At Work With Tom Thibodeau

After a year of watching him work and asking questions he'd rather not have answered, a few thoughts about Tom Thibodeau.
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One by one in the media scrum, Tom Thibodeau swats away narrative prompts like they’re circling flies. The added TV cameras, the flood of extra lighting over NBA tarp that heralded Game 1 of the Bulls’ 2014 playoff run Thibodeau took only to mean that he must bring stronger buzzkill to bear.

“We don’t get wrapped up in that stuff,” he said, unblinking in the searing lights. He was not quite answering the question of whether he was looking forward to showcasing his surprising team on national television. “Our thing is: do your job. That’s our thing.”

Thibodeau has gained a reputation for being combative. He is heedless with the limits of his team’s bodies, and with himself given the legendary, brain-crunching hours he puts into his work. His vocal chords get the worst of it; he screams his team instructions and exhortations throughout the game like a mad conductor, always audible throughout the United Center. Thibodeau sounds in permanent need of honeyed tea, but doesn’t seem as if he’d ever take a moment to sip any.

He’s at his quietest with the media, a cold brick wall repelling any attempt to turn simple, toiling, boring and intense basketball work into some kind of showtune or parable. Before Game 2 against the Washington Wizards, Thibodeau is asked if the Bulls are facing a must-win bout, down 0-1 in the series. He chuckles, winces and replies: “That’s where you guys come in. This game is a statement game, a rivalry game," he says. "I don’t know what else you guys coin them as. It’s the next game. That’s the measuring stick. You get caught up in all that other stuff and you lose focus.”

***

The stories that tickle and tease NBA audiences are beyond stupid to Tom Thibodeau, and he makes that clear. He regards nearly any media line as contemptible—an insult, a tragic and dangerous misunderstanding of the holy and practical ways that these things really work. I nearly expect him to bristle even when, inevitably, the gaggle of microphones turns toward one of the darling tales of this NBA season—the overall magnificence of Joakim Noah.

But this is when the coach cracks, revealing a warmth so palpable that it helps explain what he got out of this shorthanded team. With Noah, Thibodeau led the league in toothpaste squeezed from the tube. This is what he does up and down the roster, regularly summoning superhuman intensity and uncharacteristic excellence from mortal athletes—ones who, truth be told, aren’t even especially good by the sky-high standards of professional basketball. Thibodeau brings singing life to molded-over cliches about heart, hustle, muscle and edge, the last a favorite word of Thibodeau and his team.

Chicagoans admire the coach’s puritanical enslavement to his process. Thibodeau's resistance to showmanship validates us in our own circadian slogs, our own ceaseless and dulled-out workaday hours—his insistence on embracing the drudgery of his job, and denying its bombast, gives greater meaning to our own tedium. “You never really feel pressure if you put everything you have into every day,” Thibodeau sometimes says, prompting imaginations of him boring his skull into file cabinets dense with playbooks, his eyeballs blood moons from all the uncountable hours of video watched.

The coach’s legend is not exactly attractive—no one who watches Thibodeau at work would want his job. Not even the result is pretty, and Chicago Bulls basketball is often pretty trying to the eye. But there’s so much to love in how they play, always racing to close the infinity of gaps in their punchless, injury-beset roster. Thibodeau’s team always exhaust each inch of human juice in them, thinking it compulsory, even criminal not to deplete themselves utterly for their team.

Thibodeau puts everything he has into his joy for Noah, too. “I want to thank Jo,” he said at the center’s Defensive Player of the Year trophy ceremony. He’s cracking a devious grin. “I want to thank Jo for sabotaging his draft workout so he could fall to nine and we could get him.” The crowd laughs and Thibodeau’s face becomes, for an instant, a sun. It seems almost as if he’s been waiting all season for this, his annual dose of humor.

Not that Thibodeau is a humorless man. He can often be seen sneaking in the faintest of grins; flickering signs of a humanity the coach prefers to keep on a short leash. At times, the coach can be seen conversing with team staffers in the United Center’s hallways, quaking with laughter—only to silence himself almost instantly, putting his head down and charging back to the locker room.

He seems self-guilted by any act that doesn’t directly serve the team. Levity is a fleeting treat for those brave enough to accept the never-ending tedium of improvement. At the tail of every surprising Thibodeau smile is, palpably, the sense that it is time to get back to work.

***

As Noah takes the podium after winning his award, he and Thibodeau share an awkward hug—their contrast in body types is the stuff of classic slapstick. But it’s a loaded embrace. Noah says there’s no way this could have happened without his coach’s system. As a player, he feels inextricably tethered to this coach, and is never shy to defer credit his way.

It's this unified front Thibodeau has with the team that drives much of his scuffling with the media. Brandishing monosyllabic responses to questions about his team’s rotation—“out,” “good,” “no”—he shoos interlocutors from every playing-time question with an aggression that suggests you’re asking him about a recent divorce. The playing rotation: that’s private as undergarments, and you’re a cur to ask about it.

Plus, he’s all too aware that this sort of inquisition is a dangerous one, as revealing player hierarchies risks alienating their buy-in. Thibodeau knows better than to make such a gambit with his words—but he’s also just more sensitive to his players’ feelings.

“It’s on me,” he once said after a home battering at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs. “We came out unprepared and that’s my fault. This one’s on me.”

And, to the dismay of many, he insisted all season on starting Carlos Boozer and Kirk Hinrich over Taj Gibson and D.J. Augustin—Augustin being the latest benefactor of Thibodeau's point-guard-whispering talents, the same charms that resurrected Nate Robinson’s career last season.

The coach won’t let Augustin’s, or other inspiring sagas, marginalize his tenured men; that's a matter of policy. As Boozer, especially, waned and looked lost in time this season, Thibodeau seemed to strain his game strategy to maintain Boozer’s dignity, repeatedly cementing his starting spot to protect him from the Chicago fans that so idly hate Boozer for his bloated pre-CBA contract.

No microphone scrum of the season was scarier than one in mid-February, in which Boozer was mysteriously injured and rumors flew about a heated disagreement between him and Thibodeau. The coach snarled at us for approaching the topic, and embarrassed Bulls’ sentimental favorite and Comcast Sports commentator Will Perdue with the terse answer of “score,” when asked how the team might go about improving their offense. Inquire into the family dynamics of his locker room, and Thibodeau is happy to line up the media like strawmen, and fairly sadistically tear them apart.

But if you’re one of his players and you’re sweating toward team equity, Thibodeau will not just take the fall on your behalf. He'll brush your hair, scratch your pimply back—he’ll do whatever it takes to buttress your loyalty, to pull you back into the fold, into the moment. His eye is always toward the scarcely perceptible margins of a very difficult game. Thibodeau puts an elevated premium on the power of good will with his players—this can turn a game.

Togetherness matters, here, and edge matters; ironically enough, the hot air of most sports media stuff plays into Thibodeau’s hands. Recycling and weaponizing tired basketball truisms are, ultimately, as much the Bulls’ fuel as anything else. When they lost their season after a Game 5 defeat to Washington at the United Center—the contest another arduous, painful proof that the Bulls’ roster simply lacked enough talent for these wildfire playoffs—Thibodeau was as sure of his poetics as ever.

“It’s often the littlest thing, you know, a fingernail, that decides a game,” he said, lauding his men for another proud campaign. Regardless of talent and size and speed and aptitude for accurate placement of the ball within the rim, there are fingernails, there are edges to each edge, there are margins so narrow as to be invisible. There’s always a fight to be waged against the elemental eventuality the Bulls have been undone by two seasons in a row, so entrenched in basketball purgatory, waiting for the enigma of Derrick Rose to resolve itself, one way or another.

But his players, to Thibodeau's mind, need not consider their lack of athleticism or their star’s absence. They’ll always be able to grow those decisive fingernails enough to accumulate an advantage. And every minute spent not focusing on said minutiae is a mistake, an excuse, even a lie. The only truth of Thibodeau’s basketball is in the constant stitching together of fingernails, micro-advantages in an endless bout of sweat and chess.

That’s the job, the only task that matters to the Bulls’ hardened coach—covering the inches of every basketballing day with every ounce of humanity available. There is no room for anything else. Only the deed in front of you, and the next one. Go, do it, get to work.


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exhortations throughout the game like a mad conductor, always audible throughout the United Center. Thibodeau sounds in permanent need of honeyed tea, but doesn’t seem as if he’d ever take a moment to sip any.
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