Jalen Brunson and the father-coach connection that brought a long-sought star point guard to New ...

ByNick Friedell ESPN logo
Sunday, April 23, 2023

IT'S MARCH 31 and the revitalized New York Knicks are in Cleveland to face the equally upstart Cavaliers. The stakes are high. New York, at 44-33, sits four games behind the Cavs in fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings. But tonight's showdown offers more than just another checkmark at the end of a long 82-game schedule. The Knicks, who at this point have already won two of three over the Cavs this season, have a chance to send another message to the team they are expected to face in the first round of the playoffs a few weeks from now.

Inside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, the crowd rumbles with anticipation.

The game doesn't disappoint, a relentless back-and-forth featuring a Knicks team playing without All-Star forward Julius Randle. At the center of it all are two explosive, dynamic guards -- Donovan Mitchell and ... former 2018 second-round pickJalen Brunson.

The 26-year-old, a revelation in his first season in New York, scores a career-high 48 points and leads the Knicks to a rousing 130-116 win. It's a performance so impressive even the stoic curmudgeon Tom Thibodeau has no choice but to crack a grin.

Minutes after the buzzer, Brunson stands in the middle of a crowded hallway in the bowels of the arena as chipper Knicks personnel prepare the bus for the trip to the airport. Wearing a bracelet adorned with his favorite mantra, he smiles, too.

On the surface, the two have formed the unlikeliest of partnerships -- an old-school, defense-first coach with a small, offense-first point guard. But the pair knows the basketball truth -- that their paths were destined to cross.

"I think being around him for a long time, knowing the trust that my dad has in him, I've been around it," Brunson told ESPN. "I've been around his philosophies for a long time, so I guess I'm used to it. I've seen it from afar -- he's going to push me no matter if I have 48 [points] or four. "

Thibodeau, now in his third season as the Knicks' coach, spent more than 20 years as an NBA assistant before getting his first chance to be a head coach with the Chicago Bulls in 2010. One of Thibodeau's first moves was to hire Rick Brunson, Jalen's father, to be a Bulls assistant.

Twelve years later, the trio was reunited, when, after Rick Brunson had rejoined Thibodeau's staff in New York, Jalen Brunson inked a four-year, $104 million deal with the Knicks.

Thibodeau knew immediately he had found the right player to lead his team.

"There's a lot of fake stuff in our league, let's be honest," Thibodeau said. "People say all the right things and do none of them ... Jalen's just the opposite. Immediately, soon as he was signed, he came into the gym and started working out. Middle of the summer. By the end of the week we got five people there. The end of the second week we got 10 people there. And he's not one of those guys saying, 'Hey, come in, do this, do this.' He's coming in, and he's actually doing the work."

To those closest to Jalen Brunson, that wasn't a surprise. The mantra he abides by, the one that rarely leaves his left wrist, is one that has defined his family's basketball life. It has been passed down from generation to generation. It's the same one Thibodeau originally instilled in Rick Brunson when he joined the Knicks as a player in 1998.

"The magic is in the work."

THIBODEAU HAS THE memory of an elephant. He doesn't forget the important characters who have defined his career. He remembers stories from decades ago that have shaped his place in the game. He remembers slights, large and small, that have motivated him along the way.

Dressed in his usual gray Knicks pullover before a recent game, Thibodeau can only chuckle when he thinks about the first time he met Jalen Brunson. Rick's son, as he was known then, just 5 or 6 years old at the time, would come into the Knicks locker room after games, imitating then-Knicks stars such as Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell. Thibodeau, who originally worked as an assistant with the Knicks from 1996-2003, knew that the young boy had made an impression within a veteran Knicks locker room.

"You have no idea that he's going to end up being a pro or anything like that, but it was uncanny," Thibodeau said. "Everyone would just crack up. He had all their footwork down, jab steps, everything.

"'Do Allan Houston,' boom, boom, boom. 'Do Latrell,' boom, boom, boom. So a lot of fun. He'd come in, he'd down the L for Larry Johnson. He's just a great kid. And then you saw how much he loved the game. Rick would bring him to practice once in a while in the summers. He was in the gym all the time, and he was a sponge."

Thibodeau credits Jalen's development to both Rick and Brunson's mother, Sandra. But both the Knicks coach and his star point guard are quick to note the younger Brunson's rise within the game is due, at least in part, to growing up around the NBA world.

Rick Brunson had been out of league for three seasons when Thibodeau brought him on board in Chicago -- at the same time another young point guard was beginning to make his mark on the NBA.

Derrick Rose had already been Rookie of the Year and an All-Star before Thibodeau's arrival, but he blossomed into the league's MVP in Thibodeau's first season.

"I think there was great comfort in obviously his father being here, but also knowing Derrick [Rose]," Thibodeau said of Jalen Brunson's decision to come to New Yorkin June 2022. "Derrick was his mentor coming up."

Rose and many other Bulls players embraced the young Jalen, with many of them showing up to watch him as he grew his game at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois.

Almost 15 years after they first met, Rose, now a backup point guard for Thibodeau's Knicks, still serves as a sounding board as Jalen, 26, enters his NBA prime.

"That's someone who I idolized growing up," Brunson said of Rose, "Seeing what he's done as a player and talking with him all the time, just boosts my confidence."

Said Rose: "It's funny how everything comes full circle. Me being able to watch him ever since he was younger, seeing the progression every year, seeing how dedicated he is every year, seeing how he listened. I'm not surprised how he's playing right now because of how serious he's taking [everything], how professional he is with everything."

And the 65-year-old Thibodeau sees how the lessons have trickled down.

"The way they connect with people, their teammates, their humility, that is all the same," Thibodeau said. "[Brunson] ... brings the best out of people. And that's the challenge of being a great player in this league."

THE FIRST TIMEJalen Brunson remembers hearing the phrase was in high school. Any time there was a story with a perceived slight in it, with potential limitations about his game, his parents made sure he didn't miss it. And the slight was always accompanied by six words.

"They had it on the wall, in my mirror when I woke up," he said. "They had it in my lunch bag for school. They just made sure I saw that quote."

The magic is in the work.

The quote is so tied to him now that when you do a Google search for "the magic is in the work," Jalen Brunson's website is the first result. Rick jokes that Thibodeau owes him royalties every time he uses the phrase.

"It's really the truth," Thibodeau said. "There's no shortcuts to this. Your actions reflect your priorities. And so when you come in, in the middle of the summer after you just signed a big contract, and the most important thing to you is every day being in that gym, that says a lot to me."

And even if the Knicks' recruitment of Brunson famously began too soon, violating NBA tampering bylaws, Thibodeau acknowledges now that it wasn't exactly a tough sell.

"There was comfort in knowing each other," he said. "And it wasn't just me. [Team president] Leon Rose has known him his whole life, and I think the comfort of knowing we had guys here that were familiar with him, and he also had a great understanding of the system. So I think it was an easy pitch."

Said Jalen: "He was selling me on how he is as a coach, what we can do for me as a player. I'm sitting here looking at him like, 'I feel like I've heard this before.' Everything that he was saying, it was like deja vu."

The overriding message went back to the mantra that has defined the careers of both men: putting in the work.

That work ethic has led to a career year from Jalen, who averaged 24 points and 6.2 assists per game this season while shooting a career-high 41.6% from 3. He has been even better in the clutch (defined by the NBA as the last five minutes of a game in which the score is within five points), where he has made 47 shots this season -- third most in the league behind Sacramento's De'Aaron Fox (72) and Chicago's DeMar DeRozan (49) and Miami's Jimmy Butler (48), per NBA.com and ESPN Stats & Information.

"He embodies what a Knick should be: tough, smart, hard-nosed, competitive, and obviously he's got great talent," Thibodeau said. "You can't do what he's doing without great talent, but when you combine all those other intangibles to it, you have a terrific player."

You also have a Thibodeau player.

"He's pushing me every single day," Jalen said. "I kid you not. It doesn't matter what I have, it's always, [he] wants more, wants more. I wouldn't want it any other way."

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