- Nick Friedell, Chicago Bulls beat reporter
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DEERFIELD, Ill. – The moment Luol Deng stepped foot in the Berto Center this summer, he knew new coach Tom Thibodeau meant business. The Chicago Bulls forward had just returned from training with the English National Team and got a quick introduction to what life under Thibodeau’s regime would entail.
"I came in here and I thought no one was in here," Deng recalled after Sunday's practice. "And I tried to just get a few shots up and he came down [from his office]. And he put me through one of the toughest workouts I've ever done. That's when I knew it was going to be no joke. And I had to make sure I was in shape for training camp."
It's that type of work ethic that has earned Thibodeau so much respect from his players this season and it's the biggest reason why the Bulls won 62 regular season games and Thibodeau was named NBA Coach of the Year on Sunday afternoon. The players have completely bought into what he is selling and trust him implicitly. That doesn't mean that they didn't think he had a couple of screws loose when they met him for the first time, though.
When asked if he called some of his teammates after that initial workout and asked if Thibodeau was for real, Deng had to laugh.
"Yeah," he said. "We all did."
But Deng and his teammates grew to appreciate that attention to detail. They know that nobody works harder than the 53-year-old former career assistant. Yes, he screams and yells at them all the time, but they know that he's just trying to bring out their best.
"Every time I walk in, I look up there to see if his light is on," Deng said. "And if he's in the office, I'll pretend like I'm working hard."
Deng was kidding, but his point holds true. Thibodeau's work ethic sets the tone for the rest of the team. They know their coach works as hard as anybody and they don't want to let him down.
"Every time I come in, his light is on," Deng continued. "The video guys, the coaches, it's been one of those years. It's just every time I came in, I get on the floor, someone is ready to come down and that's something that he made sure everyone is doing. I don't know if he gets here at five or six [in the morning], but he's here early and he's the last one to leave."
Player after player has talked this season about just how much Thibodeau has meant to their team. They knew Thibodeau's determination would make them great almost from the moment each one of them met him.
"I felt that way right away when Thibs was working me out every day in the summertime," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "That's not something that every head coach does, work out a player individually every day in the summer. To me, that meant a lot. And at the same time, I feel like your coach is your leader. And we have the personality of our coach. I think the city's proud of us right now, the way we're playing. Thibs kind of represents us; the way we play is the way he is."
Noah, like the rest of his teammates, seemed genuinely happy that his first-year head coach had earned such a big honor.
"Thibs has been through so many experiences," he said. "He's somebody who's been an eighth seed, who's played in all kind of playoff [games]. Been on the bottom, been on championship teams. He's been in all kinds of locker rooms, so I think that all that experience definitely rubs down on his players."
After watching the Bulls mature this season into the team that they've become, there's no denying that.
"He's a great coach, a phenomenal coach," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said earlier in the week. "He watches every detail, he watches you throughout the year. He'll critique your game. He's been phenomenal with me and my growth as a player. He deserves it. He turned us around, to a whole new team.”
For a man who lives and breathes basketball, nothing could mean more -- not even the award he picked up on Sunday -- than hearing something like that from one of his players.
Even before Sunday, Bulls players knew they had the best coach in the league.