How the NFL's greatest coach is making an impact on the NBA
Doc Rivers stares incredulously as he processes the question.
Has Tom Thibodeau changed at all from the time you met him?
“You’re kidding me?” Rivers said with a chuckle.
Thibodeau, the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, was an assistant under Rivers with the Boston Celtics when they won an NBA championship in 2008, so Rivers has seen one of his pupils rise to the upper echelon of coaches in the league over the past decade.
“Thibs was a big believer in Arby’s when I was in Boston, and now he likes going to fine food [restaurants] and having great wines,” Rivers continued. “He just loves the game. … I love guys like that. I love players who just love it and coaches, and Thibs is one of them.”
It’s that dedication to the game that has always drawn Rivers to Thibodeau, and made him such an interesting caricature in league circles for years. One of Thibodeau’s favorite sayings is that “The magic is in the work,” a phrase ingrained in him during his 20-plus years in the NBA as an assistant under head coaches such as Rivers, Jeff Van Gundy and Bill Musselman.
As much as fellow coaches respect Thibodeau for his work ethic, there is one coach in another sport that Thibodeau holds on a particularly high pedestal. Anytime Bill Belichick’s name is brought up in Thibodeau’s presence, the basketball lifer speaks with a reverence rarely heard at any other point during the season.
“I grew up in Connecticut, so obviously I’m a Patriots fan,” Thibodeau said. “When I was in Boston I had an opportunity to watch them very closely. I had the good fortune of going down [for] a day and watching practice and getting a chance to visit with him. His record speaks for itself. He’s one of the all-time greats, if not the greatest. What he’s done is simply amazing, and as a New Englander I don’t take that for granted. I appreciate every moment.”
While Thibodeau hasn’t had the league-altering success that Belichick has attained, the coaches share several commonalities, including a sometimes-gruff public exterior and a love for putting in work toward the craft they love.
“It’s not an accident that they win,” Thibodeau said of Belichick’s Patriots. “I know that. I’ve watched them a long time, I don’t know a lot about football other than I love to watch them play.”
What Thibodeau loves as much as anything else regarding his professional man-crush is that Belichick doesn’t try to be somebody he is not. He comes to work every day trying to do the most he can to help his team win. Former Thibodeau players and confidants love to joke about one of the 60-year-old taskmaster’s favorite phrases: “Know your job, do your job.” It’s a life perspective that has lifted Thibodeau to high regard among his peers. It’s also similar to Belichick’s famous “Do your job” mantra that has become a hallmark of the Patriots.
Thibodeau speaks fondly of when he got to spend some time with Belichick, and mutual friend and former MLB manager Tony La Russa, at a Patriots practice in June 2012. Like many other coaches all over the world, Thibodeau is always looking for ideas he may be able to use himself. He can see the similarities between what the Patriots have accomplished winning five Super Bowls under Belichick and what the San Antonio Spurs, a team Thibodeau refers to as the “gold standard” of the NBA, have accomplished winning five titles under Gregg Popovich.
“You always study guys that have done great things,” Thibodeau said recently. “Obviously Pop has had an unbelievable career, a guy like Tony LaRussa the same, Belichick, Coach K, Jim Boeheim. I’ve had the good fortune to spend a lot of time with those guys. Not so much Bill, but the other ones. You learn from them. To be able to do it year after year for such a long period of time, to me that’s the mark of greatness.”
Aside from Thibodeau, there’s a long line of NBA coaches who have tried to pick things from Belichick’s program over time as well. Like Thibodeau, Rivers was able to develop a relationship with Belichick during the pair’s time in Boston.
“From a coaching perspective, watching film, and it’s not just him, it’s all of them,” Rivers said of the Patriots. “All their players, all their [staff], it’s really awesome to watch. You know someone’s going to beat them eventually, but they’re not going to beat themselves. That’s what you know going into the game, and it’s just a beautiful thing to watch. Their execution is just — it’s incredible. It really is. You shake your head every single time. It’s fun to watch.”
As fans all over the world prepare to watch Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles, coaches from every walk of life share in praise of the Belichick’s success.
“I’d like to think I have a world-class curiosity. I’m always trying to study, as most coaches do,” Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown said. “[Belichick is] one of those guys. Any coach, any program, that produces long-term success always piques my interest more than anything. I came from a place that did that in San Antonio, clearly the Patriots have done something to sustain, attain that type of success over many years. … The respect that we all have as coaches for Coach Belichick and the Patriots I’m sure would be echoed by all coaches.”
Rivers said he has repeatedly used the Patriots’ success, and the unity needed to win in football, as an example for his own teams over the years.
“I use it all the time,” Rivers said. “Football, Belichick and I always laugh like, ‘How could you coach basketball? You can’t call a play every [time].’ Every play they get a huddle and it drives him nuts because how do you get a play in there? But I use football, and not just the Patriots, as an example in execution all the time. Because you think about, they can’t flinch or it’s an offside. Their execution in football has to be perfect.”
Even though their demeanor and the way they communicate their message may be different, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said he is appreciative of Belichick’s ability to always get the most out of his players.
“I’ve never met Bill, I’ve admired him from afar,” Kerr said. “I met with Bill Parcells before I took the Warriors job. I tried to meet with as many coaches as I could. I’m nothing like Belichick and we don’t operate the same way, but I have tremendous respect for him. [The Patriots] have had an amazing run.
“Every coach that I met with before I began coaching [when] I asked their advice, they all said the same thing: ‘Be yourself.’ You can’t come in and try to be somebody else. If you are yourself your players will feel that genuine dynamic. We’re all different people, we all have to have our own coaching styles, but I’m like everyone else, I marvel at what the Patriots have done.”
Kerr had to laugh when told that Belichick was one of Thibodeau’s biggest coaching role models. He wasn’t surprised. Nobody who knows the coaches and their respective styles is. They both understand that teams need talent in order to win, but they are both steadfast in the belief that a team’s habits and structure are built over the entirety of a season.
“In basketball, your turnovers, your fouls, you got to eliminate those,” Thibodeau said. “In football, it’s fumbles, it’s interceptions, it’s penalties. Baseball, walks and errors. You start every year with a zero base and you build it with your fundamentals. And then the discipline part of it is huge. The conditioning part is huge. The mental part of it, huge. You look at playoff situations, oftentimes a mental mistake can be the difference between moving on and going home.”
Thibodeau is hopeful that he will be in attendance on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis to cheer on his friend and his favorite team in the biggest game of the year. Of course, Thibodeau won’t publicly commit to going to the Super Bowl until he feels that his preparation for that week’s slate of games is ready. As he has learned from watching Belichick all these years, coaches can’t skip steps on the way to greatness.