day. He’d be the first one there. He’d want you to put him through a workout. He’d wait for a player to come in and he’d go ask the player questions. Then he’d go try to play the player 1-on-1. Then he’d go lift weights. Then he’d watch practice. Then he’d wait for practice to be over and he’d want to play against anyone. He’d talk to players about shooting, about defense, about 1-on-1 moves. His drive is what made him so special.”

Like anybody else associated with the NBA world, Thibodeau struggled to process Sunday’s tragic news that Bryant, 41, died in a helicopter crash. In a phone interview with NBC Sports Chicago, he paused twice to collect his thoughts and emotions.

“Something like this just stops you dead in your tracks. It’s so heartbreaking,” Thibodeau said. “Your heart goes out to his family, the Laker family, the NBA family.”

Thibodeau, the former Bulls coach, heard from Bryant a mere week ago. Bryant talked to Thibodeau about coaching his daughter’s basketball team.

“He was so into it. You could hear it. He was such a doting father,” Thibodeau said. “And that’s the thing: He excelled at everything. He wanted to be great at everything. It didn’t matter what it was, whether it was being a father, being a husband.

“Who he was as a person I think stands out more than anything else.  He had such curiosity for learning. He wanted to know everything he could possibly learn about everything. In high school, he was hanging around pro players, college players, coaches. And then to watch all the things he achieved, his career was so amazing.

“But much like Michael [Jordan], his transition after his playing career was off to a flying start. There were so many great things you knew he would accomplish with his post-playing career. It’s just so sad. It’s hard to believe.”

Indeed, Bryant had transformed an image once scarred by a sexual assault allegation to that of a family man and doting father. He recently won an Academy Award for best animated short film for “Dear Basketball.” He talked excitedly about future opportunities in and outside the game he loved.

Thibodeau witnessed that love and joy for the game during Bryant’s teenage years. Then, years later, they competed in back-to-back NBA Finals when Byrant’s Lakers faced a Celtics team with Thibodeau as Doc Rivers’ lead assistant.

“You watched him play and you saw the competitiveness in him. That part was obvious. But he was such a student of the game,” Thibodeau said. “The thing that was neat was as I got to know him and I saw how he studied players, you could see how much it drove him. Michael was a big driving force in his life when he lived overseas. That was the guy he studied. He would mimic his moves. It was amazing. He did it when he was in high school.

“Just to see him execute what he said he was going to do at the pro level. A lot of it is because Kobe was very persistent and very determined. It’s hard to even comprehend that he’s gone.”

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Derrick Rose provided best moment of the Bulls' decade — off the court

Derrick Rose provided best moment of the Bulls' decade — off the court

The Bulls’ best moment of the decade didn’t come on the court.

It didn’t come when Derrick Rose dunked or Luol Deng sank a midrange jumper or Joakim Noah primal screamed or Tom Thibodeau fist pumped.

It came on May 3, 2011, in a suburban hotel ballroom. It came when Derrick Rose addressed his mother, Brenda, in an emotional and eloquent speech while accepting the NBA’s most valuable player award.

This is just one person’s opinion, of course. But anyone in that room, experiencing that raw moment, would be hard-pressed to forget it.

After accepting the award to become the youngest MVP in league history, Rose, then 22, thanked God for giving him his ability; the NBA for acknowledging him; his teammates and coaching staff for pushing him; Bulls ownership and management for signing “good guys” who “love each other”; Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen for establishing a foundation of greatness; his trainer, agency, fans and the city of Chicago.

After all that, he saved his most powerful words and acute awareness for his mother, who already was dabbing at her eyes with a tissue before Rose addressed her.

"Last but not least, I want to thank my mom, Brenda Rose," Derrick said then. "My heart, the reason I play the way I play, just everything. Just knowing the days I don't feel right, going to practice, having a hard time, I think about her when she had to wake me up, go to work and make sure I was all right. Those were hard days. My days shouldn't be hard because I'm doing what I'm doing and that's playing basketball.

"You kept me going. I love you and appreciate you being in my life."

The room was packed. Rose spoke to his mother like they were the only two people in the room.

The moment not only validated the hard work and sacrifice Brenda made to raise Rose and his brothers as a single mother in the trap-filled neighborhood of Englewood. It also represented all that was good about a special, albeit brief, era of Bulls basketball.

As Rose acknowledged, that team, which was less than two weeks away from advancing to the Eastern Conference finals, didn’t just produce great basketball. It featured togetherness. Players routinely spent time together on the road. They enjoyed each other’s company.

Rose’s speech also underscored an eloquence and genuine humility that was always present to those Rose knew well and trusted but which he often placed behind a shell once his knee injuries stacked up.

“I would hit him upside [his head] and bring him back down if he ever changed,” the shy and private Brenda told me, in an interview conducted for the Chicago Tribune, right after the ceremony.

That MVP season is when Rose would take the court, blow on his hands, acknowledge the opponent, tuck in his jersey and walk to the west side of the United Center. He would look to his family’s luxury suite and blow a kiss to his mother, whom he called his best friend.

“That’s just pure love right there,” Brenda said that May 2011 day. “I love that. It makes my heart swell.

“When Derrick and his brothers were growing up, I'd always say, 'You can't leave the house without telling me you love me.' I was raised to do that because that could be the last thing you would hear. So I taught my sons. ... That's the most important thing — love."

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Derrick Rose delivered game-winning shot for 2011 Christmas present

Derrick Rose delivered game-winning shot for 2011 Christmas present

This is the third straight season the Bulls haven’t played on Christmas Day, the league’s annual invitation to legitimacy.

That leaves fans with memories. During the dynasty, Michael Jordan playing on Christmas Day seemed as much an annual tradition as kids breathlessly awaiting presents or Uncle Ed hitting the eggnog a bit too hard.

But of more recent vintage---has it really been eight years?---Derrick Rose offered up the most enduring highlight.

The wild circumstances that made Rose’s game-winning floater to beat Kobe Bryant’s Lakers 88-87 on Christmas Day 2011 so memorable are sometimes forgotten.

The Bulls were coming off a five-game series loss to the Heat in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals. They carried legitimately high championship aspirations. Their rivalry with the Heat seemed locked for years. Rose stood as the league’s reigning most valuable player and had signed his five-year, $94 million extension four days earlier.

And perhaps wildest: The game kicked off the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.

Yes, the Bulls opened what turned out to be a fateful 50-16 regular season in the land of palm trees and ocean breezes with a Hollywood matinee at Staples Center.

The game itself was sloppy but scintillating.

The Bulls trailed by 11 with 3 minutes, 44 seconds remaining. Rose’s floater with 4.8 seconds remaining capped a frantic comeback that had Luol Deng’s fingerprints all over it.

Deng stole Bryant’s pass with 16.9 seconds left to set up Rose’s heroics and then blocked Bryant’s shot at the buzzer, drawing a ferocious fist pump from coach Tom Thibodeau. On Deng’s steal, Rose and Joakim Noah trapped Bryant, who had eight turnovers. On Deng’s block, Noah and Taj Gibson slid over to help on Bryant, and Deng blocked the shot from behind.

"Everyone knows by now we play hard," Deng said afterward. "We stick together whether we're down 30 or down two. We're always going to play to the end."

Deng scored nine of his 21 points in the fourth. Rose finished with 22 points on 9-for-13 shooting.

“A floater is something I'm used to doing if I'm going to my right hand," Rose said afterward. "And they let me get to my right."

Bryant scored 28 points while playing through a torn wrist ligament in his NBA-record 14th Christmas Day game. The Bulls, relevant again after wandering in the wilderness, were playing in their second straight, their first two appearances since the dynasty ended in 1998.

Given that these games marked relatively new territory for so many associated with the franchise, Rose could be forgiven when asked what he got Thibodeau for the holiday.

“Nothing,” he said, smiling. “Hopefully, this win."

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