ORLANDO, Fla. -- Even after winning the the NBA Coach of the Year award last season and being named the head coach of the Eastern Conference All-Star team this season, Tom Thibodeau is still flying under the radar.
As his All-Star squad walked off the practice floor Saturday afternoon, Thibodeau was ushered toward a separate exit by an NBA official. As the pair approached the barricade separating NBA personnel from everyone else, the security guard gave Thibodeau a quizzical look.
"This is the coach," the official said to the security guard.
As usual, Thibodeau took it all in stride. The veteran coach just finished conducting his first All-Star practice as the man in charge and had a big grin on his face. After two decades as an assistant coach, Thibodeau was the man calling the shots. Moments earlier, while his Western Conference counterpart Scott Brooks calmly stood on one side of the floor during the glorified walk-through watching his team shoot jumpers, Thibodeau, ever the workoholic, actually attempted to conduct a practice. He barked orders at Derrick Rose and LeBron James, all while wearing a mic so that an arena full of people and a national television audience could hear him.
"Stay up! Stay up! Stay up! Stay up," he huffed in a familiar baritone.
For a man who took a long and grueling road up the NBA coaching ranks, it was an experience he won't soon forget.
"It was great," he said. "It was a lot of fun. A lot of great players out there. First time getting together really and these guys are great. A lot of them have been around and done this a number of times so I don't think it ever gets old for them. Of course, all the new guys that are here for the first time, they're thrilled to be here so it's a lot of fun."
In order to understand how Thibodeau ended up here, how he was able to guide the Bulls to such immense success and impose his own will on the team in just a year and a half, all one needs to do is listen to his players. Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, the two Bulls who will join Thibodeau on the sidelines for Sunday night's All-Star Game, respect the fact that Thibodeau is so driven.
After struggling to find his niche over two years in the Vinny Del Negro era, Deng was just hoping to find a coach who would utilize all of his skills instead of sticking him behind the 3-point line on offense as Del Negro decided to do. Once Thibodeau was named head coach in the summer of 2010, all it took was one conversation with Thibodeau for Deng to know that he had found a coach with whom he would work easily.
"I first got to the Berto and I was supposed to just get shots up and it turned out to be a two and a half hour workout," Deng said. "And that's when I knew this guy is serious."
Deng knew the Bulls' coach was never going to be outworked by anybody. He and his teammates have talked several times about the fact that even when they come in late at night to workout, when they think nobody else is around, they can always see the light in Thibodeau's office on. He's watching tape.
"You see a lot of successful people and you never really know what they do or [what] their schedule [is]," Deng said. "For our team, we have an opportunity to see the work and the effort that goes into it. And I think for a lot of us ... what you hear and what you see might seem like this guy works too hard, this is crazy. But how many people are you around that are very successful, Hall of Famers, guys who change the game? You never really know how hard they work. As good as Michael Jordan was, I hear a lot of crazy stories that to me sound crazy, but to him it might be, 'That's the norm.'
For Thibodeau, working extremely hard is the norm, and that's why Rose loves him so much. He wants to be pushed and he knows that Thibodeau is the man who will do it on a daily basis.
"My relationship with Thibs is definitely strong," Rose said. "Where I can talk to him about anything on the court. He can come to me, we talk to each other on the phone a lot. More than any other coaches I ever had. I communicate with him the most. And his will ... when you see a coach, like before we were coming down here, he was looking at film of who we play next. This when you're supposed to have your break. I never met a coach like him. I'm fortunate and grateful to have a coach like that and I'm just happy to have him."
Rose and Deng both believe that Thibodeau's work ethic has rubbed off on the rest of their team.
"When you see how hard he works, there's nothing you can say about that," Rose said. "He works as hard as the players. And he's a coach; always looking at film. Just trying to improve as a coach. After games, he'll take the loss on himself, say it was his fault. You got to do nothing but respect that. He wants discipline. And he forces discipline. You got to love it. As a coach, you would want someone that's hard. I think I do. I think that's why he gets so much from everyone in the locker room."
In Thibodeau, Rose has found a kindred spirit. He's found a coach he can call any time, day or night, to talk about whatever is going on in his world. The reigning MVP views himself as a student of the game and Thibodeau considers himself a teacher, so it's no wonder Rose is so comfortable taking direction from a man who yells at his players more than almost every other coach in the league. In terms of preparation, the 23-year-old admitted that he sees some of himself in the 54-year-old coach.
"For sure," Rose said. "I think that's why we always talk to each other, communicate with each other. We both work hard and we both respect each other."
That's music to Thibodeau's ears. As gruff as he can be sometimes, the coach was beaming with pride on Saturday afternoon while discussing Rose's and Deng's achievements.
"It's great," Thibodeau said. "They're great guys. They're great players. They've earned the right to be here. I'm just so proud of the way they've handled themselves in everything they do. On the court, off the court, every aspect of the game."
For all the good vibes emanating from Thibodeau and his players this weekend, the whispers about the demanding head coach continue to pop up once in a while. As good of a coach has Thibodeau has proven to be, will his no-nonsense approach eventually wear thin on his players over time -- a la Scott Skiles, or other coaches of his ilk?
"If you're not ready, he kind of hits you out of nowhere," Rose said. "But you'll get used to it. I remember coming in last year and [his hardcore approach] was kind of like tiring. And the more you do it, the more you get used to it. That's the way you end up playing. You go out there and try to play hard every single possession."
Rose and Deng realize that Thibodeau's style isn't for everybody, but it works for them. More important, it works for the Bulls right now. They've all bought into what Thibodeau is selling and they believe the ultimate payoff will come in the form of a championship.
They can deal with all the extra screaming and yelling because they respect Thibodeau and trust him. They know they have teammates who feel the same way. It's not a coicidence that Bulls' executives Gar Forman and John Paxson built a roster full of guys who don't make a habit of talking back to their coach and taking direction.
"That's why we're winning now," Rose said. "We've got a lot of guys that can take it. That have been in winning programs before and know what it takes to win."
Deng echoed those sentiments.
"By having leaders on the team, Deng said. "We're not a team of just one leader. We've got a lot of guys who lead. When you do that, it sets a good example for everyone else. So no one is really trying to bend the rules or anything because the majority of people are doing it."
To that point, Deng and Rose will be doing the same thing they've been doing for a year and a half now on Sunday night: Listening to Thibodeau bark orders. Rose is wondering how his coach is going to handle a game in which defense and structure is usually the last thing on most players' minds.
"I really don't know [what to expect from him]," Rose said with a smile. "I've never seen him in this environment so I don't know how he's going to be acting. If he's going to have his regular nerve like he has nerve problems where he shakes his hand a lot. I don't know how he's going to be acting."
No matter what happens on Sunday night, Thibodeau doesn't seem to be too concerned. He has a much bigger goal to accomplish later in the year. He wants to lead the Bulls to their seventh championship.
"The thing is, usually with All-Star players, their commitment is the same," Thibodeau said. "They didn't get here by accident. It's their drive, along with their talent, that has gotten them here. But I think everyone who's here understands what this game is all about. It will be a lot of fun initially, and then these are ultra competitive guys. So down the stretch they'll all play to win."
Just the way Thibodeau wants it.