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Tom Thibodeau's bond with Joakim Noah a precursor to what he's brought to Knicks

Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah listens to head

Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah listens to head coach Tom Thibodeau during the second half of an NBA game against the Houston Rockets in Chicago on March 13, 2014. Credit: AP/Nam Y. Huh

For Tom Thibodeau, culture is everything. Shots will come and go, but having the right guys who play the game the right way, players who work without reservation, is how you build a team.

In New York, he has that in the group that overachieved last season, and the Knicks carefully brought in players who he and the front office believed would fit with the work put in last season. And in his first stop as a head coach with the Chicago Bulls he had it thanks to a group of players who set a standard — and still remain by his side even now.

As the Knicks take their 3-1 record on the road to Chicago to face the unbeaten Bulls Thursday night it isn’t just a homecoming for Thibodeau, a chance to perform on the stage where he made his reputation. Thibodeau, along with longtime allies Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, will be on hand to honor another member of that first group of Bulls that were a precursor to what the Knicks are doing now.

The Bulls will hold "Joakim Noah Night" Thursday and while Knicks fans may cringe at recalling the brief and troubled run Noah had in New York late in his career, Thibodeau points to Noah as one of the pieces that set a tone that follows through to this day in his coaching.

"I’m thrilled for him," Thibodeau said. "He’s a special guy, had an incredible career. When you go to war with somebody like that, that team was special. Unfortunately, Derrick got injured, but that team fought. To continue to make the playoffs, one year [Noah] finished third or fourth in MVP voting, We had a great group of guys. That team resonated with the city and Joakim was the heart and soul of that team.

"The beauty of his game was his effort and his heart. His passing was incredible. He got the absolute most out of his ability. What I’m saying to you I’m sure [Bulls coach] Billy Donovan [who coached Noah in college] would say the same from his time at Florida. I fought with him, I loved him, fought with him."

It is no coincidence that the Knicks see veterans Rose and Gibson as leaders along with Julius Randle and even third-year pro RJ Barrett, all advocates for what Thibodeau expects of his players. It is not unlike what Donovan has done in Chicago, lifting and developing pieces in place like Zach LaVine while surrounding him with outside talent that fits in DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso.

The group of players that Thibodeau had in Chicago have trailed him as a part of his history. Rose and Gibson played for him again in Minnesota and joined him in New York and are still key pieces to what Thibodeau’s team is doing. There were others — Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler and even Aaron Brooks, who is on the Knicks' coaching staff now.

Noah was a key, a defensive force who served as a prototypical point center, orchestrating the offense with his passing ability and an effective if ugly set shot. He left the Bulls to sign with the Knicks during the Phil Jackson era but was plagued by injuries and controversies.

"He’s a dear friend now," Thibodeau said. "That may be the best part of coaching is the afterlife when there’s an appreciation for each other. My first year there we worked out every day all summer. So yeah, it was a lot of fun.

"Taj and Derrick and Joakim were like brothers, They were about as close as you possibly could be. I’m thrilled the Bulls are honoring Joakim because he really connected with that city. He’s a special person. He’s done a lot in the community just like he has here in New York. He cares about people. I’m thrilled for him. It’s a well-deserved honor. That team played with so much heart every night. And when you play like that you’re going to connect with the fans. The fans there are great basketball fans, a great sports town. I’m just thrilled for him and his family."

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