IT WAS THE Summer 2000 and for New York Knicks trainer Jeff Van Gundy it felt 104 degrees in the shade. He decided to move summer league training from his base in Westchester to Fairfield University, which has an air-conditioned gym. He also decided to have assistant Tom Thibodeau walk the young Knicks through two exercises in one day, which was never a great idea.
As Van Gundy remembers, the first training session was scheduled for 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., the second part from 4 to 6 p.m. “When Thibs skipped her in the first session, it was 3:15,” says Van Gundy. “He’s telling the players, ‘Get up. Take a rest. Get something to eat.’ I say, “Tom, it’s 3:15 pm. You only have 45 minutes.” “
Two decades away from what his former boss and longtime confidante called “the longest summer league training ever”, Tom Thibodeau returns to the Knicks as a tough guy in a tough market facing the toughest job in American sport. He’s been hired to save the Knicks from himself, and his success or failure could be based on the answer to this simple question:
Is he too hard for his own good?
Yes, Thibodeau has taken 100 NBA wins faster than any other head coach before him, and yes, his regular season percentage win (.589) at the Knicks season opener Wednesday night in Indiana ranks him ahead of the likes of Van Gundy. Doc Rivers, Larry Brown and Red Holzman. But as Van Gundy likes to say about sports managers who crave change, if they can’t get you results, they will get you into relationships.
It happened in Chicago, where Thibodeau played five straight games and won 65% of his games, and in Minnesota, where he ended the franchise’s 13-year playoff drought in his sophomore season. After firing Thibodeau in 2015, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf ripped him off because of his refusal to involve the front office in an uninhibited exchange of views. The management had fought against the coach in the difficult minutes in which he had used his top players. Before Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor dismissed Thibs as coach and president in 2019, he argued with him over whether to meet Jimmy Butler’s commercial demand. Butler was sent to Philadelphia after setting fire to a preseason practice with a verbal brawl against Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and GM Scott Layden before doubling down for a national audience through ESPN’s Rachel Nichols.
Now Thibs goes to work for – two sips – James Dolan. It seems that one or three tweaks are needed.
Especially when you consider that the previous owners weren’t alone with their dissatisfaction. Last year Towns informed the Minneapolis WCCO that Thibodeau’s successor, Ryan Saunders, was a coach who would “allow me to use all my talent” and maintain “a family atmosphere,” and who would subdue newcomers to Thibodeau’s all-basketball-contemporary culture would have been “a disrespect and a slap in the face of their development. And I want to make sure that they develop not only as players but as people and men too.”
That sounds like potential problems for a 62-year-old coach with a young team. A coach is now being asked to develop and recruit talent in a city that has not hosted an NBA championship in nearly half a century.
Did Thibodeau learn a lesson that can be applied to caring for the Knicks? In his 18-month exile, while visiting Rivers and Steve Kerr and other coaches, did he discover that he should tone down his seemingly joyless pursuit of victory in order for everything to work in New York?
“I don’t think you can choreograph your personality,” says Bill Parcells, a lifelong Knicks fan from New Jersey who won Super Bowls with the 1986 and 1990 Giants and is still the ultimate New York market hard ace applies. Parcells, who played his first Knicks game 70 years ago, said he liked Thibodeau from afar “because he makes people do things”. Usually he makes her play hard.
“I think you have to be what you are,” says Parcells. “I’ve seen a lot of New York coaches come and go and there can’t be anything wrong with you. New York is a great place that accepts you if you’re not wrong, even if you’re an idiot I was back then.”
Despite his sideline work, Parcells knew when to end his spirited sparring games with reporters, sit down with them, and tell informative and humorous stories that would give him the benefit of the doubt if necessary. He also knew when a giant needed an elevator.
“It’s important to put your arm around the guy,” says Parcells, “because the players need to see a human side of you.”
Tom Thibodeau is on his third NBA head coach job. If he’s got that human side in his hip pocket, now is the time to show it off.
IN THE TWO Decades since Yankees manager Joe Torre won his fourth World Series ring in five years with a calm and gentle touch, only two coaches who lead pro-men’s teams called New York have won championships: Tom Coughlin (with the Giants in 2007 and 2011) and Joe Girardi (with the Yankees in 2009). Both were asked by people close to them to relax before winning their titles, and both publicly admitted that their changed approach made a difference.
Charles Way, a former running back who was the Giants’ Director of Player Development at the time, was among the club officials (owner John Mara was another) who told the draconian Coughlin he needed to reach out to the team on a personal level. Way advised the coach to “let the players see how you are with their grandchildren,” and soon Coughlin dropped out, took his team bowling, set up a leadership council in his locker room, and eventually hit the 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Jason Zillo, a longtime Yankees public relations officer, was among the club officials (GM Brian Cashman was another) who told the irritable and inflexible Girardi to follow Coughlin’s lead. Girardi soon canceled a training session, took his team to a pool tournament, projected a more open and approachable mood, and eventually beat the Phillies in six games to win the World Series.
You can’t make it harder in New York. This was what Coughlin and Girardi did before they got wise. And they didn’t work for James Dolan.
At least like Parcells, Thibodeau knows the market. He grew up in a family of seven in New Britain, Connecticut, the son of a Knicks fan. Tom Sr. sang in the church choir and gave young Tom a serious pipe set. Mike Krzyzewski, who had Thibs on his 2016 Olympic team, said his baritone voice made him a perfect overnight radio host.
Thibodeau instead used it to order student athletes from Salem State to Harvard, and then professionals from Bill Musselman’s Timberwolves to Jerry Tarkanian / John Lucas Spurs to the Lucas Sixers in Philly, where Thibodeau taught a high school phenomenon called Kobe Bryant. Thibs then made it to his dream team in New York, where he won a job lying to the head coach about his technical skills with video. “The best lie I’ve ever been told,” says Van Gundy, who quickly realized he would have been stupid to waste Thibs in the video room with the Knicks’ 90s teams.
“It makes me laugh when people question his ability to interact with players,” says Van Gundy. “I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I watched him connect with different personalities from Charlie Ward to Larry Johnson to Patrick Ewing [Latrell] Sprewell too [Marcus] Camby. He can connect with anyone because he invested so much in them to become the best they can be. “
Van Gundy and Thibodeau have known each other for 35 years, Jeff in the role of the younger big brother. Van Gundy saw Thibodeau help his Knicks set a league record by holding 33 opponents in a row south of 100 points in 2000-01. He saw Thibs flying back and forth to China while making Yao Ming a formidable offensive force on the post when they worked together in Houston. From a distance, he saw Thibs build a Belichickean defense for rivers when the 2008 Celtics won everything.
“Everyone wants an anecdote, a story about this or that, and yet what separates coaches and players is the consistency of their greatness,” says Van Gundy. “How many days are you great? There’s not a day I’ve worked with Tom that I’ve ever thought, ‘Man, he didn’t bring it today.'”
The fact that he gets it as intense as he does – along with boxing scores that show his best players are logging an alarming number of minutes – either drives the Thibodeau perception or frames the Thibodeau reality that he is Drives teams into the ground. “I think the media and some management teams want to be cozy,” says Van Gundy. “Although I personally find Tom as soft and cuddly as a teddy bear, I don’t think people see him that way. They don’t want to be harsh, and Tom can appear harsh in games.”
“Seems harsh” is one way of putting it, not that the style didn’t work out. Derrick Rose was the youngest league MVP under Thibodeau in Chicago. The Bulls held the league’s top records in its first two seasons, and a rookie who won 62 games, Thibs was named NBA Coach of the Year. Players he allegedly tied in Chicago either played for him again or wanted to. The roses and butlers and Luol Dengs and Joakim Noahs still swear by him.
“The Knicks are in good hands,” commented Noah on Instagram after Thibodeau was hired.
“It’s not about everyone lighting a campfire and singing ‘Kumbaya’,” says Van Gundy. “When you’re a head coach, it’s about getting people and teams to be more successful than they could be on their own.”
“Now if you look at the Knicks, the best attribute they have on their list is Tom.”
Sometimes it’s funny Watch the NBA coaches who haven’t played in the league or even at a large college conference and yell at NBA players. Tom Thibodeau was a 6-foot-2 forward in Salem state with barely enough walking speed to cover your grandpa. On some level, the sight of a Division III grinder tearing into an NBA All-Star is no less absurd than the sound of a columnist questioning an NBA coach’s plans at the Junior High Ball.
It makes sense to go outside the small college fraternity to get a new perspective on one of its members. Son of a former NBA No. 1 draft pick, John Lucas III played a big college ball in Baylor and Oklahoma State before spending eight seasons in the league, including two with Thibodeau in Houston and two with him in Chicago and one with him in Minnesota before becoming his development coach there. Lucas was also a young ball boy for his old man and Thibodeau in San Antonio and Philadelphia, making him one of the leading Thibs biologists in basketball.
Lucas says he was amazed how many times Thibodeau could call opponent play before his point guard called out an instruction or held up a certain number of fingers. “He’s one of the greatest advance scouts that ever existed,” says Lucas.
Fifteen years ago in Houston, 5-foot-11 Lucas, then a freshman, came across Thibodeau’s blunt teaching method.
“Who do you Think You Are?” Asked Thibs.
“Man, I’m Allen Iverson,” said Lucas. “I play like AI.”
“Do you want me?” Thibs answered. “Do you know who you should see more of? Dana Barros.”
The coach was just trying to give a little goalkeeper a realistic path to a meaningful career. “Manage your expectations without destroying your dream,” says Lucas. “He’s so good at that.”
The former NBA veteran has a work ethic anecdote from Thibodeau; they all do. “Basketball is his life, he never married,” says Lucas. “I’m with the Bulls and come to the gym with D-Rose at 10:30 in the evening. Thibs is there and is canceling the film from four years ago. He cancels every pick-and-roll this team has run in A playoff series. We all went after training, went home, had dinner, decompressed, and then me and Derrick go back in at 10:30 and he’s still there. “
Lucas believes the Thibodeau Bulls, eliminated three times by LeBron James in five years, would have won a title if Rose hadn’t blown her knee. At the end, Lucas says, “I don’t think Thibs needs to change anything when it comes to player relationships. Every player I know who has played for him loves him. Thibs wants you to put your hard hat on and come to work It’s not Club Med.
“The people in the league don’t see him the way the people in the media see him.”
IS THIS THIBODEAU Is angle really just a media thing? Butler’s agent Bernie Lee says his client would “support Thibs for anything under the sun,” despite the Minnesota breakdown. Agent Bill Duffy, who has had clients with Thibs everywhere (including Rondo Rajon in Boston, Yao in Houston, Noah in Chicago, Zach LaVine in Minnesota, and now RJ Barrett in New York), says none of his guys had any problems with Thibodeau’s coaching- Brand. “If you just can’t get a grip on it,” says Duffy, “Thibs is not your cup of tea.”
Of course, an athlete who says he doesn’t want to work for Thibodeau is not the same as an athlete who admits he doesn’t want to work hard. The Athletic conducted an anonymous survey of 127 NBA players last year and asked them 16 questions, including the following: What coach would you not want to play for other than your own? Thibodeau was the runaway winner / loser at 34.6% and received 18 votes from the 52 respondents. (He was the only coach who got more than a dozen votes.) Another question: which coach would you play for besides your own? – was answered by 121 players who named a total of 22 coaches. Tom Thibodeau did not receive a single vote.
That makes him an interesting job for a franchise company that is desperate to improve their list. The Knicks, who had one of the league’s youngest teams last season, ended a preseason win over Cleveland last week with five players between the ages of 20 and 22. They have won a playoff series in 20 years and Las Vegas Oddsmaker project them to win 22.5 games in that 72 game season.
The Knicks looked surprisingly good in four preparation games against two lousy opponents, the Pistons and the Cavaliers. On cue, Thibodeau still seemed upset in a Saturday night Cavs defeat. His team rained three and led by almost 50 points. He knows that despite the addition of Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley in the first round, it’s a lean squad filled with shooters who generally fight out of 3-point range. An inexperienced front office led by Leon Rose (former Thibs and Towns agent, believe it or not) and William “World Wide Wes” Wesley have been accused of fixing another Knicks mess.
Thibodeau’s main role in his dream job is incredibly difficult to do, but easy to explain – develop young talent now so that great freelance agents will want to sign up later. The Knicks have been trying for too long to skip the player development part of the megastar chase, and that’s one of the reasons LeBron James never signed up for his favorite Madison Square Garden arena, and in part why Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving star in Brooklyn.
Thibodeau was just using Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Supermax signature in Milwaukee to remind management (already!) That the Knicks must aggressively pursue a franchise player that organizations “must do” [deals] happen “and that” sitting back and sometimes waiting is not a good thing. “Leon Rose didn’t take advantage of his significant place in the cap to sign a major freelance agent in his first off-season, so it would be interesting to hear his response after a dose of Truth Serum.
Can Thibodeau reverse the trend of free-hand swings and misses by shaping its young players into playoff-level pieces, embracing new player wellness trends, and making them more user-friendly in the process?
When asked about his layoffs in Chicago and Minnesota, Thibodeau often spoke more quickly about his accomplishments than about his mistakes and the specific lessons learned from them. During an appearance on The Woj Pod in May, Thibodeau Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN admitted that he often asked himself, “What can I do better?” Without citing any specific change planned, Thibs added, “What better way to do something and what were the mistakes you made and how can you improve and learn from your mistakes? I think we.” everyone probably learns more from our mistakes than we make our successes. “
The Knicks declined to provide their new trainer for a one-on-one interview for this story, and Thibodeau declined to email questions about what he might have learned from his relationship with Towns and whether he was planning on getting one Show a more humane side in New York. The cities also declined an interview request on Thibodeau.
But that much is clear: New York offers Thibs the opportunity to grow with his new team. And after Dolan turned the garden into a dark and hideous place and engaged in unnecessary battles with retired media and fan favorites, no American sports arena needs more humanity than the world’s most famous arena.
As the Knicks neared Thibodeau that summer, ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins, a Thibs admirer from his time on the 2008 Boston title team, said the former Celtics assistant should “look himself in the mirror and say,” You know you what The game has changed. I will relax in training. I learn on the fly. This is a new generation. This is not the old school generation. I have to take a different approach. ‘”
Jeff Van Gundy, the last man to lead the Knicks to the NBA Finals (1999), says he would like his former assistant to share more of his personality and encyclopedic knowledge of the game. Van Gundy says he gave Thibodeau advice similar to what Charles Way Tom Coughlin and Jason Zillo Joe Girardi said: “He should be more open with the media. I understand why you want to keep information close to the vest, but I also think that you are talking to fans through the media, especially given the difficult times they are in. Just show who you are.
“Tom loves the Knicks, and I think it’s great to show that. I don’t think there is any need to change any of his core values. … It’s a damn good story. I want him to say, ‘I know we can’t shoot, but I grew up with the New York Knicks and now train them. ‘On opening night, I want Tom to sit there and say,’ Man, you’re far from New Britain. ‘ “
Maybe Van Gundy’s advice has already made a difference. During his introductory press conference, Thibodeau admitted that between his release in Minnesota and his appointment in New York City, he could take a few vacations. “I know people don’t believe I am,” he said with a thin smile. “But I got away and lay on the beach in Miami for a couple of weeks, so it was fun.” It turns out that Thibs really loves going to the beach.
Not much, but it was a start. Now comes the hard part – building a champion from scratch.
Sometime in the next four to seven years, Tom Thibodeau could be the one to end the Knicks’ title drought for good. Thibs has the chance to take part in an epic ticker-tape parade before heading back to the beach – as long as he doesn’t bury his head in the sand.