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The Bulls’ Magnificent Seven heads for Orlando
by Sam Smith
Posted on Feb 23
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The NBA’s annual midseason gala is going to have a distinct Bulls tint with Derrick Rose among the Eastern Conference starters, Luol Deng in his first All-Star appearance an Eastern Conference reserve, and Tom Thibodeau coaching the East team.
Joining Thibodeau will be his staff of assistant coaches, Ron Adams, Adrian Griffin, Mike Wilhelm, Ed Pinckney, Rick Brunson and Andy Greer. Although Rose, Deng and Thibodeau are the Bulls’ stars of the weekend, the generally anonymous staff also symbolizes the makeup of this Bulls team.
It’s a team with one transcendent star, but with success built more so on teamwork, sacrifice, hard work, overcoming the odds against you without the great portfolio and refusing to accept others’ limitation for you.
There aren’t any real stars on the Bulls staff, starting, of course, with Thibodeau, the long overlooked grunt staffer without any professional playing experience or impressive resume. Yes, Griffin, Pinckney and Brunson had relatively long NBA careers. But all were basically reserve journeymen who played for multiple team and often in minor leagues and overseas seeking a chance, constantly rejected but never giving up or giving in.
In some sense it’s the model that is transmitted to the Bulls players, whether overtly or otherwise. It is, in some sense, a model and recipe for success, the test of endurance. Because in many respects that’s what an NBA game is, a test of endurance that goes to the most determined as well as the most talented. You see the highlight dunks and fancy passes. But they are moments in time that divert from the long struggle to succeed.
There are myriad obstacles in the way and moments of doubt. But you have to overcome and play through them to succeed. Your body will tell you that it cannot go on, but your mind has to push through that.
All these men lives those kinds of sporting lives to get to this point, and even if it’s not a daily reminder, the message comes across in the team’s play about not giving up or giving in against those of superior credentials and more celebrated backgrounds, that you too can succeed if you refuse not to accept others’ definitions of yourself.
Here’s a personal look at the staff:
Of course, we know the story of Thibodeau’s two-decade journey through the assistant coaching ranks to being named Coach of the Year in his first season. It’s as unlikely as getting to the NBA, as Thibodeau describes his academic career as “bounce around.” Growing up in a working class Connecticut family where his dad was a purchasing agent for a steel company and his mom a state worker he started at Central Connecticut State, transferred to Middlesex Community College and then Salem State University, where he graduated.
“I kept moving until I found a place I liked,” he says about wanting to play ball.
He was a skilled baseball player in high school on a state championship team that won 38 straight playing right field, third base and pitching and getting honors. He was looking where he could play both sports in college. He wasn’t going for a scholarship. He was an economic major but got the teaching/coaching bug at Salem State and his career choice was sealed.
“I never thought about the pros,” he says. “I wanted to be a head coach at a Division I school. I never quite got there (he minored in understatement). He began to go to Albany Patroons CBA practices and was befriended by Bill Musselman, who got the Minnesota Timberwolves expansion job (ironically over Phil Jackson), and Musselman brought Thibodeau along, which began his long, winding journey around the NBA.
In talking to the coaches, I asked each one to do one of those celebrity fill in the blanks questionnaires. “You’re not doing that bullcrap!” Thibodeau barked at me. But I gave him a pretty please, and his bark is much worse, as the players know. So here’s Thibs:
Favorite TV show : 60 Minutes
Favorite movie: Godfather
Favorite vacation: He paused a bit here. I asked if he’d had one. “Yeah,” he said. “I think they’re overrated. I don’t know, a week or two at the beach with family.”
Three people to join you for a classic dinner: John F. Kennedy, General Patton and Harry Truman.
Best non-sports job: “Gas station, construction, I don’t know. I hated them all.”
Favorite meal: “I’m a vegetarian. OK, steak.”
(I was starting to lose him here.)
Favorite car: Range Rover
Perfect day: A great practice and a great win.
Sports hero(s): Carl Yastrzemski and Willis Reed
Childhood dream: Pro athlete
If you couldn’t be a coach: I’d be a teacher.
What do you do to relax? Read and work out.
What do you do for fun? Hang out with friends and family.
Something people don’t know about you: I collect rare stamps, listen to Mozart and oil paint.
He’s Thibodeau’s top aide and not unlike Thibodeau, a head coach who never was hired because he was considered an assistant. He and Thibodeau worked together on the staffs of the 76ers and Spurs and he had a prior stint with the Bulls under Scott Skiles. He’s regarded as one of the great defensive minds in basketball and transformed the Thunder when he was top aide to Scott Brooks.
He was raised on a cotton and livestock farm in central California and was an all league basketball and basketball player. He recalls his first varsity basketball game which pitted him against Tommy Smith, the famous runner from the 1968 Olympics. Adams said he thought he held him to about 35. He went to NAIA Fresno Pacific University, where he is a member of the Hall of Fame as a history and political science major. He got a master’s at Fresno State and went back to coach is alma mater and later at Fresno State and on Jerry Tarkanian’s staff at UNLV. A self proclaimed vagabond and adventurer, he also went overseas and coached in Belgium two years. “Life should be loved,” he likes to say.
Favorite TV: The Daily Show and Bill Maher
Favorite movie: The Learning Tree
Favorite vacation: In Europe visiting friends with family.
People for your favorite dinner: Too many in history. If current, Jon Stewart and Bill Moyers.
Favorite meal: A good Tuscan soup and a high quality risotto.
Favorite car: 1968 Triumph 2000
Perfect day: Hitting a tennis ball, reading, a nice film, good friends and family and good food and wine.
Sports heroes as a kid: Bill Russell and Mickey Mantle.
Childhood dream: To be a great athlete.
If not a coach: Social worker.
What do you do to relax? Going out back and watching my birds in the feeder on a nice cool, summer afternoon about 70, 75 degrees.
What do you do for fun? I generally have fun whatever I do.
One of those classic journeymen NBA players who bounced around eight NBA teams over about 10 years, the kind of thinking man’s player coaches loved. He had two stints with the Bulls and played in Australia and in the CBA, on one team with fellow Bulls assistant Adrian Griffin.
He grew up in Syracuse, N.Y. and attended high school in Salem, Mass., where he met the college coach, Tom Thibodeau. He went to Temple on a basketball scholarship after being co-MVP in the McDonald’s game with Chris Webber. He played with Eddie Jones and Aaron McKie at Temple for John Chaney, whom he calls “my mentor, my father, my everything.” He was not drafted and cut in the 76ers camp when Thibodeau and Adams were there as assistants.
“He’s (Thibodeau) who I always called for advice when I was struggling,” says Brunson. “He’d talk about working, staying focused and getting to your goal of playing 10 years in the NBA. From Day 1 I wanted to be a coach because I liked the fact people took interest in me and I wanted to give that back. My college coach made me into a man.”
Favorite TV show: Martin
Favorite Movie: Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee.
Dinner with three people: Leon Rose, John Chaney and my mother.
Best non-sports job: A painter in the summer in high school. My coach said that’s what time they’d be practicing at Temple so he wanted to get me ready.
Favorite meal: Anything with chicken.
Car: I’m not into cars.
Perfect day: A great workout and watching my son play basketball.
Sports hero: Dr. J
Dream: To play in the NBA.
If you couldn’t be a coach: A teacher.
What do you do to relax? Workout.
For fun? Sit on the couch and watch TV.
Something people don’t know about you: My real name is Eric.
Another NBA journeyman who made it nine seasons with five teams after almost five years in the CBA, the USBL and, the Philippines and Italy. He played for Jeff Van Gundy and Thibodeau in Houston. “Tom was the same way as an assistant he is now,” says Griffin. “Always serious. He didn’t joke around. I say it as a compliment. Sometimes when the head coach isn’t around things don’t flow as well. But when Tom ran practice everything was just as sharp. You could always see the pride in what he was doing.”
Griffin was raised in a religious family in Wichita, Kansas and ended up a sheltered kid going to Seton Hall in New Jersey, sort of a last minute recruit. He grew up doing all sorts of odd jobs to help out the family finances and then at Seton Hall almost leaving with all the abuse from the hyperactive P.J. Carlesimo. But he was one never to give up and faced innumerable rejections in minor league ball with a family already before catching on with the Celtics in 1999 after an impressive summer league stint.
Favorite TV show: Cosby
Favorite movie: Action movies.
Favorite vacation: Turks and Caicos, the island.
Favorite people to be joined for a dinner: Jesus, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama.
Best non sports job: Wendy’s
Favorite meal: Mom’s fried chicken.
Perfect day: Spending time with my wife and kids, letting them play and my wife and I enjoying each other.
Sports hero: Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.
Dream: To make the NBA.
If not a coach: A pastor.
What do you do to relax? Watch movies. That’s how I treat myself.
What do you do for fun? See a movie with my wife.
This is his 10th season with the Bulls and 18th overall in the NBA, one of those guys who figuratively worked his way up from the proverbial mail room as a video assistant and then coordinator for several years with the Cavaliers. He grew up in Cleveland and recalls wanting to be a coach since he was eight years old. His father was an active duty World War II veteran who was friends with former Bulls assistant John Back from the war. He was an undersized rebounder and prep football star. He went to prep school after high school in a family of six so he could earn at athletic scholarship, which he did to Southampton on Long Island, now Suffolk University.
At graduation he got a job coaching in a lower level pro league in Sweden, where he married and then returned, got a master’s at Ohio University and through a friendship with the son of Wayne Embry got an intern job with the Cavs, which led to five years in the film room preparing statistics. He also was an assistant in the WNBA.
Favorite TV show: Cosby
Favorite movie: The Godfather
Favorite vacation: Virginia Beach or Sweden to see my in-laws.
Dinner with three people: My father, my high school basketball coach and track coach.
Best non-sports job: Working the locker room at Shinnecock Hills in college.
Favorite meal: Steak and eggs
Favorite car: 1977 Chevy Impala
Perfect day: Coming to work, fulfilling my responsibilities for Thibs and the staff, doing something positive for the players, telling them or teaching them something, coming home and having dinner with the family, going back to work and then cleaning off my desk and feeling good about getting going the next morning.
Sports hero: Buddy Bell of the Indians.
Dream as a kid: To play for the Harlem Globetrotters.
If not a coach: High school history teacher.
What do you do to relax? Listen to music and speak to my mom, who is 86.
What do you do to have fun? Be with my kids on vacation in Sweden.
What do friends not know about you? I love to talk. I never got to much in the video room all those years.
The one time Northern Illinois assistant and interim head coach has coached in the NBA the last decade with The Knicks and Houston, where he worked with Thibodeau, and Memphis.
Born in New York City, he went to Ithaca College. He didn’t make the basketball team, so he transferred to Brockport in the state of New York system, where his backcourt mate was Jeff Van Gundy playing for Van Gundy’s dad. Van Gundy’s dad was fired in his senior year and while he finished college, he left the team to help Van Gundy at Genesee Community College. He then has college assistant jobs at Mansfield, Brandeis, Boston University and USC before coaching the Merchant Marine Academy and Northern Illinois and joining Van Gundy in New York.
Favorite TV show: Entourage
Favorite movie: Godfather
Favorite vacation: East Hampton
Three people for dinner: My wife and kids.
Favorite non-sports job: Gym teacher
Favorite meal: Steak and potatoes at Peter Luger’s in Brooklyn
Favorite car: One that runs
Perfect day: East Hampton with my family
Sports hero: Earl Monroe
Dream: To play in the NBA.
If not coaching: I thought I wanted to teach but not until I did it.
How do you relax? Spending time with my wife and three kids. That’s my hobby.
How do you gave fun? Traveling with the family in the offseason. We have trip week and do something different every day, like a baseball game, whitewater rafting.
Probably the most accomplished in basketball of the assistants, though mostly a reserve on seven teams in a 12-year career after being drafted 10th overall by the Suns after winning maybe the most famous college game ever in outplaying Patrick Ewing in Villanova’s upset of Georgetown for the national championship. Pinckney says barely a day goes by someone doesn’t mention it when he’s out.
He grew up in a tough area of the East Bronx and would spend summers in South Carolina, his mother’s home, to stay away from the city troubles. He wasn’t the star in high school. It was Fred Brown, who went to Georgetown and threw that infamous pass to James Worthy in that North Carolina championship Michael Jordan won.
He chose Villanova to be with two friends from summer basketball camps, Gary McLain and Dwayne McClain. “It was a great upset and what I’m known for,” says Pinckney. “It is lots of fun to be noted for something in a positive way.” The Bulls were looking at him, but passed him for Charles Oakley and he went to the Suns. “It was a team with great veterans, family oriented people,” said Pinckney. “I wouldn’t say I had a standout career, but I had a chance because of that start. Here was a bunch of guys who did things with their families, their kids. When they were on the road they talked business deals and what to do after their careers. I was really blessed to be around good people like that.”
Pinckney finished up with Miami in 1997. He’d majored in broadcasting in college and went to work for the Heat radio team and then moved to TV. “Then I wanted to do more with the game,” Pinckney recalls. He called some old NBA friends, but nothing. So it was back to the bottom. He joined John Starks as an assistant coach in Westchester in the USBL, where Jeff Van Gundy and Thibodeau would come to some of their games. “Money was not an issue,” said Pinckney. “I didn’t spend a lot. I saved most of my money in my career.” Jay Wright then asked him to come back to Villanova as an assistant, where he was for four years. Randy Wittman then invited him to join the Timberwolves staff. He’d med Wittman asking him questions about clinics he’d attended. After Wittman was out, Pinckney went back to broadcasting with the 76ers and then was invited to join the Bulls as Thibodeau was one of those assistants around the NBA Pinckney used to call for advice.
Favorite TV show: Law and Order
Favorite movie: Shawshank Redemption
Favorite vacation: St. Thomas
People to share meal: Muhammad Ali and Louis Armstrong.
Best non-sports job: Messenger in New York City. I kept the token and walked.
Favorite car: Mercedes
Favorite meal: Pasta
Perfect day: Getting up early and having a good workout, at least an hour and a half walking or running.
Sports hero: Walt Frazier
If not a coach: Teacher
How do you relax? Listen to music, any kind, jazz, rap, anything.
How do you have fun? Spending time with the family.