Tom Thibodeau’s relentlessness — and a called-off wedding — drove him to Knicks ‘dream job’
He was a brick wall, sizing up the next blind-side screen. He was a propeller, unabashedly throwing elbows. He was a guillotine, killing any potential 3-point play.
Tom Thibodeau was a 1990s Knick, starring at Division III Salem State.
“I’m a total prick when I play and Thibs was the same way, so we hit it off immediately,” Salem State co-captain Pat Veilleux said. “He would just clobber guys.”
His toughness was unrivaled.
“Tommy went to block a shot and caught the backboard, and his pinky finger was at a 90-degree angle, where the bone was through the skin,” co-captain John Furlong said. “I’m like, ‘Get away from me before I throw up.’ He just snapped the thing back in and told the trainer, ‘Put a piece of tape on it,’ and went back in the game.”
His loyalty was unmatched.
“I started something with this guy, and after we left the court, he put up his fists. I thought I could take him. Then I saw him up close, and I’m like, ‘Oh boy,’ ” Veilleux said. “I never saw Tom run so fast. He blew by me and tackled the kid and just knuckled him until their team turned around and came up the stairs.
“From that point on, he owned me. I would’ve done anything for that guy. And I don’t speak alone about that.”
Tom Sr. saw the Knicks as family, a devoted fan and devout Catholic who took his five children to church on Sundays, and occasionally treated his second-eldest — set to become the franchise’s next head coach — with long train rides from New Britain, Conn., to the team’s golden age at Madison Square Garden.
Thibodeau’s first shots came on a straw basket in the basement. Then, he graduated to the hoop his father nailed to the garage.
“His father loved sports and passed it on to him,” Thibodeau’s mother, Ann, told The Post. “Basketball and baseball were his passions.”
Upon arriving at Salem State in 1977, Thibodeau, also a standout first baseman briefly contemplated multi-sport stardom, before focusing on basketball.
“He went to a couple tryouts and he hit some bombs,” Furlong said.
Long distance was his specialty, even when the prize was still two points. But a backlog in the backcourt motivated the 6-foot-1 guard to morph into an undersized power forward.
“He would hit shots from just inside the circle at halfcourt,” Veilleux said. “Then he became a Barkley-type player, built like a brick house, clearing everyone out.”
Offense was his raison d’être. Stops were secondary to the man who became the architect of the Celtics’ 2008 championship defense.
“He couldn’t spell defense,” longtime friend Mike Opat said. “How that happened in Boston remains a mystery.”
As the Vikings earned their first two NCAA Tournament bids in Thibodeau’s final seasons, he prepared for his career.
“He’d always ask, ‘Where are you going this weekend? Can I go to that clinic with you?’ ” former coach Don Doucette said. “We used to drive four, five hours each way. You don’t do those things unless you’re really serious about it.”
While an assistant at Salem State — earning a master’s degree in counseling — Thibodeau got engaged. Less than two months before the big day, the wedding was called off.
His career was to come first.
“He made a decision that this was gonna be his life. He gave up a lot, but that’s what he wanted,” Furlong said. “Once he made his mind up, he was all in. He knew what it was gonna take.”
Thibodeau, 62, will become the Knicks’ 30th head coach. He is the first to never have been married.
“It’s certainly not the norm that a guy with his intelligence and accomplishments would stay single,” Opat said. “I know he’s had many opportunities, and probably continues to have many opportunities for relationships, but he is devoted, almost like a basketball priest. I’m a Catholic. He’s a Catholic. I don’t make that lightly, but it’s that kind of dedication.”
Thibodeau went 7-19 as head coach at Salem State in 1984-85. More than a quarter-century passed before his next opportunity as a head coach. He prepared by borrowing from the best.
He attended clinics run by Bobby Knight and Hubie Brown. He scouted the practice methods of Providence’s Rick Pitino, Northeastern’s Jim Calhoun and Boston College’s Gary Williams, while working nearby at Harvard. Then, he stumbled upon Bill Musselman.
After reading a Boston Globe story about the Albany Patroons coach, Thibodeau contacted a local agent, Frank Catapano, who knew Musselman and drove with Thibodeau to upstate New York to meet the coach about to win his fourth straight Continental Basketball Association title. Leaving in awe of a practice defined by precision, Thibodeau made numerous trips back in his Chevette. After Musselman was named the first-ever head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1988, he hired Thibodeau.
“He learned a legendary work ethic,” said Opat, a lifelong Minnesotan and politician. “A lot of how he turned out as a head coach is from the tutelage he got from Muss.”
In his first NBA season, with the Timberwolves in 1989-90, Thibodeau — then, ribbed by friends as still having his “First Communion money” — fell deeper into his addiction.
“We go over his house and he’s got four VCRs going. He’d say, ‘Look at this guy,’ and then go the next TV and, ‘Look at this.’ We were mesmerized,” Veilleux said. “We said, ‘Thibs, let’s go have a few drinks like the old days. He goes, ‘I gotta do more film.’ I said, ‘I’ll get a case of beers and you can still do film.’ He said, ‘I’ll buy,’ and throws a $5 bill at us. Are you kidding me?”
Arne Duncan, who played under Thibodeau at Harvard, visited the same year. Before leaving, his wife was given an hours-long film tutorial.
“She was in awe of this apartment with all these TVs and nothing but baking soda in the fridge,” said Duncan, the former U.S. Secretary of Education. “I was friends with President Obama long before he was president and it was amazing to see his ascent, but I knew why. I knew his character. I knew his personality. I knew his work ethic. The same thing is honestly true with Coach T.”
The nonstop approach had him put the Timberwolves through practice immediately after landing in China in 2017. It was thrust upon Luol Deng, when he arrived at Chicago’s practice facility during Thibodeau’s first season as head coach.
“I thought no one was in here and I tried to just get a few shots up,” Deng said then. “He came down [from his office] and he put me through one of the toughest workouts I’ve ever done.”
Decades of preparation produce unshakeable confidence, giving the Bruce Springsteen fan a hint of John Lennon: I’m an artist, and if you give me a tuba, I’ll bring you something out of it.
“He has a saying, and he really believes this: ‘If you’re in the NBA, you have a unique talent,’ ” said longtime assistant Andy Greer, who has spent 14 seasons with Thibodeau. “He’ll find a way to use them and mesh it into a system. It’s a puzzle and he knows how to fit the pieces.”
Thibodeau was an advance scout for the Seattle SuperSonics, then, an assistant in San Antonio and Philadelphia, where he used personal time to train high school star Kobe Bryant.
“He was crucial. … Just doing drills and working on ballhandling and teaching me the game. He was there from Day 1,” Bryant said in 2010. “When I was in high school, I didn’t really know what the hell was going on. I just knew he was this really nice man who was very knowledgeable about the game and willing to teach me things.”
The player’s ceiling is irrelevant. The potential is the point.
“I’ll always feel indebted to him because I was a kid who wasn’t that good, but desperately wanted to be a pro basketball player,” said Duncan, who played four years professionally in Australia. “Ninety-nine percent of people would’ve said I was crazy, but he was willing to spend a ton of time after my senior season, when I was by definition no more use to the program. … He helped me reach my dream and I don’t think it would’ve happened without his help and encouragement.”
Jeff Van Gundy didn’t need to interview 10 other candidates. He didn’t even need an honest answer.
After receiving unsolicited advice from Jerry Tarkanian — who’d worked with Thibodeau for only 20 games — to hire his former assistant, the new Knicks coach met with Thibodeau in 1996 about a position as video coordinator.
“I asked him, ‘Do you know how to do the video?’ and the answer was yes and it was all bulls–. He had no clue what he was doing,” Van Gundy said. “But it took about one week to understand how great a teacher and coach he was, and we had other guys do the video.
“He was brilliant and had a great demeanor. He had confidence, toughness, passion, determination. He was such a great fit for our group. You can’t come into that group without those traits or they would eat you up. Oakley, Mason, Starks, Ewing, they’d have no use for you. He commanded their respect because of his sheer greatness right from the start.”
After eight seasons in New York — including a run to the 1999 NBA Finals — Thibodeau joined Van Gundy in Houston, where he worked closely with Yao Ming and helped build a top-five defense for four straight years. As associate head coach in Boston, Thibodeau first earned national recognition, as the Celtics won their first championship in 22 years.
At the 2016 Olympics, Thibodeau earned a gold medal as a Team USA assistant.
“Tom is one of the great coaches on this planet,” Duke Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski said then. “To be honest, he talked to the team more than I did.
“To have Thibs right next to me yelling, I’ve learned a lot.”
Senator Barack Obama was convinced Thibodeau should be the next coach of the Bulls. Next, Duncan worked on Jerry Reinsdorf.
After first recommending Thibodeau for the vacant head position in 2008 — Boston’s title run prevented an interview — Duncan made another run at the Bulls owner when the job opened again in 2010.
“I pushed that really hard,” Duncan said. “[Reinsdorf] said, ‘How do you get [Ray Allen and Paul Pierce] to play defense? Those guys never play defense.’ That was beyond intriguing to him and a big part of the attraction.”
Thibodeau was named NBA Coach of the Year after tying the most-ever wins (62) by a rookie head coach. He reached the Eastern Conference Finals, became the fastest coach in NBA history to 100 wins, then watched his top-seeded team’s title dreams disintegrate when reigning MVP Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the first game of the 2012 playoffs.
The best chance at a championship passed. His father, who called his ride in the Boston title parade “the thrill of his life,” died on Christmas 2013. That day, Thibodeau led the Bulls to a win in Brooklyn. After the funeral, he coached the Bulls to a win in Memphis.
“I think it’s something my father would’ve wanted,” he said then. “And our family, pretty much once I saw that they were good, I felt good about it.”
Despite Rose being available for less than half of his five years in Chicago, the Bulls made the playoffs every season. A breakdown in the relationship with the front office led to Thibodeau’s dismissal in 2015, with the coach blamed for too many injuries and too many minutes given to his stars.
Core members of that roster (Rose, Deng, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson) rejoined Thibodeau in Minnesota.
“He’s the first coach up here that I felt like loved me unconditionally,” Rose told the Detroit News this season. “It wasn’t about what I did for him.”
In 2016, Thibodeau became Minnesota’s head coach and president of basketball operations, snapping the Timberwolves’ 14-year playoff drought in his second season. Nine months later, Thibodeau was fired after consecutive blowout wins, with the team only two games out of a playoff spot.
Tension with owner Glen Taylor — multiple sources said his wife didn’t like Thibodeau’s penchant for profanity on the sideline — and a reported rift with star Karl-Anthony Towns contributed to the coach’s removal halfway through a reported five-year, $40 million deal.
“When you talk to the winning players he’s coached, there’s near-unanimous loyalty and love for Tom because they know he gave them a great chance to win and they’re smart enough to realize that he helped them make a ton of money,” Van Gundy said. “It’s not always gonna be ice cream after practice and medals for trying. Great coaches push you to the place you couldn’t get to by yourself. Losing players think a good culture is when you all get along and eat dinner together. Winning players know there’s inherent conflict to try and get further than you’ve ever been.
“In Chicago, they ran Phil Jackson out. That’s just what they do. In Minnesota, I told him, ‘There’s nothing to apologize about. You had incredible success.’ … Since he left, they’ve gotten dramatically worse. Chicago, dramatically worse. I don’t think the question should be to Tom, ‘What happened?’ You need to ask the people in both those places, ‘Are you nuts?”
The end in Minnesota inspired 10-mile a day walks around one of the 10,000 or so lakes and significant weight loss. Recently, living with his brother, Dennis, in Berlin, Conn. — where his mother and siblings still live within five minutes of each other and gathered together for so many games — Thibodeau has done a 6-mile loop, with his replaced right knee.
He’s had time for reflection. He’s had more time than ever.
“He’s doing constant self-assessment and I’m astonished at how he handled the Minnesota job,” Opat said. “He shifted his diet completely, he started reading, traveling around, visiting other coaches, he calmed down. I kept looking for signs of distress or anger or frustration and I saw none of that. He’s at peace.”
And he’s at home.
“His dream job has always been New York,” Duncan said. “Lots of coaches don’t want to go to New York. That’s too much pressure. Well, that’s tailor-made for him.”
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