Tom Thibodeau was not born to coach the New York Knicks, no matter how much it felt that way during last year’s revival. He grew up a fan, and he was right there with Jeff Van Gundy in the Roaring ’90s, so he understood what a team built around sacrifice and grit could mean to a city that specializes in both.
But people aren’t born to do anything; they are raised to do things. And as the 63-year-old Thibodeau opens a second season in his dream job Wednesday night at the Garden, with Knicks-Celtics on the marquee, it should be noted that he was raised to love this team by an earnest grinder who knew how to lead.
Born in Maine and raised in Connecticut, Tom Thibodeau Sr. would often ask friends and relatives who were in pursuit of material possessions, “Do you really need that?” His family had lost their farm decades earlier in the Great Depression. In Tom Sr.’s house, nothing would be wasted and everything would be earned.
He had studied to be a priest before changing course at St. Bonaventure, where the Franciscans’ degree requirements always included 120 credit hours and a lifelong allegiance to their basketball team. Tom Sr. fell hard for Bonnies hoops. In later years, after the school’s former player and coach, Eddie Donovan, assembled the Knicks’ Willis Reed-Walt Frazier-Dave DeBusschere title teams, Tom Sr. and his son would still listen to St. Bonaventure games on the radio when they weren’t listening to, or watching, the Knicks.
Once a year the two Toms would make the drive from their Connecticut home to Olean, N.Y., for a Bonnies game, and to the city for a Knicks game. Tom Jr. was 6 or 7 on their first trip to the Garden. The towering Manhattan buildings, the magnitude and magic of the arena and the one-of-a-kind ceiling — it was all quite an experience for a boy from New Britain.
“Basketball was his passion,” Tom Jr. said of his father, “and he passed that passion down to me.” Tom Sr. had put up a small basket in their basement before hanging a regulation backboard on the family garage. His kid became quite a ballplayer, and Tom Sr., a purchasing agent for a steel company, and his bride Ann, who worked for the state, somehow made it to all of his games. Tom Sr. and Ann also were there for Tom’s two sisters, and his two younger brothers, for their games and ceremonies and school plays. It was the Thibodeau way.
Tom Sr. worked six days a week, rising before dawn every morning. If he wasn’t rushing off to one of his kids’ games after dinner, he spent his nights working at home. Tom was more reserved than Ann, who brought some serious intensity to the perfect partnership. The Thibodeaus merrily tagged along on their son’s journey from Salem (Mass.) State player and coach to Harvard assistant, hoping he would someday realize his goal of becoming a Division I head coach.
Tom Jr. ended up in the NBA instead, as an assistant with the Timberwolves, before he landed with the Knicks three jobs later, in 1996. He lied to Van Gundy about his video skills to get the gig. “Best lie ever told to me,” Van Gundy said.
Thibodeau would sit on the Knicks’ bench and look diagonally across the Garden floor and see Red Holzman courtside, and realize just how fortunate he’d been. Van Gundy’s assistant would also look straight across the floor to find his parents in their seats in the second or third row. Tom Sr. was thrilled his boy was working with their Knicks, Tom Jr. said, “because of what it represented. It was his team that he followed, and it was the way our team competed.”
The Knicks’ franchise player, Patrick Ewing, always made it a point to find Tom Sr. and Ann in the stands after games to talk about basketball and their son. Tom Sr. loved the 1990s Knicks as much as he loved the 1970s Knicks. He had a soft spot for Phil Jackson, a Holzman player, even though Jackson’s Bulls kept denying the Knicks, and Tom Jr. had to have a little chat with him about that.
Father and son never stopped talking about ball, about the heartbreaking time Bob Lanier’s knee injury might’ve cost St. Bonaventure a national championship in 1970, and about the heartwarming time Willis Reed’s leg injury didn’t cost the Knicks their first NBA title that same spring. As an assistant with the Celtics, Tom Jr. ended up coaching with legendary Knicks captain in the league’s 2008 rookie-sophomore game on All-Star weekend. “I was overwhelmed,” Thibodeau said. “It was like, ‘Man, I’m coaching with Willis Reed.’ ”
Tom Sr. rooted for his boy more than he rooted for the Celtics, his Knicks’ old-school rivals. That June, after Boston beat the Lakers for its 17th title, Thibodeau’s parents rode with him in his duck boat in the team’s parade. Tom Sr. told his son at dinner, “I never saw so many happy people in my life.”
Five years later, at age 83, Tom Sr.’s dementia had turned into Alzheimer’s. “It was sad to see,” Tom Jr. said. “But he handled everything as well as you could handle it.” Of course he did.
Their last conversation wasn’t about the Knicks. Tom Sr., pragmatic son of the Depression, was debating how much he should spend on a Christmas gift for Ann, his wife of 58 years. It might’ve been a winter coat, and Tom Sr. was effectively asking, “Does she really need that?” His kids pushed him on this one. “My sister was encouraging him to spend a little more than he wanted to spend,” Tom Jr. said. “But he really wasn’t having it.”
A father of five, a grandfather of eight and a great-grandfather of two, Thomas J. Thibodeau Sr. died on Christmas Day 2013 — the same day his son coached the Bulls to an early-afternoon victory in Brooklyn before heading home to grieve. Tom Sr. had been part of his church’s choir, and used to sing his favorite song, “Silent Night,” with his wife on Christmas Eve. Tom Sr. and Ann had great voices, and they persuaded their oldest son to sing Christmas carols with them. “I was terrible,” Tom Jr. said. The memories are anything but.
When he got the word from Leon Rose that he was the new head coach of the Knicks, Thibodeau would have given anything to call his old man with the news. “But I felt like he was there,” Tom Jr. said. Tom Sr. would have been proud of last year’s Knicks, of how hard they fought and how willing they were to play for one another. “I felt it was like going back to the ’90s,” Tom Jr. said, “in the way the team gave great effort every night.”
New Yorkers adore teams that play smart and play selflessly, and after watching brutal basketball for the better part of two decades, the 2020-21 Knicks were a gift from the gods. Ann Thibodeau, an ultra-vibrant 87, still watches every game — even late-night West Coast games — and still makes appearances at the Garden to see her son coach with a dogma he summarizes this way: “Magic is in the work.” It sure sounds like something his dad would have said.
Thibodeau feels his father’s presence every time he steps into the Garden. “Of all the things he taught me,” the Knicks coach said, “the best thing was the way he led his life. He was honest, he had integrity, and he worked incredibly hard. You couldn’t ask for a better father.”
So many fans in the Garden for Wednesday night’s opener against the Celtics will surely reflect on parents and guardians who took them to their first Knicks game. Thibodeau will be right there with them.
His dream job is now his reality, inspired by a passion handed down by his dad. So if Tom Jr. ever rides in another parade, Tom Sr. gets an assist in the boxscore.