When he heard the accusation that notorious trash-talker Kevin Garnett had called Charlie Villanueva "a cancer survivor" during a game earlier this month, Tyson Chandler felt nothing but empathy -- for both players.
Over the years Chandler has berated opponents during games and felt awful for them afterward. "I remember running past guys in the tunnel after [games] and saying, 'I apologize, it's nothing personal, I'm just trying to win out there and please don't ever take anything that I do out there personal,'" said the Mavericks 28-year-old center.
One run-in with Portland center Joel Przybilla two seasons ago was especially disturbing. "I'd read that his grandmother was upset and said some things about me," said Chandler, who had been ejected and suspended one game for elbowing Przybilla in the neck. "So the next time I went up to him and I apologized for that whole situation and I said, 'My temper got the best of me, and let your grandmother know that I send my sincere apology.'"
The Mavs couldn't say nicer things about Chandler since they acquired him in a five-player deal last July that sent Erick Dampier to Charlotte, where he was waived two months later. (Dampier last week signed with Miami.) "[Tyson's] one of the best guys I've been around to have on a team, just as a team guy to support the guys," said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle. "He's always keeping everybody going. I think he's one of the more popular guys on our team. He's a tremendous person."
Carlisle credits the 7-foot-1 Chandler with helping to elevate the Mavs' defense from No. 12 in field-goal percentage last season (46.4 percent) to No. 4 so far this year (43.2 percent). Through Monday, Chandler is averaging a near double-double of 9.2 points and 8.9 rebounds -- a notable recovery after he missed 68 games over the past two seasons with foot injuries that ultimately rescinded his 2008-09 midseason trade from New Orleans to Oklahoma City.
After being dealt to the Mavericks last summer, Chandler helped the U.S. win a gold medal at the FIBA World Championship in Turkey even. Before and after practices he worked with Mavs athletic trainer Casey Smith -- who was also a trainer for Team USA -- to help him recover from his injuries.
Now that Chandler's back to playing 27.5 minutes a game, fans are especially surprised when they meet him. "I always get parents bringing their children up to me and afterward going, 'Wow, I really didn't expect that from you -- I was nervous about bringing my family,'" said Chandler. "And I'm like, 'Why, why would you be nervous?' They'll say, 'I just see you always frowned-up and snarling and screaming out there on the court.' I'm like, 'No, no, no, no, no, no! That's just competitive nature coming out.' I have children myself and I love people in general, so I'm a totally different person off the court."
Yet, Chandler's own family doesn't understand his temper. "A lot of times my grandmother has called me after the game,'' said Chandler. "Or I'll talk to my mom and she'll be like, 'You know you can read lips on the camera.'"
It's not the first time they've had this conversation. "I remember a game in junior high against one school that was stacked, and I was the only player on my team," he said. "They ended up beating us and I was just so frustrated because my teammates weren't at the same talent level as I was and couldn't help me win. So I went to the sideline after the game and I was screaming and I grabbed one of the chairs and then threw it on the floor. And then my mom came out of the stands and took me outside and said if I ever displayed terrible sportsmanship like that again she would never let me play this game."
That's why Chandler can see the recent dispute from the view of Garnett, who says his comment was misinterpreted by Villanueva, who has no hair on his body as a result of alopecia. "I love [KG], I love what he does," said Chandler. "I look at it this way: He gives you his heart and soul every single night out there, and if it takes him to pump himself up and do whatever he has to do, I'll take that rather than him collecting a check and not giving you a great effort. That's the other side of it -- the guys you feel like are not giving you as much as they can. So I'll take him screaming and talking and pumping his chest and doing whatever it takes you to do to give what you got. I've admired him and looked up to him before my career started."
Chandler has come to accept that bad behavior is the smoke that comes naturally with his fire. "I try to control my words and what I say out there," he said. "But I don't control my emotions because I feel like it's my passion, and I'm not going to hold it inside. I feel like its encouraging and uplifting to my teammates as well as the fans out there watching and knowing that I'm giving it everything I've got."
That means he must accept the consequences. "I think everybody thinks I'm pretty much of an [expletive]," he said. "Until they get an opportunity to spend some time with me and understand me."
Some teams feared that workaholic NBA assistant Tom Thibodeau would have trouble relating to players as a head coach. But now that Chicago has given him the opportunity to run his own team, the Bulls are off to a strong 9-6 start in the absence of power forward Carlos Boozer, who began practicing Monday with the team after suffering a broken right pinkie Oct. 2. The early signals couldn't be brighter, between Luol Deng bragging to the Chicago Tribune about the intensity of Thibodeau's hard practices while Joakim Noah is saying, "We're giving everything we have to try to win."
Thibodeau's preparation is winning them over quickly. He has worked for a number of strong-willed coaches -- Bill Musselman, Jeff Van Gundy and Doc Rivers, among them -- and worked with a horde of veteran stars at contending franchises in New York, Houston and Boston.
"When you have great teams and you see their commitment to success, they always wanted the same thing -- the discipline and the coaching," said Thibodeau. "The great players all want to be coached. I don't think they care about whether they played or didn't play. I think they want to trust that you're giving them a good plan that they feel they can be successful with. That's where you get your credibility in this league.
"A big part of it comes down to your communication with the players. Do they have the belief that you put the work in to give them that plan, and that the plan can work? Your credibility comes from the way you teach it, the way you commit to it and the way you can get everyone to buy into it."
During the preseason, I asked Thibodeau how much he sleeps per night, because he is known for arriving for work before dawn and leaving after dusk. He didn't want to answer the question because it plays into the notion that he's some kind of strategic wonk, when in fact he was able to convince stars like Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to play the best defense of their careers. "When you can get a whole group of coaches and players to commit to what you're trying to achieve," said Thibodeau, "then I think that's what creates a special atmosphere. That's what we're striving for."
The same defensive system that helped the Celtics reach two of the last three NBA Finals has now helped the Bulls achieve a No. 5 rank in field goal defense (43.7 percent). Their rotations figure to improve over the season, and yet, Thibodeau hasn't sacrificed the young Bulls' offensive potential: They are ninth in scoring at 101.6 points per game, and point guard Derrick Rose is No. 2 in scoring with 26.6 points to go with his 8.2 assists per game -- numbers worthy of MVP consideration.
Thibodeau looks like the right style for his new city. In October I attended the Bulls annual tipoff luncheon in Chicago, and when Thibodeau stood at the podium -- husky and raspy-voiced -- he looked and sounded more like Mike Ditka than a basketball coach.
"Every city is looking for the same thing," he said. "They're looking for a team that's going to play hard, they're looking for a team that's going to play smart and play together. I think every city can appreciate that." So far he's giving them what they want.
It's not the topic it used to be. "I don't know when it changed and when the tide turned," said Nets backup forward Joe Smith. "The young guys still show a lot of respect, but as far as the conversations about being the No. 1 pick, that doesn't come up."
Smith went No. 1 pick in the 1995 draft. He didn't know he was going first to the Warriors until he heard commissioner David Stern call his name instead of the next four choices -- Antonio McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace and Garnett. "It was a tossup, the No. 1 pick," said Smith. "We had so much talent in our draft, the No. 1 pick could have went to anybody. Probably that was better for us, better for the league, having that suspense of not knowing who's going to get picked. I think that's a good thing."
Smith initially was viewed as a disappointment, because he was more of a complementary player than a go-to star. In his fourth year he moved to the Timberwolves, who made excellent use of him alongside Garnett. Then they made the gross error of offering him an under-the-table promise of $86 million in circumvention of the salary cap. That move cost the franchise $3.5 million in fines and the loss of three first-round picks, while Smith was forced to sign with the Pistons for a year at $2.25 million before he returned to Minnesota for two more seasons.
He still refers to his time with Minnesota as the highlight of his career, while the ensuing years have further settled his image as a highly respected team player. "It's been 16 years, which everybody thinks might be long," said Smith. "But it went by so fast, it was so quick that I feel like I just got drafted last year. It's been a good experience for me being able to play for different teams and play with a lot of different guys and be respected by everybody I've been affiliated with."
Smith last watched the draft on TV two years ago and thought about how the No. 1 pick has inflated in importance. "It is definitely a bigger thing now than what it was when I got drafted," he said. "But that's expected, times change, the game has grown. Probably another 10 years and it will be even bigger. They'll be having parades after that, you never know. But it's a good thing to reward the guys.
"But it was still a big deal back then. It's something I'm proud of."