He's on the ball: Bulls' Thibodeau off to a good start

Updated 11/25/2010 6:31 PM
  • Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau

    Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau Associated Press

  • Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau so far is making the most of his long-awaited opportunity.

    Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau so far is making the most of his long-awaited opportunity. Associated Press

  • Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau and Derrick Rose in Dallas Friday.

    Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau and Derrick Rose in Dallas Friday. Associated Press

Exact figures are not available, but it seems as though a majority of the world's professional coaches maintain a generally grumpy demeanor. The pressures and worries that come with the job are not conducive to a sunny disposition.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, on the other hand, is a little different. Catch him walking around the Berto Center after practice or in the arena hallway before a game and he's almost always smiling.

Maybe that's because he's a nice guy. Or maybe after dedicating his life to teaching and coaching basketball, Thibodeau couldn't be happier to be a head coach in the NBA.

So far, so good. Despite facing a difficult schedule and playing without power forward Carlos Boozer (broken hand), Thibodeau's Bulls are off to an 8-5 start with two games left on the grueling circus road trip.

Jeff Van Gundy, one of Thibodeau's most influential coaching mentors, has gotten to watch his protégé up close four times this season as an ESPN broadcaster.

"To me, the good part about Tom is he does a good job keeping his emotions in check," Van Gundy said. "He doesn't coach in a Bo Pelini (of Nebraska football) emotional state. He does a good job.

"There are certain pressures that go with this job. I hope he doesn't forget how hard he worked to get this opportunity."

So how did this driveway basketball star from New Britain, Conn., become so attached to the sport? Well, the best answer might be Bob Lanier.

Thibodeau's father attended St. Bonaventure and was naturally enthused about the Lanier era, which ended with the Bonnies reaching the Final Four in 1970. So whenever St. Bonaventure ventured to Fairfield or somewhere nearby in New England, Tom followed his dad to the game.

"At one of those games, I got a chance to meet Bob Lanier," Thibodeau recalled. "When you're a small child and you're looking up to this huge 7-footer … he was just a fabulous guy on top of being a great player."

Another St. Bonaventure connection was Eddie Donovan, who was coach and general manager of the New York Knicks during the 1960s. Therefore, the Thibodeau family became Knicks fans.

One of Thibodeau's earliest basketball memories was making his first trip to Manhattan sometime around 1965 to attend, what else, a Knicks game at the old Madison Square Garden.

"I was just in awe," Thibodeau said. "I grew up in Connecticut, so it was my first time in New York City and I was probably 5 or 6 years old. Just seeing all the big buildings and getting into the arena and just seeing these great players and the atmosphere it was so much fun."

Thibodeau has two brothers and two sisters. They all loved basketball, but Tom was the only one who became a coach. He started his college career at Central Connecticut, then transferred to Salem (Mass.) State and was a decent player there.

A few years later, he spent one season as head coach at his alma mater before becoming an assistant at Harvard and then moving to the NBA with the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves.

"Probably toward the end of college, I knew I wanted to be a coach," Thibodeau said. "I was fortunate to get an opportunity right away the first year at a small college, then had an opportunity to go to Harvard. Obviously, the big break was getting into the pros."

Van Gundy was an assistant at Providence, working for Rick Pitino, when he first met Thibodeau. Then a Harvard assistant, Thibodeau was a frequent visitor to Providence practices, trying to learn whatever he could.

But Van Gundy said he still didn't know Thibodeau all that well until he was looking to hire an assistant for the Knicks in 1996.

Van Gundy brought Thibodeau for an interview on the recommendation of Jerry Tarkanian, who worked with Thibodeau during a short stint as head coach of the San Antonio Spurs.

"I wanted a guy who could do some video and also coach," Van Gundy said. "Tom was absolutely incompetent (with the video). He could watch it, but wasn't very good at it. He was no video-editing genius.

"(But) I knew two weeks in I hit an incredible home run because he was off-the-charts smart, detailed, professional. I got lucky."

Thibodeau was so impressive, Van Gundy could easily forgive his assistant's lack of video skills, which was supposed to be the job he accepted.

"He started talking his way out of that job right away," Van Gundy joked. "He knew he couldn't do it. He didn't try to con me or anything."

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