The long road brought Tom Thibodeau back to Minneapolis, a journey that appropriately started with Bill Musselman’s 1987-88 Albany Patroons, a team forever linked to the Timberwolves.
Thibodeau was an assistant coach at Harvard then. What he knew for sure was that he loved basketball and wanted to make it his life. After that, the details were a bit fuzzy. Maybe a Division I head coach someday? But already, he was watching, learning, marinating in the rich basketball scene in the Boston area, where Rick Pitino was coaching at Providence, Gary Williams at Boston College, Jim Calhoun at Northeastern.
“Three Hall of Fame coaches, relatively early in their careers,” Thibodeau said. “Right there in the back yard. I would go to practices. And when I did, you saw how great they were.”
One day Thibodeau picked up the Boston Globe and read a long Bob Ryan story about Musselman, who was coaching the Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association. Their record was 32-1 or something equally absurd. A CBA machine. Thibodeau called up a local agent named Frank Catapano to see if he knew Musselman.
The two drove the 170 miles to Albany, N.Y., for a practice. And it was a revelation. Thibodeau was aware of pro ball, but what he saw was a different world. A Patroons team with players such as Scott Brooks, Tod Murphy, Tony Campbell and Sidney Lowe were being run through a practice as precise as Thibodeau had ever seen.
“The way they executed their plays, there was so much going into it,” Thibodeau said. “That’s when I realized it was a much different game.”
And he was hooked.
Wednesday, as president of basketball operations and head coach of the Timberwolves, Thibodeau will begin his quest to get the Wolves back into the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons. He will bring 30 years of accumulated knowledge to bear. It is the next step along a path he chose that day in Albany.
Obsessed by the game
That practice in Albany led to a friendship that led, in turn, to Musselman hiring Thibodeau to be a part of his first Timberwolves staff.
In the 27 years since, Thibodeau has paid dues and taken notes. His love of competition is unique even in his profession, and his thirst for knowledge unending. His reputation for basketball obsession precedes him.
Charlotte coach Steve Clifford, who coached with Thibodeau in New York and Houston under Jeff Van Gundy, said he thinks Thibodeau is chasing basketball perfection, knowing full well it can’t be found.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who had Thibodeau as an assistant in Boston, said the only coach he’s ever met who comes close to having Thibodeau’s passion was Rick Majerus, who was an assistant coach when Rivers played at Marquette.
“He’s a basketball savant,” Rivers said. “It’s what he does. It’s his life. Thibs works because he loves his work. And that should make everybody jealous.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who had Thibodeau as his assistant on the USA Olympic team in Rio, put it this way: “He doesn’t just love the game. He passionately loves the game.”
How could he not?
“It’s a team game and you need everyone tied together,” Thibodeau said. “On offense, defense, everything you do. It’s a game you can practice by yourself or with a group. But it teaches you a lot about life, too.”
Arne Duncan, the former U.S. secretary of education, played for Thibodeau at Harvard. He remembers the day he and his wife visited Thibodeau in Minnesota after he’d been hired by Musselman, entering Thibs’ apartment and seeing a TV, an easy chair, an empty refrigerator and a pile of VCR tapes. Before they’d left, Thibodeau had taught Duncan’s wife how to break down film.
Clifford remembers late-night calls last season from Thibodeau, who was pursuing a one-year “sabbatical” after being fired by a Chicago team he’d taken to the playoffs in each of his five seasons. The phone would ring, it would be Thibs, who had watched that night’s game and had ideas on how to help Nicolas Batum, how to get Kemba Walker more space.
During his year off, Thibodeau kept trying to learn, touring the league. He visited Boston, Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City. Twice each. He went to watch the Clippers, Detroit, Utah, Dallas Houston, Sacramanto. He visited with former NBA great Jerry Sloan.
Thibodeau will tell you there are five tenets of his basketball philosophy: defense, rebounding, low turnovers, playing inside-out and sharing the ball. But within that is a quest for how to do it better, that push for perfection.
“You strive for that knowing you can’t attain it,” Thibodeau said. “But you want to see how close you can get.”
It is a drive that can, at times, become all-consuming. Which is why his year off was perhaps the best thing for him. Golden State assistant Ron Adams was on the staff with Thibodeau in San Antonio and was his assistant in Chicago. His first impression of Thibodeau was as a man who “wanted to make his mark” on the game.
Adams saw the intensity Thibodeau brought to Chicago. “His approach was that he finally had the chance and was going to give it his best shot,” Adams said. “He took some criticism for being focused and demanding. But that’s a compliment, not a criticism.”
Thibodeau won coach of the year once, became the quickest coach to 100 victories in league history. He made the playoffs five consecutive seasons despite injuries. But ultimately he was fired, with Bulls management leaking rumors of players being overworked, a charge Thibodeau’s defenders vehemently dispute.
“It’s a joke,” Van Gundy said. “I caution everybody to take what is said out of Chicago with a grain of salt. That team showed a toughness that came from the head coach. That’s what the Timberwolves are getting, and they’re fortunate.”
The key, Van Gundy said, is Thibodeau knowing who he is.
“Tom is comfortable with himself and what he stands for,” he said. “And when you have that, you don’t care how people perceive you.”
Adams said he hoped his friend used his year off to connect with life, too. And Thibodeau said he did. He vacationed, he spent holidays with his family. So about that old story about Duncan, his wife, the empty fridge and a pile of VCR tapes?
“Those days are long gone,” Thibodeau said. Then he smiled. “I mean, we don’t have VCRs anymore.”
Old school, young minds
Duncan’s theory is that Thibodeau is more a student of leadership than just of the game.
Which might be the key to his friendship with Tony LaRussa, who managed three World Series champions. The two, introduced by Bulls and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, quickly traded theories about leading a team. LaRussa, friends with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, once took Thibodeau to a Pats minicamp. That night, they had dinner together. But, essentially, LaRussa ate alone, because Thibodeau spent the entire evening picking Belichick’s brain.
“It was Tom asking Bill question after question,” LaRussa said. “All night long. Bill was very impressed with Tom.”
Van Gundy once said in a broadcast that everybody knew Thibodeau was the best coach on the staff when they were in New York. Clifford remembered watching Thibodeau running drills shortly after being hired by the Knicks as an advance scout and thinking, “I don’t know anything about coaching.”
Clifford still has notes he took watching Thibodeau coaching the Knicks’ Summer League team.
There is more to Thibodeau than his obsession to detail, Krzyzewski said. “The thing is, players always know where they stand with him,” he said. “He’s straight up. I trusted him completely, and I know the players did, too.”
Put Thibodeau in a classroom, Rivers said, and he’d be the best professor.
“He has the ability that few coaches at our level have,” he said. “His intensity rubs off on his team.”
So does his love for the game.
Duncan by his own admission was a player with a big heart but lacked the talent to pursue his pro ball dreams. But after he finished his senior year at Harvard, Duncan and Thibodeau went into a gym and closed the door.
“He put in hours and hours with me to help that dream become a reality,” said Duncan, who played professionally in Europe. “He didn’t have to do that. He did the same thing with a young Kobe [Bryant]. He did that with Kevin Garnett in Boston. With Yao Ming in Houston. As a kid, you only want someone who will work with you and tell you the truth.”
Wolves guard John Lucas III played for Thibodeau in Chicago. Before that, he was a rookie in Houston where Thibodeau was an assistant.
“He empowers you to be the best you can be,” Lucas said. “He knows your game, he already has it figured in his head how he can use you. He loves guys who know the game.”
As a rookie, Lucas sat down with Thibodeau. Thibodeau asked, do you know who you are? Lucas, an undersized scoring guard in high school and college, answered, “Allen Iverson.”
“He was like, ‘No, are you kidding me?’ ” Lucas said. “ ‘No, you’re Dana Barros.’ ”
The point was, Lucas had value, but had to know his role.
Then they worked toward realizing that role.
“Every day before practice I have to be on the court with Thibs for 45 minutes before we had practice,” Lucas said. “I just took that work ethic and ran with it. … He just knows each player. He knows [Andrew] Wiggins, he knows Zach [LaVine], he knows [Ricky] Rubio, he knows [Karl-Anthony Towns]. I can guarantee you — I can actually assure you — everybody is going to have one of the best seasons they’ve had in their careers under him.”
Thibodeau said he never expected to be back in Minnesota.
“I think of all the places I’ve been,” he said. “I grew up in Connecticut, I coached in New York and Boston. For a kid who grew up in New England, that was special. But to come back here has been incredible.”
He sees a lot of similarities between the Wolves roster and the one he inherited in Chicago. He took a 41-win team and won 62 games his first season, reaching the Eastern Conference finals. When he first got there, Derrick Rose was 22, Joakim Noah 25. A young team on the way up.
He sees the same potential here.
“I like the challenge of building something,” he said. “That makes it exciting for me. It’s a group that’s hungry. The commitment to improve is huge for us. But the fact we’re young makes it special.”