Tom Thibodeau embodies the spirit of his first mentor Bill Musselman

In the summer of 1997 – shortly after his first full season as Knicks head coach – Jeff Van Gundy took a trip to Sarasota, Fla. with his new assistant, Tom Thibodeau.

They visited Thibodeau’s first mentor, Bill Musselman, the hot-tempered, high-wired, super intense coaching icon. The former University of Minnesota coach was also the first leader of the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves from 1989 to 1991.

Musselman was a CBA coaching legend, regularly outperforming Phil Jackson. He won four straight CBA titles, amassing a 48-6 record for the Albany Patroons in 1987-88 – the best winning percentage in pro basketball history.

It was during that 1987-88 season when Thibodeau took several pilgrimages to Albany’s ancient Washington Avenue Armory to watch Musselman’s practices. When Musselman became the Wolves’ first coach, he hired Thibodeau for his new staff, giving the New Britain, Conn. product his first NBA job.

In 1997, Thibodeau wanted to show his new boss Van Gundy what Musselman-mania was about.

“They met all day long, started at 7 a.m., ended at 9 p.m.,” Bill’s son Eric Musselman told The Post. “I couldn’t even keep my attention span. They sat there, I’ll never forget it, just talking ball. You’d think I’d love it but I was like ‘I’m getting out of here. These guys are insane.’ It was literally 14 hours.”

Eric, the current Arkansas coach and former head man with the Warriors, added, “They just sat in the condo by the beach. I went up two, three times to go down to the beach and jump in the water and they were still X-ing and O-ing and talking philosophy.”

Largely seen as Thibodeau’s chief mentor, Van Gundy knows Musselman came first.

“The thing that stood out was the love and respect Tom and coach Musselman had for each other and their shared attention to detail and execution,” Van Gundy told The Post recently.

Bill Musselman died of cancer in 2000 of at age 59. Part of his coaching spirit lives on in Thibodeau, the 62-year-old lead candidate to return to New York as Knicks head coach.

“I think it was just the attention to detail,” Eric Musselman said. “(Tom) was focused on learning. My dad was attracted to him because he asked questions and was inquisitive. I remember my dad’s big thing is how you play pickup ball. He loved how Tom did it — all the dirty things.”

Eric Musselman and Thibodeau were fellow Wolves assistants under Bill, whose biography by Bill Heller was entitled “Obsession.”

“When Tom was with my dad, we were both so young and my dad looked at Tom as a guy he wanted to mentor,” Eric said. “Somebody that could be on his coaching tree. My dad took a liking to coaching a coach at a young age and I didn’t see him do that with other people.”

Thibodeau’s return to Minnesota didn’t end well – he was fired as coach/president amid his third season in January 2019. While Thibodeau broke the Wolves’ 14-year playoff drought, he was criticized as too much of a taskmaster and not connecting well with their young standouts, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

Knicks president Leon Rose and advisor William Wesley, formerly of Creative Artists Agency, represented Thibodeau and probably will care more about Thibodeau’s winning percentage (.643 as either head coach or associate head coach) than style.

“Tom’s the most misunderstood coach I’ve ever been around,” Eric said. “The perception of my dad and Tom too are their practices are really hard and long. When we were all together, we didn’t have long practices. Someone once asked my dad, ‘Why are your pre-practice speeches so long?’ He said ‘To save the guy’s legs.’ Is Tom obsessed with the game? Yes. Is he an incredible competitor? Yes. Is he a great defensive coach? Yes. But there’s a lot of buts.

“Tom plays guys large minutes, yeah. They play large minutes because he knows how to manage them in practice. My dad knew about load management and that’s why a lot of our practices were non-contact.”

Musselman speaks with Thibodeau every three weeks and is waiting, like everyone else, to see if his friend winds up in New York.

“I look at (Minnesota) as a really successful time,” Musselman said. “He did break the playoff drought. They had an identity and style of play. I know Jeff has said it. He’s one of the best coaches in the NBA. It’s just a fact. My perception is (the Knicks) would be great opportunity and great fit. He’d do an incredible job. He understands the climate having been there with Jeff. It would be a win-win on both sides.”

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