DEERFIELD, Ill. -- In the late afternoon, with the shadows creeping in around the Berto Center and the traffic building on Interstate 94, all was quiet inside the Bulls' practice facility. The players and some of the basketball staff and newspaper beat writers had long since dispersed, having put in their day's work after Chicago beat Miami in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Where was Tom Thibodeau? The workaholic, video-addicted gym rat was nowhere to be seen. He would have to hurry back soon, for everyone knew the sun would not set in the West unless Thibs were sitting in his office, scribbling notes and barking in his gravelly voice at a flat-screen TV showing all the horrible things the Bulls had done in the 103-82 victory that gave them a 1-0 lead in the best-of-7 series.
Sure enough, there he strode up the path leading to the side door of Berto. Or limped and waddled, was more like it. What little hair he has left is smooth, but his gait and demeanor most decidedly are not. The last you heard of him that night, as he hurried down the hall toward his office, was a loud, raspy belly laugh when a reporter joked that for once, it had appeared that someone besides Thibodeau would be the last to turn out the lights here.
Not a chance. Many in the coaching profession work as long and hard as the Bulls head coach, but go try to find someone who works longer and harder.
"You see how he focuses and prepares for the game, and it makes you want to go out there and do the same," MVP Derrick Rose said. "Just stay in the office all day, not have a life."
Rose, Thibodeau's most willing pupil and accomplice, has bought in. Somehow a middle-aged, balding, pear-shaped schlub has connected with one of the most dynamic players in the game and the youngest MVP in NBA history -- forming a partnership that has the Bulls three wins from the NBA Finals.
"We're just used to it right now," Rose said when asked about Thibodeau's no-frills approach, which on the titillation meter falls somewhere between Bill Belichick and drying paint. "Sometimes when he's talking, you're just used to it. You've just got to live with it."
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They've co-existed, Thibodeau and Rose, in a way that has made the Bulls as dangerous as any team still standing in the NBA's final four. They're here because of Rose's talent, Carlos Boozer's toughness, Luol Deng's persistence and a deep bench. But they wouldn't be here with a snowball's chance in South Beach of slowing down LeBron James and Dwyane Wade without Thibodeau's defensive mastery, which has been baked into the Bulls' brains with relentless attention to detail and habits formed since the first day of training camp.
"We're not satisfied," Rose said. "Every time we feel good about ourselves, something knocks us down. We try to keep things going, make sure that everybody stays positive, stays right and stays hungry. That comes from Thibs."
But the mystery isn't where that approach came from, but rather what took so long for Thibodeau to get a shot at a head coaching job. In the past two summers, there were 10 head coaching vacancies in the NBA. Thibodeau, 53, interviewed with four teams: the Kings, Nets, Hornets and Bulls. In 2008, when Thibodeau was helping the Celtics win their 17th NBA title, the timing and logistics for a shot at a top job never lined up.
For a while there, the architect of playoff-caliber defenses as an assistant with the Knicks, Rockets and Celtics appeared destined to be nothing more than a career assistant -- a worker bee who'd never get a chance to lead his own colony.
The only problem was, Thibodeau didn't believe that.
"I never felt that way," Thibodeau, the NBA's Coach of the Year, said Tuesday. "I always felt that I would get an opportunity. I don't know why, I just did. Also felt like I was fortunate because I was always in great situations. In some ways, my job in Boston was as good as some of the head coaching jobs. I was given opportunity to compete for championships, was around great people and a great organization. And I felt the same way about Houston. When we got there, we were a lottery team and it changed very quickly. And New York, of course, was fabulous. I always thought I was in great situations.
"Once I got to Boston, I also wanted to make sure that I was putting myself into a good situation," Thibodeau said. "I didn't want to take a jump back just to have an opportunity. I thought I was fortunate to get this job."
That's the kind of perspective you need to survive in the theater of the absurd that is NBA coaching. So before you pity Thibodeau and all the times he was passed over for a head coaching position, understand that some of that was his own doing. Why go from sitting next to Doc Rivers in the NBA Finals to breathlessly watching the draft lottery as the head coach in Sacramento, Minnesota, or Detroit?
Plus, there was the small matter of Thibodeau not fitting the profile of your typical NBA head coach.
"He didn't look the part," one NBA coaching source said.
Thibodeau didn't ace the few interviews he got, sources say, and some potential employers wondered if -- get this -- he was too dedicated to his craft. A bachelor, Thibodeau is married to the game, with some of his most meaningful conversations occurring in the solitude of a room filled with video equipment. Did he have the polish to be the face of an organization? The patience not to obsess to the point of alienating his stars? The perspective to take enough mental breaks to avoid burnout?
"People are always trying to put you in a box or characterize you a certain way, but unless they really know you ... .," Thibodeau said, not finishing the thought. "I guess if you've got to be faulted for something, I'd rather be faulted that way than to say, 'He doesn't work. He's a slacker.' If you're serious about your job, that's the way you're going to approach it."
Thibodeau has taken a little something from every coach who's employed him and many assistant coaches he's worked with, and the mistakes to avoid have been every bit as important as the to-do lists. His coaching lineage can be traced to Don Nelson (through Jeff Van Gundy) and to Hubie Brown and the late Chuck Daly (through Van Gundy assistant Brendan Malone). His attention to detail came from the late Bill Musselman, who gave Thibodeau his first NBA job as an assistant with the Timberwolves in 1989. He learned how to communicate better from Rivers and Jerry Tarkanian (Thibodeau's boss briefly in San Antonio), and took lessons in motivation from John Lucas (who employed him in San Antonio and Philadelphia).
Watching Van Gundy burn out in New York, his eyes drooping and nerves fraying toward the end, taught Thibodeau that there are things you can't control and times you have to step away from the video monitor. That's what the offseason is for, Thibodeau said.
"To me, it's not work, so I never looked at it that way," Thibodeau said. "I come in and I stay until I feel like the work's done and then I leave. To me, it's the enjoyment, it's the challenge of doing it all. Most coaches are like that. In the offseason, you have more time to do other things. But once the season starts, you really have to commit to the task at hand."
Surely, he has stumbled on a diversion or two in life, things to do for fun to take his mind off pick-and-roll defense. But what they are, exactly, is a mystery even to those who consider him a close friend.
"Got me," said one NBA executive when asked what Thibodeau does for amusement besides, you know, break down video.
But there must be something, right?
"Wrong," said an NBA coach who's worked with Thibodeau.
His lone concession to leisure, said a friend, is dinner at a great restaurant with a nice bottle of wine. Preferably, a bottle that comes perfectly aged, one whose time has come.