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Stevenson's Brunson savors bonds with Rose, Thibodeau

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Derrick Rose called it “unreal.” Tom Thibodeau opted for “surreal.”

However you term it, the fact one is a teammate and one is the coach of Jalen Brunson is wild, given their shared pasts.

Rose represented the shooting star Brunson one day hoped to be as Brunson grew up in the Chicago suburbs while Rose delivered his high-flying, most valuable player-winning exploits for their hometown Bulls.

Thibodeau’s connection runs deeper, way back to Salem, Mass., where he first encountered Jalen’s father, Rick, as a high school player on Thibodeau’s return visits to the town where he began his coaching odyssey at Salem State.

Thibodeau later coached Rick in the NBA as a New York Knicks assistant coach for Jeff Van Gundy and then hired Rick as an assistant coach when he landed the Bulls’ head coaching job in 2010.

And now Rick works again on Thibodeau’s staff after the Knicks signed Jalen in 2022 free agency to be their $100 million man and face of the franchise.

“You never know,” Thibodeau reflected Wednesday night, on the night Jalen’s heroics helped sink the Bulls in overtime. “Jalen was 5 or 6 years old and he’d come in the locker room. We’d all get a kick out of him because he’d imitate the players on the team. And then just to watch the way he has grown and all the things he has experienced.”

Most of those experiences center around winning. It’s what Jalen does.

Brunson won a state championship at Stevenson High School four years after Rose captured his MVP award for the Bulls. He then won two NCAA championships in his three seasons at Villanova. He also earned MVP honors for the 2015 FIBA Under-19 World Cup gold medal-winning team, coached by one Billy Donovan.

“Jalen is a terrific player,” Donovan said. “The one thing I felt about him as a young high school player is he always had a great, competitive mindset. Winning is a high priority for him. Competing is a high priority for him. And he was always able to figure out what he could to do to impact the group.”

That’s the thing: Brunson’s ascension from second-round pick to star with the Dallas Mavericks happened as he played alongside Luka Dončić. Brunson began showing his lead capabilities during Dončić's injuries but then also showed an ability to play alongside Dončić.

Now, he’s being hailed as the missing piece for a major market team that faces media scrutiny like few others.

“From the moment we signed him, all the things he does, coming into the gym every day all summer, the way he works, the way he takes care of his body, the type of teammate he is, he has shown leadership,” Thibodeau said. “If we win, he’s happy whether he scores or doesn’t score. That’s always been first and foremost with him, winning. He enjoys his teammates having success.

"The best leadership you can have is what a player does in all aspects. How does he practice? How does he conduct himself in a team meeting? He’s the ultimate team player.”

That’s what Jalen said his parents would drill into him as they raised him. Be willing to be coached. Be respectful of coaching and be a good teammate, someone other players want to play with.

“And he is,” Rose said. “He’s a total pro.”

Added Thibodeau: “I think his parents have done an unbelievable job with him. Rick has played for an incredible amount of Hall of Fame coaches. A byproduct of that is the way Rick has taught Jalen the game. And to Jalen’s credit, the way Jalen wanted to be coached. He was a sponge and he was like that from 5, 6 years old. Rick has taken the best from the best and given it all to him. I don’t want to overlook the contribution his Mom has made. It’s the total package.

“He’s a great person and a great player and he’s made himself into that. He has worked extremely hard for everything he has gotten. He has earned it all. He’s an incredible person and a great leader.”

Jalen’s mother, Sandra, played volleyball at Temple University, where she met Rick, one of the stars for the late John Chaney alongside Eddie Jones and Aaron McKie. Rick then fashioned a journeyman NBA career that lasted nine years out of sheer will and work. He didn’t sign a guaranteed contract until his last.

“I’d watch him work when I was young and I didn’t really understand why he was working so hard,” Jalen said of Rick. “And then I got to the age where I wanted to know what I needed to do to get to this level. And I’d think about what he would do, and it made sense.”

Plenty is making sense for Brunson these days. He gets warmed up by Rick for his pregame shooting routine and even can walk to the team bus afterward with him if he wants. On that team bus, he can sit next to Rose if he so chooses or break down the game with Thibodeau, who’s always up for a basketball chat.

“The relationships have been amazing,” Jalen said. “Derrick has been a mentor. I talk to him every day. He tells me to lead every day. It’s special.

“With Tom and joining the Knicks, I knew what I was signing up for, but I don’t really think about pressure or anything. I’m just comfortable.

“Everywhere you go, there’s an adjustment. In Dallas, I had to adjust to how Luka played and I feel I was pretty successful in that role. And now this is a different role. It’s all about how you’re willing to be coached and putting yourself in positions to succeed. Because winning is all that matters.”

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