For Sessions, a new regular feature, ESPN.com's Scoop Jackson sits down with the big names in sports for an in-depth interview about life beyond just the game. First up is Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who talks with Jackson about life, balance and basketball in the pursuit of a championship.
Your Mount Rushmore? I'm not asking you for players, I'm asking you of coaches. If you had a Mount Rushmore of coaches...
I couldn't do it, I couldn't do it...
... not current, all-time.
In any sport?
If you want to do it that way, that's cool. Whatever is comfortable with you.
I got two that I want to name for sure but I don't want to name any others (laugh). Tony LaRussa and Bill Belichick.
Wow. That's funny because recently I've heard you referred to as basketball's Belichick.
I've watched what Bill has done with the Patriots and studied how his teams plays and ... He's unreal. You can't put me in that category. He's incredible. I have a lot of respect for what he's done.
How has your coaching philosophy changed since you got [to Chicago]?
Each year you try to study, learn, evaluate the things that you feel you've done well and things that, you know, some things you want to improve upon. And also things that you want to add. I think that each year you are with a team you build a team and you continue to add the layers on, so I think a big part of coaching is knowing who your team is and knowing what their strengths and weaknesses are and ...
Yeah, you try to build around that. And you are also thinking of all of the possibilities of what could happen. And, if this happens how can we respond to that challenge?
Have you kind of grown into that?
You know what, it's something I've always done. Even when I was an assistant coach. You go back through the season and you evaluate everything. And I think the offseason is a great time to generate new ideas and then at the end of the summer you pair down all the thoughts that you have into something. And you might add 10 percent of what you came up with into your playbook. But I think as a general philosophy I don't think you ever want to stay the same. I think you always want to constantly improve and there are certainly things that I can do a lot better.
You think so? Really?
Yeah. (Pause) Yeah.
Is that just you, who you are?
You know, it's like, I've gotten to be good friends with Tony LaRussa. He's retired now, but he studies sports and winning harder than anybody and that's one of the things I admire and respect about him. I can see why he's won as many games as he has. He's a student of winning and what goes into it. And I think those same characteristics go into every sport.
I asked about philosophy. Have you changed as a person since you've been here?
I don't know if I've changed as a person. I'm certainly not perfect. [It's the] same philosophy I think, there's always things [I] can improve upon and [I] have to strive to do better.
The only reason I ask that is because coming here [in 2009], the city, the organization had an idea of who you were. But I think after going through what you have gone through and how you've handled adversity, you are looked at totally different now from the way you were when you came in here. There were expectations from everyone, but personally, I think you have surpassed any expectations anyone had of you when you took this job. As a city, I think you are making that Chicago coaches Mount Rushmore with Mike Ditka and Phil Jackson and George Halas. I think we are looking at you differently. That's why I asked that question. To see if you feel as if you've change, because we think you've changed.
Well, I've always believed that you have to be mentally tough whenever you face adversity. And it's probably the most important characteristic there is in life in terms of, you know, life. A lot of things happen and it is how you respond to those things that happen. So, hopefully we have a team full of guys like that. It's not just me, you know? Fortunately we have great character on our team. Oftentimes good things come out of that. Like in our situation, we could have chosen not to fight. But we made a decision as a team that, 'Hey, look, this is what we are going to do.' We're gonna fight and good things will happen. And that's exactly what happened.
Joakim [Noah] said, against Miami the other day, it's like 'playing with hate.' I get that from a player's standpoint. Sometimes it is necessary. But is there a such thing as 'coaching with hate' or is that something that doesn't even exist in the way you approach the game?
'Hate's' a pretty strong word, so ...
But I think there's a competitive hatred that is good. There's something there. We are all competing for the same thing. I think we respect Miami for what they've done, they are the defending champions, so everyone is chasing them until you can knock them off. You know, I love competition, and I want a team full of competitors.
I heard you once say that you associate the character of this team with 'fight.' Does that ever wear down? You know what I'm saying? Like over the course of a season or a year, is it hard to keep that or once that characteristic is established, it just stays the same?
Nah, I think you have to look for it, I think it's in 'em. You want guys that have the will and the determination to overcome whatever adversity they are going to face. I think we have a team full of those guys.
With everything that's gone on, not just during this season but in your career here, have you ever had a 'why me?' moment? Not really bad luck, but just a time when you were by yourself and you were just like, 'Damn, not again! Not this!'? Because you haven't shown it publicly.
No. I don't look at [things] that way. I just look at it like, 'OK, this is the next challenge.' You know, I think we have a lot of things going for us and so, I think when you are with the right group of [players], you know that injuries are a part of the NBA game and it's [about] how do you respond to those things? Everyone has to deal with them. You're just looking for guys that are going to make a commitment to play for each other, for the team, put the team first, willing to sacrifice and do things together. I think if you look at great teams in any sport, they make that type of commitment to each other.
Are you just being the eternal optimist?
No. I just think you have to have the belief that you can be successful. And I feel that if you put the right [people together] with the proper amount of work into each and every day ... That's all you can do. If you do that, you never feel pressure. You just feel like, 'OK, if we're doing those things, we'll continue to improve.'
That goes to the saying that you only get nervous when you are not prepared. Is that kinda where your mind goes?
Yeah. We all only answer to ourselves. Only you know whether you've put everything you have into something. And so once you do that, you're good. You should feel good about what you're doing, what you are facing, and you can handle anything that's thrown at you. You know, oftentimes when you do that, you find other answers.
In listening to you over the years, you don't seem to be that person who falls into that trap of believing in cliches or fall into that trap of following the path of what we the media put out there as truths of the game. Like 'defense wins championships.' I've heard you basically laugh at that and say it's more about ball movement and, let me get this right, 'going where the ball is.' Are we wrong?
No one is wrong. I just don't see it like you all do.
What do you believe in the most?
For me, there's five things I look at after every game. It's the defense, the rebounding, low turnovers. I think those three things put you in position to win. Then its inside-out and sharing the ball. So it's five-man offense, five-man defense. Make a commitment to one another and be balanced.
Is this basketball we're talking about or life?
[Laughs] Well, basketball is really a microcosm of life. There's a lot of things you can take from this game and learn. And a lot of lessons from basketball that you can apply to life and certainly a lot of things that you can take from life and apply to basketball. Adversity. Hey look, you are going to face it in life. Being mentally tough when you face adversity, I think, whether you face it in life or basketball, it's similar.
But if you have that balance in both, it applies the same?
Yeah, yeah. As it applies to us, we feel good about our team. We love the challenge. And at the end of the day, it's what we think, it's what we believe. And whatever that is, we're probably right.
You said the game is a microcosm, I often say it's a metaphor. That said, is there one metaphor for this game that you carry with you and apply to everyday life?
It comes back to being mentally tough when you face adversity. And to have the will and determination to overcome any circumstances. I think over the years, I've learned a lot and made sure we're simply gonna stick to our plan. I think once you get a commitment from everyone to do that, you've gotta live with the results. Whatever they might be. I think sometimes there is a tendency to change all of the time. And if you constantly change then you never really get good at anything. I'd rather be committed to something, stand for something.