Tom Thibodeau opens up about Knicks, Jeff Van Gundy, Patriots fandom


New Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau takes a timeout to discuss his hiring, expectations and what traits the team will have under his leadership in a Q&A with Post columnist Steve Serby.

Q: You’ll probably laugh at this: How do you feel about the fact that Knicks fans are viewing you as the savior?

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A: (Laugh) It’s an honor and a privilege to be able there. … I don’t fool myself into not thinking that it’s gonna require a lot of work … just come in and give everything we have every day. Do it for each other, do it for the city, do it for the team, put the team first. … And if we keep doing the right things, the results will take care of themselves. But I think we all know what it will take to get this done, and we believe that we can make this right.

Q: What are the ideal traits of a Tom Thibodeau basketball player?

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A: Smart, tough, talented and driven.

Q: What is your definition of toughness?

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A: I think you categorize it into two different categories. The physical toughness is the obvious — the ability to push through things no matter what’s coming at you, to keep going, to not give in. Never surrender. Usually the victory goes to the guy who can play through it the longest. Of course, the mental part is equally important. Maybe more so than the physical. No matter what, to do what’s best for the group, even if it may not be best for you, but to put the team first, that’s the critical part of that.

Q: What do you want the on-court personality of your Knicks team to be?

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A: I want us to be hard-playing. I want us to be tough, smart, give everything that we have. And I think that resonates with New York City. I think when you look at the city, they appreciate great work, they have knowledgeable fans, they’re gonna appreciate great-effort plays, they’re gonna appreciate a team that plays together and plays for each other and will know that. We want to be a team that’s not afraid to get their hands dirty. I think that’s what this city appreciates, and we’re gonna try to bring that every night.

Q: Describe your leadership style.

A: Hard to describe, I think, for me. That would be probably for others. But I’d like to think that the things that are important for me with leadership: Obviously you want to expertise in whatever it is that you’re doing, and then to not be afraid to have courage, and then to also have humility. And to be honest … build trust with honesty.

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Q: Who are leaders do you admire outside the realm of sports?

A: President Obama, who I got to know a little bit when I was in Chicago. Just the way he spoke, the things he did, and his honesty, his messaging, bringing people together. … Put Coach [Bill] Belichick up there. [Manager Tony] La Russa, Pat Riley, and I have to put Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] in that group as well.

Tom Thibodeau
Tom ThibodeauAP

Q: What won’t you tolerate?

A: Anything that takes away from winning. And the second thing is tardiness. I don’t have a lot of rules, but that’s one thing that bothers me.

Q: What are your favorite motivational or inspirational sayings?

A: My guys in Chicago and Minnesota would have probably told you: “Magic is in the work.” I really believe that. There’s no shortcuts to winning. You have to be willing to pay the price and be willing to sacrifice. There’s no magic in it. The real magic is in doing it every day to the best of your ability, and the steps will be incremental.

Q: What criticism has either bothered you the most or you thought was the most unfair?

A: That’s a good question (smile). I’ve had a number of great mentors, and having worked with Jeff [Van Gundy] in New York, and watching all the things that he went through and the way he handled all that stuff was really good for me. I think it helped prepare me for ultimately when I became a head coach. He always used to say this: “Whether it be praise or criticism, treat it the same. It really doesn’t matter.” The only thing that matters is what I think. Only I know whether I put everything I had into something. We all really only answer to ourselves.

Q: What qualities excite you about team president Leon Rose?

A; Leadership, smart, tough, driven, very pragmatic. Great listener. Even-keeled, he’s not gonna overreact to things, and he won’t underreact to things.

Q: When did you first become aware of World Wide Wes — William Wesley, the new executive vice president for the Knicks?

A: (Laugh) The first time I met him, I was an assistant coach in Philadelphia, and I was at an Eagles game and I was sitting in a box with Mo Cheeks. And Wes was up there. And they were playing the Cowboys. So Wes says, “The first half I’m gonna go down on the Cowboys sideline, (laugh).” He goes down on the Cowboys sideline and he’s standing next to Jerry Jones, and I’m like, “Who is this guy?” And then he goes, “I’m gonna go down on the Eagles sideline the second half (laugh).” I’m like, “No way.” Ultimately we became really good friends. I’d bump into him occasionally in Philly, and then when Leon became an agent and then when he went to CAA, Wes went with him.

Q: Is there anybody Wes doesn’t know in the world of sports?

A: There’s only one World Wide Wes. He knows everyone. Across many different sports.

Q: How did you learn about the Kobe Bryant tragedy?

A: Someone had texted me, and it was disbelief. I still don’t want to believe it. The irony is probably about a week before, 10 days before, he had texted me, we were talking about the team he was coaching with his daughter’s team. I had been going out to L.A. quite a bit to spend time with Doc [Rivers], and he asked me when I was coming out again, we were gonna get together. Really sad. I watched his whole career. Just such an incredible person. He would have continued on to go great things in whatever he touched, because that’s just the way he was wired. It’s sad that he’s not here.

Q: Have you lost anybody because of the virus?

A: I haven’t, although Karl-Anthony Towns’ mom [Jacqueline died in April] … really sad. This is an awful thing, at any time it can strike. You think somebody’s healthy, and the next thing you know, they’re gone. You feel for those people. Karl’s dad is a wonderful guy, it was a very very close-knit family, so they’re in my thoughts and prayers all the time.

Q: How do you deal with stress during the season?

A: I try to work out. As an assistant, it was a lot easier to work out. Then as a head coach, not as much as I should have. That is something that I will do this time around.

Q: What drove you as a young boy, and what drives you now?

A: Just watching my father every day. He was out very early every morning, come back, had dinner with the family, worked every night, did it night after night, year after year. … All my coaches growing up, they were teachers, coaches, and I always had an appreciation for the most demanding teachers because I thought they got the most out of you. And they stretched you, they got you to go beyond what you thought you were capable of. And my mother, they were both incredibly hard workers, and they set an example for me.

Q: Describe winning the 2008 NBA championship as a Celtics assistant.

A: It’s the most unique organization, I think, in pro sports because there’s 17 banners. It’s gotta be similar to the Yankees — in the sense that the first day you walk into the facility, you see all the banners. And so to sustain that success over that period of time says a lot about ’em. I remember being in the Finals before the first game, when they bring all the former great Celtics back and they introduce them two-by-two coming out of the tunnel before the game. And we’re sitting there and it just hits you: “I want to become one of those teams.” And when you win a championship, it’s not the ring or the trophy, it’s the fact that you’re tied together as a group forever.

Q: What do you admire about Bill Belichick?

A: His ability to teach, his leadership ability. I had an opportunity to go and watch one of their practices. Very detail-oriented, great concentration. And then probably the biggest thing when I was Boston is to watch the messaging from the head coach, to all the players, they were all on point with the same things, and how they were always able to overcome whatever was in their way. … The one year when Tom Brady had the ACL [injury, 2008], usually in the NFL when the quarterback goes down like that, you’re looking at a three-win season, and I think they won 11 games that year, and I was really impressed with that. You’re never gonna replace a guy like Brady with an individual player, but all the other things — their defense, their hustle, their effort plays, their togetherness — they just found ways to win. He’s the definition of greatness, to do it year after year is what makes him so special.

Q: Were you upset when the Giants beat the perfect Patriots in Super Bowl XLII?

A: (Smile) Every Super Bowl loss upset me. … I know how special it is for all the people of New England, having grown up in Connecticut, to just know every year you have a chance because of his leadership. They have a bunch of great players. I was really impressed with the way Brady practiced. It was the last day of OTAs in the summer, and if you just walked in, you wouldn’t know whether that was any different than preparing for a Super Bowl. There was no messing around. His concentration, his leadership, was phenomenal.

Q: Bill Parcells?

A: Wherever’s Bill been, he’s always gotten a lot out of his team, he gets the most out of his team. [Van Gundy and I] just loved his demeanor. He’s a truth teller, didn’t sugarcoat things, but you could tell his players loved him. A very demanding guy, and again, great success everywhere he’s been.

Tom Thibodeau
Tom ThibodeauPaul J. Bereswill

Q: Tony La Russa?

A: Just the way they’re wired. They’re so motivated to continue to learn and grow and challenge, and I think anytime you’re around that, you learn. Different sports, but the things that go into winning are the same. You eliminate all the ways in which you beat yourself first, the emphasis on the fundamentals and mastering your individual fundamentals and taking them to the team fundamentals. Tony’s mind is amazing. He’s got a law degree, in many ways similar to Leon — two lawyers that never practiced, or practiced very little (smile), and became great in other things.

Q: Coach K?

A: That was an incredible experience for me with Team USA. The thing that stood out as we’re getting ready to play Serbia for the gold in the World Cup, we’re in a ballroom in Madrid, I was just amazed, early in the morning we’re studying film and how motivated Coach K, Jim Boeheim, Jerry Colangelo, how motivated they were to win that game. The thing that stood out the most about Coach K is his leadership ability. I’ve never met anyone who communicates the way he does. He has the ability to bring the best out of not only himself, but everyone that he’s around,

Q: How are you and Van Gundy different?

A: I think we have similar beliefs. One of the things that he told me, which I thought was critical for his success, and I learned a lot by him saying this, he felt that … his personality is obviously different than mine. His personality is also different than Stan’s [Van Gundy]. Jeff was there a long time with Pat Riley, and he said, “If I tried to be Pat Riley, I would have failed. I had to be who I am.” And I thought that was a big part of his success with the Knicks. You’re never gonna fool the players. The players saw really how authentic he was. When I went to Chicago, I felt if I tried to be Jeff, it wouldn’t have worked for me. If I had tried to be Doc, it would not have worked. And Doc gave me the same advice. Jeff was my biggest advocate, always telling me, “You can do this, it’s gonna happen.” And, he said, “I want you to be prepared when it does. Look, you just have to be you. Don’t get distracted, don’t try to be someone else. You’ll connect with players by being yourself.”

Q: Doc Rivers.

A: A great leader, the ability to think on his feet, communicate, connect. He doesn’t want you to think how basketball-driven he is, but he is (laugh).

Q: Gregg Popovich.

A: He’s been great to me throughout my career. He’s allowed me to come down and visit for practice. The leadership ability, his communication skills, his sarcasm, he knows how to use that in a very effective way (smile) … probably similar to Coach Parcells. Most people would be smelling the roses, he’s not doing that.

Q: Pat Riley.

A: When you coached against his team, you had to bring your absolute very best. And to do it where he’s done it, and the way he’s done it, to do what he did in L.A., to do what he did in New York, and then to do what he did in Miami — I don’t know how many times he rebuilt their team in Miami — but to be driven the way he is, and to continue to evolve … I think the things that he believes in, he hasn’t changed one bit.

Q: Is coaching today’s players different than it was?

A: I think that the game doesn’t change. You always have to adapt as the players change a little bit, but what wins doesn’t change. You have to deliver that message a little differently, but I think that’s part of coaching, is you have to evolve with the way things are changing, you have to continue to learn, grow, challenge yourself to get better. Every day you want to give your absolute most, you want to learn as much as you can, you want to continue to get better, and you want to strive to achieve all your goals.

Q: Give me an example of the handwritten daily notes you used to give your players.

A: We’ll use Allan Houston. Like the offensive part, there were a lot of good things. So there weren’t a whole lot of notes: “Just keep putting that thing in the hole, Al.” The defensive part, it’s probably a little lengthier. He ended up really becoming a pretty decent defensive player. Serious-minded players always like the feedback. They want to know things they did well, things they didn’t do as well as they could have, and what they have to do to improve it. So I think that communication is a big part of development too.

Q: Mitchell Robinson.

A: What he’s shown so far, and if he continues to grow the way he’s growing, then the sky’s the limit for him.

Q: Who are athletes outside basketball you admire?

A: Brady. … At the stage of his career that he was at, and when you watched him practice, you wouldn’t know if this was his first or second year. Everything was so precise. When your best player is practicing that way, it sets the tone for everyone. … Tiger Woods, to do what he did in his sport, and perseverance, I think he’s shown great mental toughness to get through things. He always keeps coming, there’s no back up in him, the way he’s wired. His career’s been amazing to watch. … Mike Trout, the way he’s dominated baseball for a long period of time, still young, long way to go.

Q: How and when did this lifelong love affair with basketball begin for you?

A: Probably as a child. My dad was a huge basketball fan. He went to St. Bonaventure. I grew up listening to the St. Bonaventure games on the radio — Bob Lanier was like my childhood idol. They got to the [1970] Final Four, and unfortunately Bob Lanier suffered a knee injury, broke our hearts. … Willis Reed, of course Walt Frazier, Red Holzman — those were the guys we watched whenever we could, we listened whenever we could. My dad loved the Knicks, used to bring me down to the Garden, that was a thrill for me as a kid.

Q: What was it like coaching in the Garden for the first time?

A: The first time was as an assistant with Minnesota. I remember walking into the Garden many times as a fan, so walking in as coach, it was such a thrill, not only for me, but having my family there. And to feel the building from that perspective was amazing for me. In ’96, when Jeff hired me there, to be in the big games at the Garden with great times, it was an amazing feeling, just because there’s no other city like it in the world — just the greatest arena, every player gets so excited to play there. And the fans … it’s electric. To sit on the bench during the Finals, those were incredible experiences and memories that will stay with me for obviously my whole life.

Q: Three dinner guests?

A: Obama; Pope Francis and [Muhammad] Ali.

Q: Favorite movie?

A: “Godfather.”

Q: Favorite actors?

A: Denzel [Washington] and Larry David.

Q: Favorite actress?

A: Wendy Rhoades [played by Maggie Siff on Showtime’s “Billions”].

Q: Favorite singers/entertainers?

A: [Bruce] Springsteen and Bono.

Q: Favorite meal?

A: Any pasta dish.

Q: Favorite restaurant?

A: Scalinatella. I usually get the red snapper there.

Q: You threw out a first pitch in Minnesota. Is there any way you can help Dr. Fauci with his first pitch?

A: (Laugh) No, he probably needs a little spring training or something. … His leadership skills, his truth-telling, I think it’s appreciated by everyone in the country.

Q: Would you ever consider wearing one of Clyde’s outfits?

A: (Smile) I might to honor him. I love Clyde. In many ways, it’s similar to Wes in a sense only Clyde can pull that off. Or maybe Calvin Murphy can pull it off as well. Clyde is obviously an icon, and someone we all appreciate.

Q: What is your message to Knicks fans?

A: Come every night, bring what you bring. We’re gonna give you everything we have. We’re gonna try to bring a winner back to that city.

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