As you all suspected, Tom Thibodeau is a trash-talker, a foodie who enjoys long walks around the lake, rocks out at Springsteen concerts and listens to Drake.
“Tom is not the guy you see screaming on the sideline,” longtime friend Mike Opat said. “Well, he is that guy — he is the coach who wants to get the most out of his team. But there’s more to him than that.”
Opat helped get Target Field built. Tom Thibodeau is trying to fill Target Center. The Hennepin County commissioner and the Timberwolves basketball boss would seem to have little in common other than locale, yet to hear them talk about each other is to imagine them in the summer’s most unlikely buddy movie.
“He is a terrible basketball player,” Thibodeau says of Opat.
“He’s bitter about some of the long-range jumpers I shot in his face,” Opat says of Thibs.
After two years running the Wolves, Thibs seems to be known more for growling than winning, even after bringing the franchise to the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
During a long conversation last week, Thibodeau looked refreshed and sounded cheerful while reflecting on a career that has brought him into the orbits of such people as Red McCombs and Bill Russell.
Opat knows Thibodeau as an adviser to his sons and a loyal friend of 30 years. They met when Thibodeau was an assistant coach at Harvard and Opat was at the Kennedy School of Government there. “Hard to believe he got into that school,” Thibodeau says. “One day he walks into the basketball office and says, ‘I’m looking for a place to play.’ The next thing you know he’s a volunteer assistant coach. We used to play noontime basketball. And it wasn’t very pretty.”
“Tom thought he was a point guard, a ‘1’,” Opat said. “He was more like a 3½.”
Thibodeau traveled this summer, spending time with family on the East Coast and with friends, including Doc Rivers, in Los Angeles. He talked about music and restaurants, travel and friendships.
“I know I have to recharge,” he said. “Now that I’m back here, I walk around the lake quite a bit. It’s beautiful here in the summer.”
Ask Thibodeau about the Wolves’ locker room chemistry, and he avoids direct answers. Want to get him talking? Bring up his basketball life.
He got to know former Vikings and Spurs owner Red McCombs when Thibodeau coached in San Antonio. He revered Bill Musselman, who hired him as an assistant with the original Timberwolves team. His best friend in the business is Rivers, his boss in Boston.
“We’re very, very close,” Thibodeau said. “Working with him in Boston and winning a championship there, I don’t know if there’s any other organization like that in basketball. You get there and you’re looking at all of the banners …
“You want to become one of those teams. When you get to the Finals and they march all of the former champions out of the tunnel two by two. The night we won it, when we beat the Lakers, the thing I’ll always treasure is that Bill Russell was with us in back. Once you win the championship — you chase it and you chase it and the ring sits in a drawer somewhere but what always connects you is the experience and the journey that you share with those people. Whenever I see Doc, inevitably we’ll talk about the year we won it. Then we’ll talk about the year we lost it. The championship is something you always remember together, but some losses, I don’t think you get over.”
Opat describes Thibodeau as “very good-hearted.” Then he remembers their pickup basketball games. “He was completely at home in that setting, hanging out and playing hoops,” Opat said. “And he would be today if he could still move his big butt up and down the floor.”
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org