Tom Thibodeau will meet one of his mentors at Madison Square Garden.
With Rick Pitino taking over at St. John’s and scheduled for an introductory news conference soon, Monday was a chance for Thibodeau to allude to his halcyon days as a young Ivy League assistant.
“Just very, very happy for him. I think he’s been a great coach wherever he’s been,” Thibodeau told reporters before his Knicks took on the Timberwolves. “So he’s been through a lot. When he was a young coach, he used to go watch his practice in Providence. He is a good man, a great coach and I know he will do a great job at St. John’s.”
When Thibodeau was an assistant at Harvard in the late 1980s, he traveled to Providence, about an hour from Cambridge, to watch Pitino practice and absorb the lessons of trademark aggressive defense.
It was not only a useful classroom since Pitino’s Friars reached the Final Four in 1987, but also the right setting to forge the relationship that first brought Thibodeau to New York. It’s where she first met Jeff Van Gundy, Pitino’s graduate assistant in Providence.
( Isiah Hartenstein describes the difficulties in protecting Nikola Jokic from the Nuggets: “It’s different” )
Pitino left the Friars to coach the Knicks. Years later, Van Gundy and Thibodeau were on the Knicks bench together.
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On Monday, Pitino reportedly accepted a six-year contract to coach the Red Storm, giving the program a high-profile replacement for the fired Mike Anderson. The signing numbers provide a boost to the lagging local college scene and another tie at MSG along with the rising Knicks under Thibodeau.
There is also mutual respect between the coaches.
Before Thibodeau was hired as the Knicks’ head coach in 2020, Pitino recalled watching Thibodeau practice and gave him “the highest compliment” in an interview with the Daily News.
“It was meticulously put together, almost terrifying, and it reminded me of Bill Belichick,” Pitino said. . And that’s the highest compliment I could pay someone.”
Thibodeau has at least partially resurrected the Knicks in three seasons, leading the franchise to its only two winning seasons in the past decade. He, too, has challenged his reputation as a defense coach, just as Pitino changed narratives throughout his long career, and has New York’s offense humming this season.
“The thing in this business is that everybody wants to pigeonhole you,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone, also a former Knicks assistant, said of Thibodeau. “They said that Tom Thibodeau was a defensive coach and he doesn’t know that there is a score and that you have to score points in this league. You look at the (Knicks) stats, you look at his efficiency, his offense has been great. They are in the top 5 in offense and out of the top 10 in defensive efficiency right now.
“So I think it’s a change of coaches. They improve, they adjust. We ask our players to improve. And all good coaches aren’t afraid to look in the mirror and challenge themselves to be better.”