What Thibs Talks About When He Talks About Basketball


One of the toughest and most critical things to generate when writing fiction is subtext. You see, we most of us go through our lives simply trying to communicate with something like maximum efficiency, as if language is a quadratic equation. That is, I want x, I say y and — if I say it clearly enough — I will get x. But of course, there’s more to it than that and we know it. There is spin, there is persuasion, there is putting a little English on the English. Even that, though, has a level of conscious intentionality to it.

What’s going on all the time in real life beneath all this, though, is subtext — oceans of history and personality and agenda that shift beneath what we say. Good subtext in fiction doesn’t so much illuminate the characters as shade them, give them weight. A great writer can, with just a few strokes, give us the unseen emotional weight that makes everyday conversations mean something. Examples in fiction are not hard to find (“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway comes immediately to mind) where it’s not what is being said so much as how it’s being said — or what is not being said — that tells the real story.

Which brings us to the grand tradition of the introductory press conference, a bit of public theater attached to the much bigger genre of press conferences generally. As a whole, press conferences are just weird. Whether they’re massively significant (Magic Johnson announcing he is HIV positive and retiring from the game of basketball) or complete farce (98% of the rest of them), the tone remains the same: thoughtful things intoned thoughtfully from a dais followed by questions that either get deflected or twisted back at the asker or laughed off good-naturedly or soberly considered and then answered in blandishments.

Consider new Timberwolves GM Scott Layden’s response to what his first day on the job was like:

Day one we had an opportunity to see the facility, but most important we met everyone in the organization. I believe the people in the organization is what drives great franchises. We had the opportunity to meet some players, we had an opportunity to meet the front office, we had an opportunity to meet basketball operations people. We start the relationships with everyone and what a great first day.

Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with such a response and I’m not trying to bag on Layden. A reporter tossed up a softball and Layden punched it back to the shortstop for an easy out. “We saw the building, but more importantly, we met the people and the people, you know, are the really important thing.” It’s simply the nature of the beast, and the introductory presser especially is kind of fluffy and silly this way. It’s all questions about what you think you might do now that you’re here, before you’ve really had a chance to do much of anything at all. We’re not actually going to learn anything about what new head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau and Layden are going to do, so more than anything, it’s a chance to parse some subtext out of what they say.

By far the most interesting element of how Thibodeau talked about the team was how he addressed what he wanted to see from the team going forward. Look at the Wolves this past season and look at the teams Thibodeau has coached in the past and it’s no surprise that he wants to emphasize defense and rebounding. But he talked about “correcting” the defense and rebounding, and he said it more than once.

Defensively we have a lot of room for improvement, that is an area we do have to correct. The rebounding component, that has to be corrected. You take it step-by-step, don’t skip over any steps. I think it is important for our players to understand what goes into winning, why you win and why you lose. You strive for daily improvement. It is a long season, there will be times where you lose a game, you have to be able to correct things, move forward and build.

Corrected. Not “improved,” not “refined,” not even “learned.” Sure, it has an almost authoritarian bent to it, but honestly, an approach that treats basketball more like a mechanical craft sounds better than me than exhortations about effort and aggressiveness. Thibodeau makes it sound almost like a martial art, really.

More concerning, perhaps, was the way the relationship between Thibodeau and Layden was addressed, which was to say, basically not at all. How would disputes between them be resolved? “I don’t see us getting stuck like that,” said Thibodeau, which smacks of a couple turning down a prenup because they’re so in love. With a little more thought, Thibodeau elaborated, “We are going to be close on most things, and in the end Glen is probably going to make the decision because it is his money.”

It was a laugh line, but for a team that’s been mired in sub-mediocrity for the last dozen years across several GMs and coaches but just one owner, it’s hardly encouraging. And yet, there’s subtext even here. Thibodeau’s split from the Chicago Bulls was onerous, and his part in it seemed largely to rest on his contentious relationship with management. Here was Thibodeau sitting on a platform directly next to the owner of the team. What was he going to do, throw him under the bus at his intro presser? Thibodeau, who has been given enormous power within the organization, it probably soft-pedaling here, consciously or unconsciously. He was almost certainly hired in part for the strength of his convictions about how things should be done. It will be interesting to see how that meshes or clashes with how things have been done.

In a way, it was almost reassuring how charmingly chunky Thibodeau’s handling of the typical press conference cliches was. “When I think about the Minnesota fans, they’re some of the best sports fans in the country here,” he said. Speaking about Flip Saunders’ legacy, he said, “All the things he did, the way he was with coaches, it spoke volumes to who he was as a person. That is something I will always cherish.”

I have no doubt that Thibodeau actually does cherish that, but saying it didn’t seem to come naturally to him. Saunders, by contrast, was so liquid and fluid in these kind of situations that you’d walk out of a press conference with a new Buick and not even know he sold it to you. It came naturally. Again by contrast, Sam Mitchell often seemed perturbed and annoyed or else almost too open and expansive, often by turns. It was as if Mitchell wanted you to see and understand what was going on, but quickly grew tired of having to explain it. Thibodeau comes off like an entirely different mold of coach than either of those two, ready to be engaged so wholly in the day-to-day work — “I believe in doing what is right each and every day”; “We will study every day to see how we can improve”; “I want them concentrating on what they have to do each and every day” — that all this talking about the job is neither natural nor an annoyance, but simply a thing to be grinded through.

In truth, this is already probably too much to draw out of an intro presser — I said as much early on, yet here I am, having done all of that. It’s just too tempting, really, to want badly for things to get started again, to see where all this is headed. So I suppose that’s my subtext here, a desire for the future to get its ass in gear and get here already. But who I am, truly, to say what my own subtext is?

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3 Responsesso far.

  1. I don’t think you implemented the lobbing-a-softball saying properly. The point of the saying is, the pitcher (reporter) tosses a softball (easy question), and the hitter (answerer) is supposed to handle the pitch easily and well, typically knocking the softball out of the park. If Layden handled the softball toss of a question well, he wouldn’t hit into an easy out. However, it’s quite possible that’s your point, and I just spent a lot of time and effort elucidating just how much I don’t get the joke.

  2. Sisco says:

    Can’t wait to see the impact Thibs makes on this team next year. It has been too long since you could say”good defense” and “Timberwolves” in the same sentence. Thibs just wanted to get it out of the way so he can get back to work on this team. I like that. I will look forward to the press conferences after playoff games. Then I will worry about what he says. Till then, go get em Thibs.

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