It was the summer of 1992, and Tom Thibodeau was trying to work his way up in the NBA.
He had spent the prior season serving as an advance scout for the Seattle SuperSonics. Now, he was in San Antonio as an assistant for Jerry Tarkanian, who at age 62 was a rookie head coach with the Spurs.
Their time together didn’t last long — 20 games — but Thibodeau learned several things from Tarkanian about basketball and people.
Tarkanian, who died in February at age 84, probably would be proud of what Thibodeau has accomplished. In 2010, he became an NBA head coach with Chicago, and in his five years with the Bulls, he had a 255-139 record and finished first or second in the Central Division while going to the postseason each year.
But the Bulls failed to win a championship, and Thibodeau was fired in late May. But he is still coaching, and as a member of Mike Krzyzewski’s staff with USA Basketball, he will play an important role, though not necessarily an expanded one, as the Americans prepare to defend their gold medal next summer at the Olympics in Brazil.
“Anytime you’re around great players, great coaches, it’s a positive experience because we all learn from each other,” Thibodeau said after Wednesday’s practice at the Mendenhall Center. “It’s a lot more than just talent. It’s a commitment to excellence. It’s leadership and communication skills. There’s a drive, there’s an intelligence, a lot goes into it, and you can see the camaraderie of the guys who’ve been through it.
“As coaches, we get a lot from it, and there’s no greater honor than representing your country.”
Tonight at the Thomas & Mack Center, Thibodeau will coach one of the teams in USA Basketball’s Blue-White scrimmage as the national team wraps up its three-day minicamp in Las Vegas. The game, which tips off at 7:30 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN2 (31), will produce a lot of points, little physical contact and, hopefully, an injury-free evening after Paul George’s broken leg a year ago forced the team to cut short the game early in the fourth quarter.
Following tonight, Thibodeau will head home and stay in contact with Krzyzewski, who said it’s unnecessary to place an added workload on Thibodeau just because he has additional free time.
“We have scouts and a sophisticated system in place, so it’s not like we need to send Tom halfway around the world to scout an opponent,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s nice that he’ll be available if we need him for something, but I think his role with the team is fine the way it is.”
USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo, the managing director for the men’s national team, said Thibodeau is going to be more effective with the additional time available to himself.
“We don’t need to change someone’s role because their availability increases,” Colangelo said. “Besides, things can change over the next few months. Tom could find himself back (in the NBA). So we’re going to keep things with him the way they are.”
Thibodeau, who was named to USA Basketball’s staff in 2013, said he’s willing to help in any way.
“Whatever they ask me to do, I’ll be willing to do,” he said. “I have a lot of basketball projects that I want to take on myself. I want to visit with NBA and college and international coaches. I want to take advantage of that.
“I have a pretty good idea of what we’re going to be going up against next summer, so I’ll have an opportunity to prepare for that as well.”
Thibodeau, 57, said he has no hard feelings about the way his tenure with the Bulls ended. And if star guard Derrick Rose could have managed to stay healthy the past few years, Thibodeau still might be Chicago’s coach.
But he also wants to make his time off a positive experience.
“I’m fortunate to be part of this, and at the same time you want to be ready for any potential opportunities that may occur,” he said. “So you approach it one day at a time and use it as a sabbatical; to re-energize, recharge, relearn. You always want to strive to get better. You don’t want to stay the same. Coach K, (USA assistant coach) Jim Boeheim, Jerry, they’re never satisfied.”
Thibodeau said you learn from each experience. And when he thinks back to his brief time in San Antonio with Tarkanian and where he is today, he can smile and have some satisfaction in the fact that even a negative situation can ultimately have a positive result.
“It was unfortunate how that happened,” he said of Tarkanian’s firing in December 1992. “Anytime you come from college to the NBA, there’s going to be an adjustment period. We were 9-11, and we had a stretch of games at home and the coaches and players were starting to get comfortable with each other. I think Jerry would have had a successful run. He had great love and respect for his players. He was a great teacher and communicator, which is what you need to be as a coach. I loved working for him.
“But sometimes things aren’t meant to be, and that may have been one of them.”