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For Thibodeau, no time to celebrate coaching award

Tom Thibodeau's NBA coach of the year celebration was two decades in the making and nearly over before it began. It will be old news by the time the Chicago Bulls wrap up their second-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks. He wouldn't want it any other way.

Too bad. Lost in all that haste is a tale that owners and general managers around the league should be required to memorize. It's about a guy who studies like mad and does everything right, but gets passed over time and again because he doesn't have the pedigree or look the part.

Thibodeau played basketball at Division III Salem State, and after three years as an assistant there, worked his one and only season (1984-85) as a head coach until owner Jerry Reinsdorf handed him the keys to the Bulls last summer. In between were four years as an assistant at Harvard and 21 more at a half-dozen NBA stops, where every defense Thibodeau touched got better — and someone else got the credit.

That changed in a few important ways Sunday, if only for a short time, when Thibodeau received 76 first-place votes to finish well ahead of Philadelphia's Doug Collins in balloting for the award. For once, there was a reason to celebrate how much loyalty Thibodeau had inspired in others, instead of the other way around. He reacted the way you'd expect.

"I never doubted that it would happen. I knew I had to be patient," he said. "I recognized that these jobs were hard to get, and I was hopeful that I would get a chance. Then, I wanted to make the most of it."

And then, likely because he's a very smart man, or simply by force of habit, Thibodeau spent the rest of his allotted time trying to make everyone else around him look good.

"I realize how fortunate I am to be here," he said. "It's a great city, great fans, great organization, great players ... it was well worth the wait."

There's plenty of truth to that, of course. Most rookie pro coaches catch their first ride with a team that's cratered, or is about to. By that point, the players are coaching themselves more often than not.

What Thibodeau inherited instead was a team that had gone 41-41 under Vinny Del Negro, but was clearly on the rise. Derrick Rose was already the best young player in the league. Veteran Carlos Boozer came over during the offseason.

So, yes, Thibodeau was fortunate. Just don't confuse that with luck. It may have taken him way too long to get noticed, but he wasn't exactly a secret anymore. He was just coming off a stint as project manager of the Boston Celtics' championship-caliber defense. In 16 of his 21 previous seasons, Thibodeau-coached units ranked among the NBA's top 10; during one memorable stretch of his stay in New York a decade ago, the Knicks set a record by holding opponents below 100 points in 33 straight games.

He achieves that by endlessly breaking down games, possession by possession, then drawing up a plan to win every one. Not surprising, every place Thibodeau has been, players crack jokes about wandering into the practice facility at all hours and seeing the light from a video projector illuminating his office.

"Every time," Bulls forward Luol Deng recalled. "I don't know if he gets here at 5 or 6. He's here early and he's the last one to leave."

That work ethic made a similar impression on Arne Duncan, the current U.S. Secretary of Education and a former basketball student of Thibodeau's at Harvard. Duncan somehow wrangled the keys to the school's gym while a player, often ran into Thibodeau and started spending offseasons working out under his tutelage. Duncan went on to play four seasons in the top tier Australian pro league after graduation. The Chicago native returned the favor when the Bulls' job opened up, lobbying Reinsdorf to hire his mentor.

Persuading Rose to buy into his hiring required no high-level intervention. Thibodeau promised to plot every possession, making as many switches or substitutions that were necessary to get matchups he wanted, then gave Rose responsibility to press that advantage. Instead of resting him late in the regular season, Thibodeau piled up minutes on his star's slim shoulders. The Bulls pulled away to win 21 of their last 23 games, snare homecourt through the playoffs with the league's best record — and an MVP award that Rose is expected to collect on Tuesday and celebrate just as long as Thibodeau did his coaching award.

"His job is to come up with the game plan," Rose has said more than once. "My job is to execute it."

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org