Tom Thibodeau is one of the best coaches in the NBA. This much is unarguable. He spent a decade as an assistant running some of the league’s best defenses, and his strong side overload scheme has been aped and stolen by every other team. And throughout the numerous injuries to Derrick Rose and other top players, the Bulls have consistently been one of the better teams in the NBA.
But Thibodeau is also known to be a hardass, grating on the players he coaches and the front office he reports to. His contract runs through 2017, but all season long there have been rumors that he is a goner unless the Bulls go far enough (what constitutes “far enough” is unclear) in the playoffs.
As the Bulls take on the Cavaliers, national reporters Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski both dropped stories on Thibodeau this week. The takeaways from the two pieces are roughly the same, with Shelburne writing that this is the “last, best chance” for the Bulls to win a title, while Wojnarowski asserts that this is Thibodeau’s “last stand.” Shelburne dances around Thibodeau’s status a bit but writes as if he’s on the hot seat, while Wojnarowski is more insistent about management’s “obsession with ousting Thibodeau.” (This is probably a good place to note that Wojnarowski wrote a vicious column about Bulls GM Gar Forman the last time he thought about firing a coach.)
Beyond the two columns acknowledging that the rumors and leaks are basically true, what is most interesting is that Tom Thibodeau comes off as even more weird and intense than previously thought.
Despite being in his fifth year as the Bulls coach, Thibodeau lives in a downtown hotel and stays up all night watching film. Via ESPN:
It takes Thibodeau hours after games to wind down. It actually helped when the Bulls’ practice facility was 45 minutes away in Deerfield, Illinois. The drive gave his heart rate time to slow. This year, the team moved its operations to a gleaming new facility across the street from the United Center called the Advocate Center. Most of the players moved into condos downtown. Thibodeau moved to a luxury hotel 10 minutes from the arena.
He doesn’t have the long drive home to calm his mind anymore, so he pops in the game tape and watches other games from around the league for hours every night.
“I never look at a clock. Sometimes I have multiple TVs, so if there’s another game I want to pay attention to, I’ll stay there,” Thibodeau says.
He wears the exact same outfit every single day. Via ESPN:
Thibs doesn’t have a lot of hobbies outside of watching game tape, and he wears a black-and-white Adidas track suit to every practice.
“I don’t know how many sweat suits he’s got of that exact outfit, but that’s always what he’s wearing,” Gasol says. “I’m hoping a few. He keeps it simple.”
“And the shoes,” Rose says. “He wears the same shoes every day, that’s for damn sure.”
He is almost literally married to the job. Via ESPN:
Thibodeau has famously been married to his job for most of his 57 years. His former athletic director at Salem State, John Galaris, told The New York Times that Thibodeau told him he broke off an engagement because, “There’s no room in my life for a woman if I’m going to be a basketball coach.”
One of Thibodeau’s assistant coaches thinks he (or perhaps Gar Forman) is bugging him. Via Yahoo:
For everything Rose has done to evolve, it will forever be a failure of management, and, yes, Thibodeau too, that they couldn’t grow themselves. They became more entrenched, more embittered, more toxic. When a visiting scout visited the Bulls practice facility in the past year or so, he had the opportunity to watch the awkward, strange interplay between Bulls general manager Gar Forman and Thibodeau. Eventually, the man walked into the office of an assistant coach and asked: “What the hell is the deal here?”
Before answering, the coach turned his fan on full blast. For the visitor, everything was becoming even stranger. He gave the assistant a befuddled look, as though to say, “What are you doing?”
“I’m not taking any chances,” the coach said, refusing to risk the possibility of those walls being bugged.
Coaching a professional sports team seems to self-select for those pathologically devoted to their job, but damn. In many ways, Thibodeau reminds me of a more talented version of Scott Skiles. Skiles was a pretty good defensive coach and turned around some bad teams, but things always got worse as his players eventually tuned him out. When you yell and scream and holler and push every single day, at some point it becomes too much. While Thibodeau seems to know no other way of coaching, Joakim Noah told Shelburne that it might not even be necessary with this Bulls team:
“Do you think I play hard because of a coach?” Noah asks. “Do you think Jimmy plays hard because of a coach? Do you think Derrick plays hard because of a coach?”
A couple weeks back the Thunder fired head coach Scott Brooks, judging that while the team had been good and even great over the past few seasons, they should have been even better. That isn’t the problem with Thibodeau. Rather, Bulls management has to decide whether Thibodeau’s players are eventually going to stop listening to him, and when that time will come. Whatever they do carries enormous risk. They’re unlikely to find a better coach than Thibodeau—the preferred candidate seems to be Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg, a well-regarded college coach who nonetheless has never advanced past the Sweet Sixteen—but it is quite possible that very soon, if not already, everybody in the Bulls organization is going to hate him.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo via AP.