Coach Everyman is the winner

You don’t have to be a sports fan at all to appreciate this story.

It’s one I came across while paging through the Wall Street Journal this week, gathering news from across the country and across the globe. Closing up the front section after catching the editorial pages, there it was, on the back page, this full page story, on Coach Thibs.

Tom Thibodeau, a rumpled, 53-year-old bachelor, is the sort of guy who might look at home selling vacuum cleaners or manning a backhoe. Instead, he guided the Chicago Bulls to the NBA’s best record this season and claimed the league’s Coach Of the Year award…

Within the celebrity culture of the NBA, where most coaches are former stars who wear pocket squares, Thibodeau is the guy with the precariously knotted tie whose basketball career maxed out in 1981 when he captained the Division III Salem (Mass.) State Vikings. Before the Bulls bucked convention and hired him last June, he’d worked his way up from coaching at his alma mater to joining the staff at Harvard and spending more than two decades as a journeyman assistant with six NBA teams.

See, that’s the point. Most coaches are celebrity athletes who have retired from the game. The Bulls “bucked convention” to hire this unlikely journeyman to lead the team that once led the NBA with Michael Jordan & Co. under the legendary Phil Jackson.

These Bulls are refreshingly young and scrappy and humble and focused on playing together as a team, one game at a time, with no star power willing to accept the spotlight, though Derrick Rose works about as hard avoiding it as he does proving why he earned the MVP award this year.

There are several stories here, but this one is gratifying.

Thibodeau’s work ethic has become the stuff of legend in basketball circles…

But he has also achieved what has become the litmus test for modern NBA coaches: getting the team to listen. “Players are going to respect you if they think you know what you’re doing on a daily basis,” Forman said. “They know this is a guy who’s prepared and has a plan.”

The only danger with Thibodeau’s success, Van Gundy said, is that the stories people tell sometimes portray him as some sort of drone who has prospered only by the volume of effort, rather than the quality. “He’s not a beaver building a dam,” Van Gundy said. “He’s not just a guy who works, works, works. He also has a brilliant basketball mind.”

Note that quote.

Peter Roby, the athletics director at Northeastern University and the former head coach at Harvard, where Thibodeau spent four seasons as an assistant, said he hopes Thibodeau’s success will give teams the “social permission” to consider more unconventional hires.

“He wasn’t a former player, and he didn’t have a big college reputation,” Roby said. “He just happened to be someone who understood the NBA, could relate to players, was willing to outwork everyone and knew what he was talking about.”

Which gets back to the brilliant mind, and the work ethic. And the ‘unconventional’ stretch an organization made to bring this individual in to fill so key a role.

I love this story. Because it takes the usual narrative to a new dimension. We all know, those of us who follow the NBA (or other major league sports), that for all the celebrity players who make multi-millions playing a game they’ve excelled at since youth, in a vast field in countless neighborhoods where a million other kids also excel at that sport, the odds favor only the elite and lucky few.

But then there are the brilliant minds, the passionate workers, who fully dedicate themselves to what they love, and do it so well, they grab the attention of someone who notices the excellence of their work. That it happened to this Everyman shows that it could happen to anyone so committed, no matter what their field.

I also love that Coach Thibs, and Derrick Rose, and all the Bulls deflect attention. Because they’ve always got work to do, and they are focused. On winning.

And by the way…they did. On Thursday night, they won the series and proceed to the conference championship. This team has the attitude of this coach: there is still work to do. And do well.


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