For all the issues that inspired Chicago Bulls management to carry out such a ferocious campaign to discredit Tom Thibodeau – minutes restrictions and personnel disagreements and an inability to simply interact – perhaps the most powerful had been jealousy.
Over and over, those listening to John Paxson and Gar Forman would tell you that Bulls management could never make peace with the praise heaped upon Thibodeau for 60-victory seasons and deep playoff runs. For them, it was too much about the best defense in the NBA, too much about his development of journeymen into rotation contributors, good players into All-Stars, great players into an MVP.
To them, Thibodeau represented a Chicago folk hero who needed to be leveled. Tell them that he was a great coach, and league officials say you'd often hear back from Bulls management that simply, "He's good."
[Slideshow: Coaches sent packing despite winning]
If Thibodeau had only the political savvy to publicly praise his bosses, maybe everyone could've been spared the years of needless acrimony and drama. As Thibodeau joined the Bulls five years ago, a coaching friend told him: "Remember to kiss some babies," a suggestion that he needed to learn to be more of a politician.
Thibodeau always believed that it was enough to be a committed coach, enough to win, but the Bulls' climate commanded survival instincts unfamiliar to him.
Finally, team president Michael Reinsdorf and Forman brought Thibodeau into a meeting on Thursday morning and fired him. Finally, the Bulls have the clear path to hire Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg. Forman has been obsessive in his desire to hire Hoiberg, and it will be only a matter of days until the Bulls' make-believe search ends and this back-door process is over.
This time, no one will doubt management hired its man. This time, the coach won't be an object for attack and humiliation. When Paxson didn't like the way Vinny Del Negro managed Joakim Noah's minutes, he charged into the coach's office and laid hands on him.
This time, management had to be far more calculating in crushing the coach's credibility and contributions, both inside and outside the facility. It appeared to be part of a public campaign to dehumanize Thibodeau, picking apart his tactical acumen and portraying him as an uncaring ogre. Players had a sympathetic ear with management and medical staff.
Thibodeau played a part in creating the dysfunction. In his next job, he needs to bring with him some lessons learned, needs to understand better that there can be compromises without destroying your value system.
In the end, management won over owner Jerry Reinsdorf to pay out the $9 million owed on Thibodeau's contract. Reinsdorf has lorded over decades of management-coaching dysfunction – and yet Thursday he was issuing a statement on the firing of Thibodeau as a way to stay true to the organization's "culture." That's been a screwed-up culture for a long, long time. Between Michael Jordan and Derrick Rose, the Bulls were a mess. When Thibodeau arrived, so did the winning – and then, so did the loathing between management and his staff.
On the way into the free-agent meeting with Pau Gasol in July, one witness accompanying Bulls management and Thibodeau marveled at how they could completely ignore each other in the lobby, the elevator up to the meeting, and then show something of a united front in the presentation to the player. Eventually, everyone could no longer fake it.
Through it all, those close to Thibodeau still believed he wanted to stay as Bulls coach. He loves the city, the talent on his roster, the partnership that he shared with Rose. As word started to reach Thibodeau's inner circle that the Bulls had an understanding with Hoiberg that he would accept the job, sources say, the organization felt no need to wait until June to fire Thibodeau.
Perhaps this partnership was forever doomed. Thibodeau was Jerry Reinsdorf's choice to coach the Bulls, choosing him over Paxson's (Doug Collins) and Forman's (Lawrence Frank and Mike Brown). This was Reinsdorf's way. He hired Del Negro, too. Like Del Negro, management spent more time undermining Thibodeau than it did supporting him.
Management blamed Thibodeau for overtaxing players with practice and game minutes. It fired one of the NBA's best assistant coaches, Ron Adams, because it didn't like his disposition. Chicago wouldn't let Thibodeau hire the strength and conditioning coach that he had come to trust in Houston. When the Bulls passed, the San Antonio Spurs snatched Anthony Falsone. In Chicago, it was always something, always a drama. Mostly, it was tired and counterproductive and it ended until the next one starts for these Bulls.
One of Reinsdorf's great regrets has always been the firing of White Sox manager Tony La Russa nearly 30 years ago. After leaving the Sox, La Russa became a three-time World Series champion and Hall of Famer. Reinsdorf stayed friends with La Russa, and Thibodeau loved to join them at dinners or White Sox games. Some common friends in the owner's, baseball manager's and coach's circle had wondered on Thursday: Would Thibodeau move on to those kinds of La Russa successes, and make Reinsdorf regret this firing too?
Those close to Thibodeau say that Reinsdorf's statement stung the coach on Thursday, that he had treasured his relationship with the owner. Thibodeau has always admired Reinsdorf's accomplishments – a self-made tycoon, a successful sports and media mogul – and always felt that Reinsdorf had been an ally for him. Reinsdorf wasn't around much, though, and talked far more with management than the coach. Thibodeau lost Reinsdorf in the past year, and ultimately lost the job.
Before the end of Thursday night, Thibodeau had sounded enthusiastic to close associates. He was thinking about the next job, about the possibilities out there. Throughout the day, Thibodeau was getting texts and calls from old players – with the Knicks and Rockets and Celtics and, yes, Bulls – and they say that it moved him.
In the hours after his firing, Tom Thibodeau hadn't sounded angry to his friends – only nostalgic. Five years is a good run in the NBA; it's just a matter of time until someone else comes calling for him. He's always been partial to big markets and big jobs, but he's sworn to people that he won't be hovering over employed coaches the way that had been done to him with the Bulls.
In the end, Tom Thibodeau left Chicago the way that he arrived: a far better basketball coach than a politician, a Chicago basketball folk hero who had grown too big, too popular, for the good of his own survival.
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