Folks, it’s a picaresque, crisp autumn day in Westchester County. As I drive up from the city on a Sunday afternoon, the concrete, steel and glass gives way to the wood north of the Bronx. The September foliage serves as a glorious canvas for God’s creation, splashing the rolling hills auburn and gold.
I’m in high spirits with John Denver’s mellow coo in my ears and a song in my heart. After a year of service, I am the first Posting & Toasting writer in a generation who has been invited for an exclusive sit-down with a Knicks official, and it’s coach Tom Thibodeau! I’d been critical of Tom during my first season on the Knicks beat, so the cryptic email that had unexpectedly hit my inbox a few days before caught me somewhat by surprise.
It was from CoachThibby13@salemstate.edu and read: “Hey Abe, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau here. Love your work at P&T. I’m a big believer in firm but fair, and while you were hard on some of my rotation decisions last year, you always brought passion, logic and reason to your critiques. Thought you might appreciate the opportunity to come up to my place this weekend and talk expectations going into this season. Want to get your many loyal readers and friends in the comment thread as excited for this season as I am! -Tommy”
I read the email three times, beside myself with excitement for a real one-on-one with arguably the third-most important member of the organization I cover, and the opportunity to do some real journalism. Thibs provided his home address, and just below that, there was a signature quote that I think John Wooden said once that must be a Salem State .edu auto-prompt or something I didn’t really understand that read: The great old ones were both one and many. They were not separate souls like men, yet they were separate wills. Some say they came from the stars; some say that they were the soul of the earth when it was formed from a cloud. For all life comes from the beyond, where there is no consciousness. Life needed a mirror, therefore it invaded the world of matter. There it became its own enemy, because they possess form. The great old ones wanted to avoid form; therefore they rejected the heavy material of the body. But then they lost the power to act. Therefore they needed servants.
The day of our interview, Coach Thibs meets me at the front door with a wide smile and a firm handshake, in a fitted collared shirt with the Knicks logo emblazoned on the breast. He lives in a remarkable, austere but tastefully-appointed bachelor pad in Tarrytown, an affluent hamlet that looks torn from a mid-20th century catalog. The house is a ten-minute walk from the Knicks practice facility, perched on the top of a hill overlooking the Gate of Heaven cemetery, where Babe Ruth is buried. Thibs loves the serenity of the house, the peace and perspective he gets when he looks out on a field strewn with the ancient, ornate headstones and considers the frailty that is mortality.
It’s a one-story house, a modernist construction, the outer walls are all glass, it’s floored with gleaming white tile and the little furniture in the flat is white, with one notable exception. Thibs had the house built when he took his dream job with the Knicks. It has five points, splayed out like a starfish. I asked Thibs about its interesting and specific shape, but he told me he hadn’t noticed and it must be a coincidence or something.
Tom asks, “Hey Abraham, can I call you Abraham?”
“Actually coach, that’s just a dumb-”
“Abraham, do you like crabs? Would you like to eat crabs with me?”
We walk through the flat, remarkably absent of any of the sort of paraphernalia you’d assume a person who has reached this pinnacle of professional achievement would keep around. There’s no display case for the championship ring he won as an assistant. No Coach of the Year trophies. No pictures with Thibs and his coaches, or players, or his family.
We walk into the kitchen, lit by the clear September sky, blinding white with tile and stainless steel appliances. There’s a large paper sack in the middle of a glass table. Thibs methodically covers the long glass kitchen table in a weekend edition of the Times, taking sections from the fold, methodically spreading them and smoothing them until the table is lined with newsprint. Then he takes the bag and violently dumps it out into the center, covering the table in boiled, jumbo Maryland blue crabs. Without asking, Thibs opens a Beck’s for me and hands the green glass bottle over, along with a small wooden mallet and a shell cracker, and serves me a ramekin of drawn butter spiced with Old Bay. He pours himself a Collins glass of water, seasoning it with a squeeze of lemon and a disturbingly long pour of Morton’s salt.
Thibs doesn’t wait, immediately eating his crabs with no utensils, tearing the shells apart with his bare hands and scooping the meat. We’re on opposite sides of the table and I’m uncomfortable, so I attempt conversation.
“Uh, so coach. Excited for the season?”
“I’ve never felt pressure. Ever. When you put everything you have into your job, that’s all you can do. So I’ve never felt pressure. Others can say this or that. That ain’t happening here. Just get ready. I’ve been at this a long time. I approach it the same way. I put everything I have into each and every day. I’m willing to live with that result. There is no one — NO ONE — who studies this team harder than I do.”
Thibs delivers this diatribe out of the corner of a queer, frozen smile without making eye contact or pausing to chew and swallow the crab meat, spraying spittle and crab juice as he talks, grinding the whole shards with his teeth and somehow able to isolate and spit out large masticated wads of crab shell on the floor, where he’s spiking the crabs that have been searched of all their flesh. I’m still gingerly picking through my first and he’s nearly through his pile. There’s a discomfiting, automated quality to the way he is speaking, like a cheap plastic cowboy with a pull string.
“The crab is really good coach. Where’d you get it from?”
“It’s based on performance — who fits better. It’s not fantasy basketball. It’s what makes the group work best. So that’s what we’ll do. I like the way he’s growing. We’ve got to get the best out of everyone.”
“The way who is growing?”
“That would be a Leon question. Positioning yourself to get opportunities, that’s what you want to do. We love our young guys. There’s a lot of work to be done. I don’t want to lead you to a place that we aren’t, but if we continue to put the work in — we will get better.”
Coach isn’t making a ton of sense, but the words are oddly familiar, and then I realize why. “Coach, are you just repeating your pull quotes from the Stefan Bondy piece in the Daily News the other day?”
Thibs abruptly gets up from the table, the space in front of him now empty. He goes to the fridge and grabs another large brown paper sack, dumping out another pile of crabs. These aren’t the cherry red color the last crabs were. They’re murky earth tones, and I could swear several are twitching. Coach looks up at me, seeming to really see me for the first time.
“Do you like crabs, Abraham?”
“Yeah, I do coach.”
“I love them. Not just great food, but great discipline. You don’t eat crabs Abraham, you earn them. They cost. You crack the shells, you hunt for the food. You really have to work and get in there, but when you do, there’s a great reward. The sweetest and most succulent meat available to us on this green Earth. You know what I mean?”
As Thibs speaks I watch him tear open another crab body, burying his mouth in the cavity like an ostrich in sand. I somehow hadn’t noticed his hands when he greeted me at the door. Up close they are badly scarred, presumably an accumulation of nicks and tears courtesy of jagged edges of crab shells over the years. They’re infected, covered in welts and pustules and I can see a clear liquid streaming down his wrists which could either be from the crabs or from him. He’s finished with his second pile before I’m through my second crab. He rises, claps his hands together, sending up a spray, and exclaims, “Let’s watch some tape!”
He brings me into his film room in the back of the house, it’s the only room that’s walled with what appears to be gray slate, while the rest of the rooms are cordoned off with clean white lacquered drywall. The interior is similarly discordant. It’s a mess, and there’s a dank smell emanating that reminds me of a time I came home to a roommate I shared a freshman dorm with who had done psilocybin mushrooms and soiled himself in his sleep.
It’s carpeted with cheap eggshell linoleum and the carpet is badly spotted and stained, strewn with pizza boxes from all the major national pizza chains operating in the Tarrytown area. There’s a huge pile of used collared shirts identical to the one Coach Thibs is wearing in a corner. The accent wall is covered in floor to ceiling shelving that is lined with thick, leather-bound, badly distressed, first edition books. There’s a gap left in the middle of the wall and as we walk in, Thibs brushes a fat water bug off a remote control sitting on top of the discarded pizza boxes and uses it to turn on an LCD projector that casts onto the barren cube in the wall. It’s a game the Bulls lost to the Cavaliers in overtime on October 31st, 2014.
There’s a large iron cast chair in the center of the room, positioned directly in front of the game being projected. It looks like it was constructed with femurs then covered in molten steel, every inch of it jagged, jutting out and presumably into a person trying to get comfortable in the seat.
I laugh nervously, “Big Game of Thrones fan?”
“What’s Game of Thrones?”
We sit in silence watching for a while. The Bulls fought valiantly. Seven players finished in double figures, a full team effort. They just didn’t have the horses on offense against a stacked Cavs team.
“Basketball, Abraham. A child’s game, and yet none of us truly understand it.”
“How so, coach?”
“We measure games in wins and losses. You score the most points and you win the game, and that’s all the perverts and sickos care about. That end result. That rote tally that suggests one team played better than the other team.”
“You lost me coach. What else is there?”
“Process, Abraham. Procedure. The game isn’t hard. You cut and move. You make the right pass. You take the open shot. The end result is nothing. It’s meaningless. The rotation of the Earth. The flap of a butterfly’s wings. God’s breath. These are the factors we don’t consider when a shot drops or clangs off the heel of a rim. It’s a sick and distinctly American understanding of the universe. All we poor and lost souls have to consider, all we can control is preparation. Playing the game the right way. Believing in the game. It’s my religion. I’ve dedicated my entire life to it. I’ve dedicated my celibacy to it. Do you have any idea what that level of dedication costs?”
“I blog about the Knicks for a hyperlocal website, so yes, I actually do.”
“Good. It costs me everything, and I don’t fucking care about wins or losses, I don’t care about franchise building, I don’t care about ‘the future.’ There’s only now. The next play. Making the right switch on defense, proper form, the fucking fundamentals. ‘Talent’ is a jape. It’s cheap. It’s empty. The province of rubes and assholes born on third and too stupid to know it. My lodestar, my God is the game, and nothing will ever change that.”
Thibs gets up from his iron throne. I can see stains on his back where he’s been cut by his chair. He takes off all his clothes and stands before me as a bloated right triangle. His back is an accursed latticework of gashes, birdsong graffiti made flesh. There’s a thick, black linen robe I hadn’t noticed on a hook near the door that he puts on, pulling its baggy hood over his thinning hair. He walks to his bookshelf and grabs Basketball and its Origins by James Naismith. The book is spring loaded, and when Thibs pulls it, a trap door opens in front of his film chair. A long series of thick and mossy stone steps descends into the darkness below. He looks at me with force and meaning and gestures to the basement, making it clear there will be consequences if I don’t comply, so I walk, too terrified and fascinated to look away, or try to run.
The subterranean basement is ancient, a catacomb older perhaps than the country it’s embedded in. It’s composed of giant un-grouted stones, impossibly high ceilings, a dungeon out of Tolkien. I get the sense that just beyond the darkness it goes on forever, tunnels that stretch the length of oceans and the Earth’s core, but what is in front of me is a corridor of bodies, dressed in robes like the one Thibs is wearing, in front of a great fireplace the height of a man. A fire is raging in the recess, an entire cord burning in it and I can feel its breath, hot and uncomfortable, from across the room and up the stairs.
Thibs is behind me, shadowing my footfalls with his own. Under the shale of what might be Axe body spray I can smell the stink of un-brushed teeth and unwashed armpits wafting off him. I pause when the great hall comes into view but he commands, “Walk” and I listen.
In front of the fireplace is a throne like the one Thibs was sitting in above and I can sense I’m meant to walk towards it. I pass the robed bodies on my walk and I recognize the faces: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, Mike Dunleavy, Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler. When I come to the back of the throne, I am seized by Deng and Noah, who lead me to the seat, sit me down, and secure my arms with leather straps as the chair pierces the fleshy parts of my back, and I marvel at how wildly uncomfortable it is. I look at the wall around the fire place, it’s covered in torture devices: A whip with a barbed tip, a cat o’ nine tails, a machete, a burlap sack, a heretic’s fork.
Thibs materializes in front of me as the robed disciples begin chanting in a dead language, perhaps Sanskrit or Aramaic or some other besotted black alien tongue. Thibs is carrying a clipboard and without ceremony, jams it into my mouth, between the teeth, forcing it open and creating a funnel. He grabs a gallon of bleach sitting next to the throne and tears it open, then begins pouring it down my throat. He has the same mad intensity and grim determination seared into the mind of every Knicks fan as he accosts a ref, whether up or down 20 in the third quarter of a preseason game, enraged by the carelessness, the laziness of humanity. I can see the reflection of the fire burning in the black vacuum of his eyes, and for the first and last time, I recognize the face of true madness.
My insides burn and I start convulsing and vomiting, but the bleach has done its terrible work. I can feel my internal organs shutting down, and the world begins to gray. I start moaning urgently and gesturing wildly, and Thibs removes the clipboard from my mouth. With my dying breath I say: “For the love of God, please bench Evan Fournier and start Quentin Grimes. Please give Obi Toppin an equitable split at the four and experiment with him as a small-ball five when possible. Please give us a little point-IQ, some dueling banjos with him and Jalen Brunson in a two-PG lineup, and please keep some minutes open for Isaiah Hartenstein.”
As I slip away from the living world, Thibs smiles. “I’ll think about it,” he says.