IT WAS THE summer of 2000, and to New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, it felt about 104 degrees in the shade. He decided to move summer league workouts from his Westchester base to Fairfield University, home to an air-conditioned gym. He also decided to let assistant Tom Thibodeau run the young Knicks through two practices in one day, never a great idea.
As Van Gundy recalls it, the first practice was scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon, with part two from 4 to 6 p.m. “By the time Thibs left them off in the first practice, it was 3:15,” Van Gundy says. “He tells the players, ‘Get off your feet. Get some rest. Get something to eat.’ I’m like, ‘Tom, it’s 3:15. They’ve only got 45 minutes.'”
Two decades removed from what his former boss and longtime confidant called “the longest summer league practice ever,” Tom Thibodeau returns to the Knicks as a tough guy in a tough market facing the toughest job in American sports. He was hired to save the Knicks from themselves, and his success or failure might ride on the answer to this simple question:
Is he too tough for his own good?
Yes, Thibodeau nailed down 100 NBA victories faster than any head coach before him, and yes, his career regular-season winning percentage (.589) entering the Knicks’ season opener Wednesday night at Indiana ranks him ahead of the likes of Van Gundy, Doc Rivers, Larry Brown and Red Holzman. But as Van Gundy is fond of saying about sports executives itching to make changes, if they can’t get you on results, they will get you on relationships.
That’s what happened in Chicago, where Thibodeau made five straight playoff appearances and won 65% of his games, and in Minnesota, where he ended the franchise’s 13-year playoff drought in his second season. After firing Thibodeau in 2015, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf ripped him for his refusal to engage the front office in an uninhibited exchange of ideas; management had battled the coach over the heavy minutes he assigned his top players. Before firing Thibs as coach and president in 2019, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor feuded with him over whether to honor Jimmy Butler’s trade demand; Butler was dealt to Philadelphia after famously setting a preseason practice ablaze with a verbal thrashing of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and GM Scott Layden before doubling down for a national audience via ESPN’s Rachel Nichols.
Now Thibs gets to work for — two gulps — James Dolan. It would seem a tweak or three in approach is necessary.
Especially considering that previous owners weren’t alone in their discontent. Last year, Towns told WCCO in Minneapolis that Thibodeau’s replacement, Ryan Saunders, was a coach who would “allow me to use all my talent” and who would maintain “a family atmosphere,” and that subjecting rookies to Thibodeau’s all-basketball, all-the-time culture would have been “a disrespect and a slap in the face to their development. And I want to make sure that they develop not only as players but as human beings and men.”
That sounds like potential trouble for a 62-year-old coach with a young team, a coach now being asked to develop and recruit talent in a city that hasn’t seen an NBA championship in nearly half a century.
Has Thibodeau learned any lesson that can be applied to the nurturing of the Knicks? Did he discover in his 18-month exile, while paying visits to Rivers and Steve Kerr and other coaches to study their methods, that he should soften his seemingly joyless pursuit of victory to make it all 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 who still stands as the ultimate New York market hard-ass. Parcells, who attended his first Knicks game 70 years ago, says he has liked Thibodeau from afar “because he gets guys to do things.” He usually gets them to play hard.
“I think you have to be what you are,” Parcells says. “I’ve seen a lot of New York coaches come and go, and there can’t be anything phony about you. New York is a great place that will accept you if you’re not phony, even if you were a jerk like I was at that time.”
Despite his sideline disposition, Parcells knew when to end his spirited sparring matches with reporters, sit down with them and share informative and humorous tales that earned him the benefit of the doubt when needed. He also knew when a Giant required a lift.
“Putting the arm around the guy is important,” Parcells says, “because the players have to see a human side of you.”
Tom Thibodeau is on his third NBA head coaching job. If he has that human side tucked in his hip pocket, now is the time to show it.
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 leading pro men’s teams that carry the New York name have won championships: Tom Coughlin (with the 2007 and 2011 Giants) and Joe Girardi (with the 2009 Yankees). Both were asked by people close to them to lighten up before they won their titles, and both conceded publicly that their change in approach was a difference-maker.
Charles Way, a former running back who was then the Giants’ director of player development, was among the club officials (owner John Mara was another) who told the draconian Coughlin that he had to reach the team on a personal level. Way advised the coach he should “let the players see you the way you are with your grandchildren,” and soon enough, Coughlin was canceling practice, taking his team bowling, establishing a leadership council in his locker room and, ultimately, beating the 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Jason Zillo, a longtime Yankees PR official, was among the club officials (GM Brian Cashman was another) who told the irritable and inflexible Girardi that he should follow Coughlin’s lead. Soon enough, Girardi was canceling a workout, taking his team to a billiards tournament, projecting a more candid and accessible vibe and, ultimately, beating the Phillies in six games to win the World Series.
You can’t make a tough job tougher in New York. That’s what Coughlin and Girardi were doing before they wised up. And they weren’t working for James Dolan.
At least Thibodeau, like Parcells, knows the market. He grew up in a New Britain, Connecticut, family of seven, the son of a Knicks fan. Tom Sr. sang in the church choir and passed down a serious set of pipes to young Tom. Mike Krzyzewski, who had Thibs on his 2016 Olympic staff, said his baritone voice would’ve made him a perfect overnight radio host.
Thibodeau used it instead to bark orders at student-athletes from Salem State to Harvard, and then at pros from Bill Musselman’s Timberwolves to the Jerry Tarkanian/John Lucas Spurs to the Lucas Sixers in Philly, where Thibodeau tutored a high school phenom named Kobe Bryant. Thibs then made it to his dream team in New York, where he won a job by lying to the head coach about his technical skills with video. “Best lie ever told to me,” says Van Gundy, who quickly realized he would have been foolish to waste Thibs in the video room with those close-but-no-cigar Knicks teams of the ’90s.
“It makes me laugh when people question his ability to connect with players,” Van Gundy says. “I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I watched him connect with divergent personalities from Charlie Ward to Larry Johnson to Patrick Ewing to [Latrell] Sprewell to [Marcus] Camby. He can connect with anyone because he’s so invested in them becoming the best they can be.”
Van Gundy and Thibodeau have known each other 35 years, with Jeff in the role of the younger big brother. Van Gundy saw Thibodeau help his Knicks set a league record by keeping 33 consecutive opponents south of 100 points in 2000-01. He saw Thibs fly back and forth to China while turning Yao Ming into an imposing offensive force in the post when they worked together in Houston. From a distance, he saw Thibs assemble a Belichickian defense for Rivers when the Celtics won it all in 2008.
“Everyone wants an anecdote, a story about this or that, and yet what separates coaches and players is the consistency of their greatness,” Van Gundy says. “How many days are you great? There is not one day I worked with Tom that I ever thought, ‘Man, he didn’t bring it today.'”
The fact that he brings it as intensely as he does — along with box scores showing his best players logging an alarming number of minutes — either fuels the Thibodeau perception or frames the Thibodeau reality that he drives teams into the ground. “I think the media and some management teams want cuddly,” Van Gundy says. “While I find Tom, personally, as soft and cuddly as a teddy bear, I don’t think people see him that way. They don’t want gruff, and in games Tom can appear to be gruff.”
“Appear to be gruff” is one way of putting it, not that the style didn’t work. Derrick Rose was the league’s youngest MVP under Thibodeau in Chicago. The Bulls owned the league’s best records in his first two seasons, and as a rookie who won 62 games, Thibs was named NBA Coach of the Year. Players he allegedly wore down to a nub 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,” Noah commented on Instagram after Thibodeau was hired.
“This isn’t about everybody always lighting a campfire and singing ‘Kumbaya,'” Van Gundy says. “When you’re a head coach, it’s about driving people and teams to have more success than they would have on their own.
“When you look at the Knicks right now, the best attribute they have on their roster is Tom.”
SOMETIMES IT’S FUNNY watching the NBA coaches who didn’t play in the league, or even in a major college conference, scream at NBA players. Tom Thibodeau was a 6-foot-2 power forward at Salem State with barely enough foot speed to cover your grandpa. On a certain level, the sight of a Division III grinder ripping into an NBA All-Star is no less absurd than the sound of a columnist who topped out at junior high ball questioning an NBA coach’s schemes.
It makes sense to go outside the small college fraternity to get a fresh perspective on one of its members. The son of a former No. 1 overall NBA draft pick, John Lucas III played major college ball at Baylor and Oklahoma State before spending eight seasons in the league, including two with Thibodeau in Houston, 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 basketball’s leading Thibs-ologists.
Lucas says he was amazed at how often Thibodeau could call out the opponent’s play before its point guard shouted an instruction or held up a certain number of fingers. “He’s one of the greatest advance scouts ever to do it,” Lucas says.
In Houston 15 years ago, the 5-foot-11 Lucas, then a rookie, ran smack into Thibodeau’s blunt method of teaching.
“Who do you think you are?” Thibs asked.
“Man, I’m Allen Iverson,” Lucas said. “I play like AI.”
“Are you s—ting me?” Thibs responded. “You know who you should watch more of? Dana Barros.”
The coach was only trying to give a small scoring guard a realistic path to a meaningful career. “Managing your expectations without killing your dream,” Lucas says. “That’s what he’s so good at.”
The former NBA veteran has a Thibodeau work-ethic anecdote; they all do. “Basketball is his life, he never got married,” Lucas says. “I’m with the Bulls and I come into the gym with D-Rose at 10:30 at night, and Thibs is in there breaking down film from four years ago. He’s breaking down every pick-and-roll this team ran in a playoff series. We all left after practice, went home, had dinner, decompressed, and then me and Derrick go back in there at 10:30 and he’s still there.”
Lucas believes the Thibodeau Bulls, who were eliminated by LeBron James three times in five years, would have won a title had Rose not blown out his knee. In the end, Lucas says, “I don’t think Thibs has to tweak anything when it comes to player relationships. Every player I know who played for him loves him. Thibs wants you to put your hard hat on and come to work. It’s not Club Med.
“People in the league don’t look at him the way people in the media look at him.”
IS THIS THIBODEAU angle really just a media thing? Butler’s agent, Bernie Lee, says his client “would endorse Thibs for anything under the sun” despite their Minnesota meltdown. Agent Bill Duffy, who has had clients with Thibs all over the place (including Rajon Rondo 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 issues with Thibodeau’s brand of coaching. “If you just don’t want to be pushed to the hilt,” Duffy says, “Thibs is not your cup of tea.”
Of course, an athlete saying he doesn’t want to work for Thibodeau is not tantamount to an athlete conceding he doesn’t want to work hard. The Athletic conducted an anonymous poll last year of 127 NBA players that asked them 16 questions, including this one: Which coach, aside from your own, would you not want to play for? Thibodeau was the runaway winner/loser at 34.6%, receiving 18 votes from the 52 respondents. (He was the only coach to receive more than a dozen votes.) Another question — Which coach, aside from your own, would you want to play for? — was answered by 121 players, who named 22 coaches in all. Tom Thibodeau did not receive a single vote.
That makes him an interesting hire for a franchise desperate to upgrade its roster. The Knicks, who had one of the league’s youngest teams last season, finished a preseason victory over Cleveland last week with five players on the court ranging in age from 20 to 22. They have won one playoff series in 20 years, and Las Vegas oddsmakers project them to win 22.5 games in this 72-game season.
The Knicks looked surprisingly good in four preseason games against two lousy opponents, the Pistons and the Cavaliers; on cue, Thibodeau still appeared annoyed in a Saturday night rout of the Cavs with his team raining down threes and leading by nearly 50 points. He knows that even with the additions of first-round picks Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley, it’s a lean roster filled with shooters who generally struggle from 3-point range. An inexperienced front office led by Leon Rose (former agent to Thibs and Towns, believe it or not) and William “World Wide Wes” Wesley has been charged with fixing yet another Knicks mess.
Thibodeau’s chief assignment in what he called his dream job is incredibly difficult to pull off but simple to explain — develop young talent now so major free agents want to sign up later. The Knicks have tried for too long to skip past the player development part in the megastar chase, and that’s one reason LeBron James never signed up to play in his favorite arena, Madison Square Garden, and partly why Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are playing in Brooklyn.
Thibodeau just used the Giannis Antetokounmpo supermax signing in Milwaukee as a chance to remind management (already!) that the Knicks must aggressively pursue a franchise player, that organizations “have to make [deals] happen” and that “sitting back and waiting sometimes is not a good thing.” Leon Rose did not use his significant cap space to sign a significant free agent in his first offseason, so it would be interesting to hear his response after a dose of truth serum.
Can Thibodeau reverse the trend of swings and misses in free agency by molding his young players into playoff-level pieces, by embracing new player wellness trends and by becoming more user-friendly along the way?
When interviewed about his firings in Chicago and Minnesota, Thibodeau has often been quicker to talk about his accomplishments than he is to cite his mistakes and the specific lessons learned from them. In a May appearance on The Woj Pod, Thibodeau did concede to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that he often asks himself, “What can I do better?” Without citing a particular planned change, Thibs added, “Is there a better way to do something, and what were the mistakes that you made, and how can you improve and learn from your mistakes? I think we all learn probably more from our mistakes than we do our successes.”
The Knicks declined to make their new coach available for a one-on-one interview for this story, and Thibodeau declined to respond to emailed questions about what he might have learned from his relationship with Towns and whether he planned on showing a more human side in New York. Towns also declined an interview request on the subject of Thibodeau.
But this much is clear: New York represents an opportunity for Thibs to grow with his new team. And after Dolan turned the Garden into a dark and forbidding place, carrying on unnecessary battles with media outlets and retired fan favorites, no American sports arena needs a dose of humanity more than the world’s most famous arena.
As the Knicks were closing in on Thibodeau over the summer, ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins, a Thibs admirer from their time on Boston’s 2008 title team, said the former Celtics assistant should “look himself in the mirror and say, ‘You know what, the game has changed. I’m going to lighten up at practice. I’m learning on the fly. This is a new generation. This is not the old-school generation. I’ve got to have a different approach.'”
Jeff Van Gundy, the last man to lead the Knicks to the NBA Finals (in 1999), says he wants his former assistant to share more of his personality and encyclopedic knowledge of the game. Van Gundy says he gave Thibodeau a piece of advice, something along the lines of what Charles Way told Tom Coughlin and what Jason Zillo told Joe Girardi: “He should be more open with the media. I understand why you’d want to keep information close to the vest, but I also think you’re speaking to the fans, through the media, especially given the hard times they’re going through. Just show who you are.
“Tom loves the Knicks, and I think it’s great to show that. I don’t think one thing has to change in his core values. … It’s such a hell of a story. I want him to say, ‘I know we can’t shoot, but I grew up rooting for the New York Knicks, and now I’m coaching them.’ On opening night, I want Tom to sit there and say, ‘Man, you’ve come a long way from New Britain.'”
Perhaps Van Gundy’s advice has already made a difference. During his introductory news conference, Thibodeau allowed that he did find time between his Minnesota firing and New York hiring to take a couple of vacations. “I know people don’t think I do that,” he said through a thin smile. “But I got away and laid on the beach in Miami for a couple of weeks, so that was fun.” It turns out Thibs actually loves going to the beach.
Not much, but it was a start. Now comes the hard part — building a champion from scratch.
Sometime over the next, oh, four to seven years, Tom Thibodeau just might be the one to finally end the Knicks’ title drought. Thibs has a chance to ride in an epic ticker-tape parade before heading back to the beach — just as long as he doesn’t bury his head in the sand.