By Mike Grenier
EDITOR'S NOTE: Tom Thibodeau has worked his way up from coaching Salem State College to being named head coach of the Chicago Bulls this summer. It's been a 25-year basketball journey, including 21 seasons as an assistant coach in the NBA.
Sports staff writer Mike Grenier, who has known Thibodeau since his Salem State days in 1985, talked to the Bulls head coach for a two-part series. Today's story concentrates on Thibodeau's development under various head coaches, his thoughts on LeBron James and his hopes and plans now that he's in charge of the Bulls.
In part two tomorrow, Thibodeau talks about his three years with the Boston Celtics, including the 2008 NBA championship season, the loss to the Lakers in this year's Finals, the rise of Celts point guard Rajon Rondo and Boston's future as a contender.
It's been 26 years since Tom Thibodeau was the basketball coach at Salem State College, but even though he's come a long way since then, he never considered it a lowly, entry level job.
To Thibodeau, coaching a Division 3 college team was pure basketball. As the new head coach of the Chicago Bulls, Thibodeau is making a lot more money than he could've dreamed of and the stakes are much higher, yet to him it's still pure basketball.
"I could have been perfectly content at Salem State," Thibodeau, 52, said from the Bulls headquarters in Deerfield, Ill. "I could have stayed there forever. It was a wonderful situation.
"The way I look at it, there are great coaches at every level, from high school to small college to Division 1. I've just been very fortunate. I had some great breaks along the way. But whether it's Salem State or this team, I'm still doing what I love to do."
A 21-year veteran of the NBA coaching ranks, Thibodeau, who has a reputation as a defensive wizard, was considered a mortal lock to be elevated to a head coaching position after the Celtics won their 17th championship in 2008. He was the right hand man for head coach Doc Rivers, who went out of his way to promote Thibodeau as someone who was equipped to take on larger responsibility.
Thibodeau could've jumped at other opportunities during his three-year stint with the Celtics, but he wanted to be smart about it, and he was willing to be patient. Here he was coaching Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and an emerging force named Rajon Rondo. All these superstars and the complementary players were buying into his defensive system and the Celtics were always a threat to win it all, so he was in no particular hurry to go to some dead end team as a head man.
TIMING WAS PERFECT
The situation had to be right for Thibodeau to make the commitment. He could've taken the New Orleans Hornets job after the Celtics lost to the Lakers in seven games in the NBA Finals this season, but the Hornets appear to be a fading team. The Bulls, with young players such as Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng, were a much better fit. Thibodeau signed a three-year deal with the Bulls, reportedly for $6 million.
"So much of it is timing," said Thibodeau, who's been so busy that he hasn't had a chance to move out of his Watertown residence. "The timing was bad a couple of years ago. We played so late into the season (while winning the NBA title) that all the jobs were gone. You look at the league and there are only 30 (head coaching) jobs and they're difficult to get.
"I've been fortunate over the years to be involved with a lot of good teams that were winning and playing (deep into the) playoffs, so the (head coaching) opportunities didn't come along," added Thibodeau, who got his start with the Minnesota Timberwolves and moved on to the San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Houston Rockets before joining the Celtics. "I was never disappointed in that. Winning was always first and foremost. I was working for great head coaches. The big thing about getting a head coaching job is that you want it to be with as good a team as possible."
Even though he feels he's more than ready to run the show, it wasn't easy to leave the Celtics. Thibodeau grew up in Connecticut and has had strong ties to Massachusetts since his Salem State days. The Celtics have all that history and tradition, and they came so close to winning it all again this season, upending the favored Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic along the way. It's tough to distance yourself from all of that, but he had to move on.
"It's bittersweet," said Thibodeau. "You grow up watching all these guys as a kid and then you're coaching the Celtics and meeting all the former Celtics, all the legends like (Bill) Russell, (John) Havlicek, the Jones boys (Sam and K.C.), Tommy Heinsohn, Jo Jo White, and (Peabody's) Rick Weitzman (who played on a Celtics championship team in 1967-68). It was an unbelievable time for me, but Chicago is a great city and the Bulls have their own history. They also have young players and cap space, so it's an exciting chance for me."
There were snickers from some fans and bloggers in the Chicago area after Thibodeau was officially named the Bulls head coach during the NBA Finals in June. The main complaint centered around Thibodeau's lack of head coaching experience. In that sense, he was compared to the guy the Bulls had just fired, Vinny Del Negro.
But their situations weren't comparable at all. It was rather ludicrous. Del Negro, a former player, was a radio commentator for the Phoenix Suns shortly before he was hired by the Bulls. Thibodeau, meanwhile, had spent his life learning from guys like Jim Calhoun, Rick Pitino, Tom Davis (BC), Don Chaney, Bill Musselman, John Lucas, Jerry Tarkanian, Jeff Van Gundy and Rivers, to name a few, and he had 21 NBA coaching seasons under his belt.
PLAYERS ENDORSE THIBODEAU
The Celtic players were strongly in favor of Thibodeau's move to Chicago, even though they knew they'd be losing a knowledgeable coach.
"Thibodeau is great," Boston center Kendrick Perkins said prior to one of the home games against the Lakers in the Finals. "He's hard-nosed and he doesn't take any garbage from anybody. He definitely lets you know how he feels about what's going on throughout the game. During film sessions, he'll call you out. I always liked that about him — he'll call out all 15 guys on a team. He's worked incredibly hard here. He's another example of hard work paying off.
"It's very evident how much we improved defensively after he got here. We won a championship. We lose Ticket (Garnett) the following year and we still make the playoffs and compete with the Orlando Magic. So you can see what he's done. I'm very happy for him."
Tony Allen often included Thibodeau's name in his postgame discussions, citing his game plan and preparation. Allen did his best to make life difficult for the great Kobe Bryant in the Finals and had reasonable success. Allen put his complete trust in Thibodeau after seeing what a workaholic the coach was.
"This is so well-deserved for Thibodeau," said Allen, who has since signed with the Memphis Grizzlies. "He's worked hard to get where he's at. He's the first guy here in the morning and the last one to leave.
"He's been a big key to my development," continued Allen. "As a player, he puts you in the right position to do things that will help the team. He relates well to players. One thing he might learn from Doc Rivers (as a head coach) is to let players speak their mind. We respect Doc enough to know he's the head coach, but he also lets the players give their input. I think as a head coach, you've got to be able to accept advice and not just give it. But Thibodeau is great. He'll never put you in the wrong spot."
LEBRON PASSES ON CHICAGO
There was tremendous commotion in Chicago almost from the moment Thibodeau came aboard. It was the beginning of free agency and there was a lot of talk about LeBron James joining the Bulls.
But how serious could it get with LeBron? If he came to Chicago, he'd have to live up to Michael Jordan and his six NBA championships. That's a heavy legacy. Instead, James opted to sign with the Miami Heat. No surprise there.
"It was kind of open-ended with LeBron," said Thibodeau. "We were cautiously optimistic about getting him. We presented our case and that was it. We're not disappointed. We ended up signing Carlos Boozer."
Boozer, an eight-year veteran out of Duke who has spent the last six seasons with the Utah Jazz, is an upper tier player who has averaged 17.2 points in his career. The Bulls also recently acquired the top three-point shooter in the league in Kyle Korver, who shot 53 percent from beyond the arc last season. With those two guys joining Rose, Noah, Gibson and Deng, Thibodeau feels he has some building blocks.
"We're strong up the middle," said Thibodeau. "Rose is a great young point guard who can penetrate and Noah gives you rebounding and energy. Gibson was an impressive rookie who played outstanding defense last season and Deng is a real nice player who kind of gets overlooked. Boozer is a low post presence who can face up and shoot, and he can rebound. Obviously, Korver gives us the three. We're looking to be a dominant rebounding team that will play good defense and go to its strengths on offense."
The Heat, of course, have already had what might be described as a pre-championship party. They have Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh to go with James and it was like a circus when they were introduced at their home arena in front of 14,000 fans.
If Thibodeau thought the Heat were a lead pipe cinch to win it all, he wouldn't bother to show up in the Bulls offices every day.
"They have three great players," Thibodeau said of the Heat. "The question is how quickly can they come together. But in the East, you can't count out the Celtics. If healthy, they still have three great players and you can make a case for a fourth (referring to Rondo). You have to remember that they haven't lost a playoff series when they're starting five is intact. I also think it's shortsighted if you don't include the Orlando Magic in the picture."
Meanwhile, the Bulls, guided by Thibodeau, should be vastly-improved, right?
"I'll let you be the one to say that," joked the former Salem State coach.
TOM THIBODEAU'S NBA TOUR OF THE USA
Former Salem State College basketball coach Tom Thibodeau was named head coach of the Chicago Bulls last month. He spent more than two decades as an NBA assistant with the following teams:
Minnesota Timberwolves (1989-91)
Seattle Sonics (1991-92, advance scout)
San Antonio Spurs (1992-94)
Philadelphia 76ers (1994-96)
New York Knicks (1996-2003)
Houston Rockets (2003-2007)
Boston Celtics (2008-2010)