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Exclusive: Obama, White House wanted Thibodeau coaching Bulls

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Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Though many observers are surprised at the quick success of rookie coach Tom Thibodeau, Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf was optimistic all along.

It doesn’t hurt that Reinsdorf’s optimism was fueled by a glowing stamp of approval from President Obama and his closest team of White House advisers, who had long lobbied for Thibodeau’s hiring.

‘‘Tom Thibodeau was first recommended to me by [U.S. Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan,’’ Reinsdorf said during an exclusive interview with the Sun-Times on Tuesday. ‘‘And that was two years earlier. The Celtics didn’t give us a chance to talk with him until after the playoffs, when they won the championship.’’

After the season in 2008, Thibodeau was on the Bulls’ radar thanks to Duncan’s suggestion, Reinsdorf said. The Bulls had the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and wanted their new coach to have input on whom they should take (they eventually picked Derrick Rose). With Thibodeau untouchable, the Bulls instead hired Vinny Del Negro.

After two seasons with Del Negro, the Bulls were again in the market for a new coach. Again, Obama’s advisers entered the picture. Keep in mind that Duncan, the former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, was the co-captain of the Harvard basketball team and played professionally in Australia. So he knows something about basketball.

And he knows Thibodeau well. Thibs was an assistant coach at Harvard who helped develop Duncan’s game.

‘‘When the job was open again, I talked to Duncan several times on the subject, and he still strongly recommended Thibodeau,’’ Reins-dorf recalled. ‘‘So we hired him. Then in July 2010, the White Sox were playing in Washington, and we invited President Obama to come to the game.

‘‘First, David Axelrod [then Obama’s senior adviser] arrived and said, ‘Thanks for hiring Thibodeau.’ Then a little while later, President Obama came in and the first thing he said to me was, ‘Great hire.’

‘‘Isn’t that a beautiful story?’’

Reinsdorf, who rarely gives interviews, was full of beautiful stories Tuesday.

With the Bulls set to celebrate their 1991 NBA championship team — the first of six — on Saturday, Reinsdorf has been reminiscing about Michael Jeffrey Who.

That’s what Reinsdorf thought of Michael Jordan when he and his partners reached a handshake agreement in 1984 to buy the Bulls for $16 million.

‘‘I didn’t have the slightest idea who Michael Jordan was,’’ Reinsdorf said. ‘‘I knew he was a two-time Player of the Year in college, where he was an 18-point-a-game scorer. And when [former Bulls general manager] Rod Thorn drafted him, he said something like, ‘He’s going to be a fine offensive player. But you’re not going to build a franchise around him.’

“So, I did not know what I was buying, and [the previous owners] did not realize what they were selling. But by the time we closed on the transaction [in early 1985], Michael was already a star. Did I think we’d win multiple championships with him? No. But I was hoping we’d win a championship if we built the team the right way.’’

Reinsdorf and fans will celebrate that 1990-91 team during halftime of Saturday night’s home game against the Utah Jazz.

‘‘It’s a great thing to bring these players back,” Reinsdorf said. ‘‘I’m sure the fans will enjoy seeing them, and they will be extremely well-received.’’

Reinsdorf says he believed his team would win the title a year earlier. But after the Bulls lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Detroit Pistons, he was sure it would happen in 1991.

‘‘Rather than seeing a bunch of guys moping around and being despondent,’’ Reinsdorf said, ‘‘I saw a resolve in that locker room that this was not going to happen to us again. Within days, they were back in the gym preparing for the next season.’’

If Reinsdorf had questions in 1984 about who Jordan was and what the team would do with him, he has no such questions about Rose and what these Bulls will do.

‘‘If you don’t see something special in Derrick Rose, then you’re blind,’’ Reinsdorf said. ‘‘We have an outstanding coach, an outstanding bunch of players, the team is deep, and if we stay healthy, we have an awfully good chance of winning at least four championships.’’

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