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Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Opening Tip: Thibs and Clifford share bond

By Nick Friedell

CHICAGO -- Steve Clifford knew who he had to see before starting his first season as an NBA head coach. That's why the freshly minted Charlotte Bobcats coach flew to Chicago just before the season started to see an old colleague of his -- Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau.

"I took a day in September when I flew to Chicago and just spent the day with him," Clifford said Monday before his Bobcats played Thibodeau's Bulls. "And talked to him about everything from X's and O's to organizational things to staff things to leadership things.

“To be a really good coach in this league, one of the better coaches, which he's as good as it gets, you have to be good at everything. And to me that's what he is."

Thibodeau also is one of Clifford's best friends. The pair started working together in New York almost a decade and a half ago, and Clifford is very appreciative of the time Thibodeau spent with him early on.

"He's a great guy," Clifford said. "On a personal note, he's one of my closest friends; and on a professional note, he's very much a mentor to me. When I joined the Knicks 14 years ago, for whatever reason he decided to take me under his wing. Not just X's and O's but, again, how to talk to the players, how the players think. And he still helps me to this day."

It should come as no surprise Thibodeau thinks the world of Clifford, as well. Thibodeau believes the career assistant can have sustained success in Charlotte the way Thibodeau, another longtime assistant, has created sustained success in Chicago. But he doesn't want to take credit for Clifford's rise through the coaching ranks.

"I think we all learn from each other," Thibodeau said. "We had a great staff and we had a lot of great players there. Having a guy like Patrick [Ewing] to build around is tremendous. And Pat was not only a great talent and an extremely hard worker, he was very coachable, so we were very fortunate.

“And then of course, there were a lot of great coaches on that staff. Not only Jeff [Van Gundy], obviously, but Jeff had worked for Pat Riley, who had laid the foundation there. Brendan Malone. Don Chaney. There were a lot of great coaches there."

Watching the pair's teams do battle on Monday night only made one realize how similarly these teams are coached. Both men expect their players to play tough and both men expect their players to play strong defense -- characteristics that were on full display at the United Center.

"One of things he taught me was I think he has a great rapport with NBA players," Clifford said. "He understands them. He's a terrific communicator. And I would say if you ask their players, he's demanding. But I bet they love to play for him."

Ewing won't be as patient as Thibs: Patrick Ewing has spent years trying to become a head coach in the NBA, but he knows he doesn't want to wait two decades for his chance like Thibodeau did. Ewing, now an assistant under Clifford in Charlotte, is hoping something happens sooner.

"We'll see," he said. "Only time will tell. Thibs waited 20-something years. I'm not waiting that long."

Thibodeau, who coached Ewing in New York while on Van Gundy's staff, also hopes Ewing's chance will come soon.

"I think it will happen," Thibodeau said. "He's very deserving. And unfortunately for him, he's a guy who's done it the right way. He was a great player. You can't imagine how hard that guy worked each and every day to achieve the greatness that he did. He's prepared himself. He's worked under a number of great coaches. He's been with Stan [Van Gundy]. He was with Doug Collins. He was with Jeff Van Gundy. So he's prepared himself well.

“When the opportunity comes I think he's going to do a great job."

While Ewing waits for his chance, he can't help but marvel at the success Thibodeau has had.

"I knew he was good, but nobody knew how good he was going to be," Ewing said. "He's done an outstanding job. I'm very happy for him."

Ewing has known for a long time that Thibodeau understands the game inside and out.

"His total knowledge," Ewing said. "Not just his defense. The team plays great defense. They play great offense. They're an all-around team. There's not just one specific thing that they're good at, I think they're good at everything."

What's next: The Bulls practice at the Berto Center Tuesday afternoon.