Elsewhere: Tom Thibodeau, Unquiet Mind

I’m happy to share this piece I wrote on Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau as part of The Classical’s “Why We Watch” series.

In a league dominated by fascinating players on the court, and a sport that is mostly about those individuals, Thibodeau stands out in his own way.

You can read what I wrote in entirety here, excerpt from the article is below. And a special thanks to David Roth for helping edit and shape this piece into something I can stand behind.

"There are things that we universally admire and respect about athletes, things that accrue a sort of cliche however true they are: the tireless work ethic, the insatiable drive to succeed, that sort of thing. This is why Kobe Bryant can garner so much respect despite receiving repeated failing grades at being a personable teammate, or decent husband, or convincingly human human being.

We admire these things, from our couches or arena seats or barstools, because we want the players to be a reflection of ourselves. Because we care so much, we think that they should too. We’ll take the illusion of not caring—we can even write a sort of defiant heroism onto it in select cases—but we can’t accept a mindset that doesn’t equate to our own. We mostly want players to work as hard as we like to imagine ourselves to work.

But, in this particular fantasy, it is not player but the coach that most readily represents these things to and for us. The care, the dedication, the devotion to a particular craft; in most of our lives, this is not a physical task but an intellectual and behavioral one. The thrill of watching basketball is in large part the thrill of watching a game we know well played without the physical limitations that define most mortals’ experience of it. But if that on-court mastery is NBA basketball’s most attractive aspect, it’s easiest to relate to what’s left. The coach’s brain and mastery, the feats of motivation and maximization, the ability to lay a foundation and create a secular belief system for a franchise: this is strong currency to buy our admiration as well. It certainly is closer to most of our day-to-day experiences.

That is Thibodeau, who is the focal point in the narrative of the Bulls just as surely as Rose is. In the same way that Phil Jackson was tasked with winning championships every calendar year without ever spending a single sweaty minute on the floor, Thibodeau is building a team that expresses his own will. He sets those same expectations to a team full of role players and misfits, and the goes about convincing those players that his expectations are realistic, even when they are not.”

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