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After lots of coaching failures, Bulls got right guy in Tom Thibodeau

Tom Thibodeau is 83-26 (.761) regular seaswith Bulls 9-7 playoffs. | Kathy Willens~AP

Tom Thibodeau is 83-26 (.761) in the regular season with the Bulls and 9-7 in the playoffs. | Kathy Willens~AP

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Updated: March 8, 2012 8:17AM



He’ll stand there, arms folded, collar a wee bit too tight, clearly uncomfortable with that damned snake around his neck — a business tie is all it is — and stare right through you.

Well, not you, but a Bulls player. Or a ref. Or the entire situation unraveling before him on the hardwood he loves so much.

There is nothing else on Tom Thibodeau’s mind — in his universe — when there is a round ball on a flat surface. And because of that, if you play for him, there had better not be anything else in your universe.

Thibs was born to be a hoops coach. Take the job away from him, and what would be left? Two lidless eyeballs? A puddle?

‘‘Before we made the decision to hire him, we did an incredible amount of background work on all the candidates,’’ says Bulls general manager Gar Forman, who with executive vice president for basketball operations John Paxson signed Thibodeau as the 18th head coach in franchise history on
June 23, 2010. ‘‘We talked to coaches, players, everyone. It was evident Tom was really a fit for us and the philosophy of the organization.’’

And what’s that philosophy? Defense, seriousness, teamwork, hard work and, as Forman says, ‘‘attention to detail.’’

From chairman Jerry Reinsdorf on down, the Bulls have this notion that defense wins championships.

The Bulls won six NBA titles with Michael Jordan on the floor. You think his offense had something to do with it?

Then again, if you saw Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Ron Harper and/or Dennis Rodman, arms splayed, twitching with glee, waiting for you to cross the halfcourt line with the ball, the defensive part does come to mind.

And defense is Thibodeau’s calling card. That’s what he specialized in as an assistant for coach Doc Rivers when the Boston Celtics won the NBA championship in 2008. And that’s what the Bulls want him to specialize in now. He does that and more.

Without sugar-coating any of this, let’s just state for the record that Thibodeau — the man with no known hobbies, pets, addictions, interests, disorders or distractions of any kind — is succeeding far beyond our wildest dreams.

After meeting with him during the Celtics’ playoff run in 2010, Forman and Paxson were amazed the then-52-year-old lifer was available. And to think he never had been an NBA head coach.

Indeed, that was why the public was underwhelmed by the hire. After all, how well did the Vinny Del Negro first-time-as-head-coach thing go?

But Thibodeau seemingly has put the cork in the Phil Jackson Era bottle, tightly and with emphasis, enabling the Bulls to see a new future at last.

For years, there was chaos in the vacuum left by Phil and his six trophies. From 1998 until Thibodeau, the Bulls had this conga line of head coaches and interim head coaches: Tim Floyd, Bill Berry, Bill Cartwright, Pete Myers, Scott Skiles, Myers again, Jim Boylan and Del Negro.

Not one of them had a winning record. Del Negro, in fact, comes out as the star of the lame bunch at an even 82-82.

Maybe it was luck giving the Bulls the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft — and, thus, Derrick Rose — that deserves all the credit. But the Bulls never should be an average or worse team.

And here they are with a 21-6 record, with Thibodeau making do with a patched-up lineup seemingly every night.

Why, with Rip Hamilton and Luol Deng alternately down with injuries, virtual statue Kyle Korver has been forced into playing lots of minutes, which means he has had to do much more than fire up three-pointers. Which he has done.

‘‘I think he’s really improved defensively over the course of two seasons’’ is how Thibs, grim-faced as ever, doles out the slightest praise for Korver.

Thibodeau isn’t a sweetheart. But Forman says: ‘‘He does a terrific job of communicating. He gives great attention to details, he has a plan and he holds the players accountable. I think all of the guys like him. But, more important, they respect him.’’

They do. And it’s because Thibodeau wants what they want: to win.

Which is another reason the Bulls should be cautious before they go out and try to snag a big superstar, such as, say, talk-radio favorite Dwight Howard.

‘‘To play for Tom, it takes a certain type of player,’’ Forman says. ‘‘A player who is serious about the game, a professional, a guy with a great work ethic.’’

And if the player isn’t, as Forman says, ‘‘wired right’’?

‘‘He will struggle,’’ Forman says.

So the Bulls have a fine thing going right now. When they return from their nine-game road trip, they will have played 21 of their first 32 games on the road.

So how good might this get with everybody healthy and home-cooking coming up? Maybe real, real good.

Whatever comes, it’s guaranteed Thibs will be staring it straight in the face.



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