LINCOLNSHIRE, Ill. -- Yannick Noah sat proudly in the front row as his son, Joakim, accepted the 2013-2014 NBA Defensive Player of the Year award Monday night. The elder Noah, and other assorted family and friends, beamed with pride as the emotional Chicago Bulls center received one of the biggest awards in basketball.
They weren't the only ones smiling big.
Another man sat proudly on the stage, immediately to Noah's right, and watched the unfolding proceedings with pride of his own. That would be Tom Thibodeau -- the usually unflappable Bulls coach. He wore the look of a proud papa as Noah earned some hard-earned recognition for his rugged play.
"Thibs," Joakim Noah said, in the middle of his acceptance speech, "we've definitely had our hard times, our ups and downs, but without your system this wouldn't be possible."
Having been in the league for more than two decades and understanding how much goes into winning basketball games, Thibodeau knows full well that he wouldn't be considered one of the best coaches in the league without Noah's help and support. The pair has formed an unlikely duo that has set the course for the Bulls' franchise moving forward. While the pair does not appear to have much in common on the surface, the two share a burning desire to win. That desire makes them both similar -- and unique.
"I think he understands where I'm coming from. I understand where he's coming from," Thibodeau said after the ceremony. "He's a character, but he's enjoyable to coach because you know how important winning is to him. And you know how important work is to him. And I think he touched on it with his dad, he watched his father. I think a big part of his athleticism is the fact he did jump rope, and he did run, and his stamina, and all those things. So when we got him, that part was in him."
It was inside of him -- but Thibodeau is the man who brought it all out of him. Thibodeau is the one who pushed Noah to be even better each and every day. It hasn't been an easy process -- both men admit to having some heated conversations, but in the end, the respect they have for one another topples any feelings of frustration that might linger at various points in a season.
"Defense helps win and winning is definitely the most important thing," Joakim said. "I remember one day we were working out at the Berto Center and Thibs was putting me through a real grueling workout and I told him, 'You know, Thibs? If we weren't winning games I would really, really hate you.' And he said, 'Trust me, Jo. I feel the same way about you.'"
Deep down, Thibodeau knows the Bulls wouldn't have turned around their season had it not been for Noah's leadership on and off the floor after Derrick Rose suffered another knee injury and Luol Deng was traded to Cleveland. That's why the pair sat down and talked after the Deng deal about how they wanted to finish the season.
"We had some conversations about where we were and what we were expecting," Thibodeau said. "And the thing that I admire about Jo is he's not the type of guy that will allow things to fall apart. And so his will and determination helped us overcome the circumstances that we were in. I had the belief in him that he could do more. He had the belief in himself that he could do more. And he knew if we were going to get it done that that was what was going to have to happen."
It's not an accident that Noah has enjoyed the best season of his professional basketball career after those conversations with Thibodeau. Since the first of the year, he has been as focused and locked in as ever.
"I think he grew as did Taj [Gibson]," Thibodeau said. "And of course the acquisition of D.J. [Augustin] was huge for us. But I think the thing about Jo is when you look back and you see how much he's grown throughout his career. Each and every year he's gotten better. And I know his first few years in the league, I was on the opposing bench so I had an opportunity to get that perspective. But once I got around him and saw the way he worked and his determination I knew he would continue to get better. He's put a tremendous amount of work into his offense, into becoming a complete player, and I think that's what we're seeing now."
But Thibodeau knows there is more. Like Noah, he knows that he still has much more to give. The coach and player know they have championships to win together. Each man has earned individual accolades in recent years, but both men want the bigger prize. Thibodeau knows it's his job to continue pushing Noah to another level. Noah knows it's his job to allow the veteran coach to lead him there.
"Sometimes when you're watching his improvement it seems small and incremental," Thibodeau said. "But then all of a sudden you look back -- I know when I look back over the four years and I see where he is today, it's a quantum leap. He's one of the best players in the league now, he's a two-time All-Star, and now he's a Defensive Player of the Year as well -- and I think he'll still get better. So we're pleased for him, but probably the best thing about it I think -- he's being recognized for his contributions to winning."