Thibs is Coach of Year and Zen Master


May 1

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There always has been a Zen Master in the NBA. Red Auerbach was perhaps the first, which may be why he and Phil Jackson were so at odds, because they really were so alike.

Red was a teacher, as all the great coaches truly are, and one whose mantra of sacrifice and teamwork transcended the individual.

Phil Jackson most popularized this Zen appellation, but it perhaps is best represented now by Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who Sunday accepted the award for the 2010-11 NBA Coach of the Year, the Red Auerbach trophy.

Tom Thibodeau really is the NBA’s Zen Master.

I was awakened to this notion in discussions with a friend of mine, Erv Ruhl, a retired psychology professor from Fresno State. Erv had been struck by a comment Kyle Korver made after the Bulls clinched the Pacers series. Someone asked about the Bulls looking ahead and Korver interrupted with a quip about whether the questioner knew the Bulls coach, a guy named Tom Thibodeau, whom we know chants the “one game at a time” mantra. But more than that, as Erv pointed out, Thibodeau has raised basketball teaching to an existential level. Bulls players now universally see the season and the playoffs only as far as the next practice, the next play, the next game.

It’s all they talk about, less rhetoric than lifestyle.

It’s something of the ultimate for a coach and teacher. Players routinely offer doltish clichés about one at a time. The Bulls believe it and live it like few teams I’ve ever been around because of Thibodeau.

Thibodeau doesn’t say it that way. But Bulls players have embraced the journey. They know now instinctively a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, that the jug fills only drop by drop.

Yes, classic Eastern philosophy.

And then there’s Thibs’:

“When you get a team that truly commits and everyone puts everything they have into it every day you don’t have to worry about anything else,” Thibodeau said at his press conference at the Berto Center Sunday. “You’ve done all that you can do. And that’s how I measure success. We know if we are doing the right thing every day, good will come.”

It’s one thing to promulgate those views, but then another to issue the imperative that resonates with the group. It’s the ultimate hope of the teacher. It is the Thibodeau liturgy repeated. Not championships or awards or matchups but doing your job hour by hour, day by day and being satisfied knowing you are prepared and taught the correct way that you will achieve what you are due to achieve.

The teacher opens the door, but you enter by yourself.

It has been this way for this Bulls team under Thibodeau and it has succeeded beyond anyone’s expectation: 62 wins, No. 1 overall seed, the league’s best defense without a previous all-defensive player, in many respects the story of the NBA season.

“When you get a group that commits you have something special,” Thibodeau said Sunday. “Our goals are always the same. We concentrate on exactly what is in front of us. We strive for improvement each and every day.”

That, truly, is most remarkable in what Thibodeau has achieved with the Bulls.

Not only didn’t the talent suggest this kind of season, but it is primarily a new team. Among the core group is eight new players. There were veterans with some success like Carlos Boozer, journeyman like Kurt Thomas, kids like Omer Asik.

Thibodeau took them all with the outlooks as disparate as you can get, say, between Joakim Noah and Keith Bogans, and has gotten them to adopt the precise same belief system.

Fans and media want to know all the time are they good enough? Can they win the title? Can they beat the Lakers? They don’t have to answer or even consider because it is never part of their day or routine.

It is the next play and the next huddle and next practice and next shot, an allegiance to structure and a system. Yes, live in the moment.

Jackson, who has embraced his philosophy and has produced unheard of results, does it a bit differently. Like Jackson’s limitation on timeouts, that in the Zen way you light a lamp for one so it brightens the path for the others. Play through the uncertainty and learn within yourself to achieve.

Thibodeau, obviously, as we have seen, is somewhat more hands on and demanding. The Bulls could sell his courtside seat for a few thousand dollars as infrequently as he uses it.

But Thibodeau also has provided a deft hand equally unexpected.

He references more the football “in your face” mentality. But he diffuses that with something of an instant willingness to forgive and forget. Thibodeau will react fiercely to a player’s blunder, though his definition is somewhat stricter than most. But he does not punish or seem to remember. He’ll put the player back in and give him a chance to try again.

It’s worked well with, say, Kyle Korver, who hears an awful lot of Thibodeau’s voice. Yet, whenever the game is to be decided Thibodeau has Korver back on the court and happily wants him to make the play.

Thibodeau has been as harsh with star Derrick Rose as anyone and has had perhaps the most gentle hand with Carlos Boozer, who’s needed that. Many celebrate the old Vince Lombardi way from Jerry Kramer, who said he treats everyone the same, like dogs. Thibodeau understands you teach the same and stand by your principles and beliefs, but these are human beings who need different levels of attention.

Perhaps a half dozen players showed up at Thibodeau’s press conference to support him. Many wrote social media tweets of congratulations.

Thibodeau has involved Luol Deng in the offense and relied on him as much or more than anyone. And while others criticized Thibodeau for perhaps overusing a player deemed fragile, Thibodeau seemed to instinctively understand what Deng sought most was to be needed. Deng has a unique set of basketball skills, but he always seemed to be the other guy, left in the corner, literally and figuratively. The way Thibodeau has involved and engaged Deng has produced clearly Deng’s best season.

Similarly with Rose, who never needed quite the hug, but needed structure, teaching, more knowledge. The kid thirsts to get better. Thibodeau demonstrated that. He could provide situations for the team to improve and for Rose to get better. I’ve always found NBA players, like anyone else, will question and test authority. But if you can show you can help them, they will respond. The truth is they do want to get better, and that’s the big thing for Rose that Thibodeau brought. I have no doubt it contributed to his own work to improve that will get him the MVP award announced this week.

“When you have strong leadership you have order,” Thibodeau said Sunday. “Our best players have done a great job of leading the team. We have great veteran leadership. We have true professionalism. I’ve benefited from that. I can’t say enough about my coaching staff and the incredible job they’ve done. It’s a team thing and a team award.”

Thibodeau also remains consistent in his comments. He always considers team first, and it’s not for political purposes. He’s spent his life as a spoke. He said he knew this day, if not necessarily this award, would come. But only by working every day. He said it was worth the wait, the journey, really. But it’s also why no one gets good anecdotes from Thibodeau. He’s not a dreamer.

It’s not like Thibodeau’s methods reflect perfection, either. Sometimes you get the sense his players, especially early in the Indiana series, aren’t reacting as much because they have so much to think about. Few are prepared as well as Thibodeau, whose methods are legendary. It’s why Thibodeau always seems to have his own Zen like approach to the games. He is confident he is better prepared, has watched more film, believes he has charted and analyzed more than his opponent. So nothing can come up he hasn’t seen or anticipated. He exudes a quiet confidence his team seizes upon, an unusual  command of the particulars his team also embraces.

But he doesn’t drive them mercilessly. Thibodeau had a nice rhythm for the players despite his own workaholic reputation. His practices aren’t Pat Riley brutal and he spaces his days off on the road well.

He preaches balance if he doesn’t exactly always practice it for himself. A day without work is like a day without food primarily to him.

But it is also that example that inspires his team. You work and work and work and sacrifice and concentrate on your daily assignment. You set small goals and achieve them and work on them to lead to larger, if unspoken, goals. Everyone knows the ultimate destination for any team in any sport in any league. But looking too far ahead leads you to skip the steps necessary to get there.

“When you get a group that commits you can have something special,” Thibodeau said Sunday. “Our goals are always the same. We concentrate on exactly what is in front of us. We strive for improvement each and every day. We know perfection is hard to achieve. We know you really cannot get there. But you strive to being as close as possible.”

Said like a master.

Many of the tasks of life as well as in sports are mundane. But you attach yourself to principles with discipline and you can achieve results. It’s been the lessons Thibodeau has taught and they have caught hold with a disparate group of players and been adopted.

Thibodeau was asked about celebrating his award.

“Hopefully have a great practice tomorrow,” he said. “That would be a great celebration for me.”

Probably just like his players.

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