CLEVELAND — The garage door was solid.
Fortunately for the Boylen brothers, it did have a slight give to it. At least enough to catapult someone back onto the court, just in time for another brotherly elbow to be delivered.
That was the price of beating the opponent to the rim at the Boylen house in East Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“When I got to about 15, 16, [years old] we couldn’t finish a one-on-one game because it would end in a fistfight . . . with either brother,” Bulls coach Jim Boylen said with a laugh, staring out of the car window at a group of houses off a Cleveland highway. “Fouls didn’t exist. The rule was you could take the guy out on a layup, so if you beat your brother with some good footwork, he’d chase you down and run you into the boards.
“That’s just how we played.”
Not just basketball, either.
Boylen’s older brothers, Bobby and Freddy, were tough guys and good athletes, but more important, as real as it gets with their younger brother.
“Embracing contact was just something that was instilled in me at an early age and something I’ve always valued,” Boylen said. “Not everybody grows up that way. Sometimes that can hurt you, because what you have to realize in these [coaching] jobs is not everyone is like you. Not everybody grows up like you. Not everyone has one parent or two parents. -Everyone is a little different.
“What I’ve learned is the way you think isn’t the way everyone else thinks. I think in some ways I’ve done a good job in trying to understand this generation and support them but also coach them.”
There’s very little outside the Advocate Center that irks Boylen. He has heard it all from the media, TV and radio talk shows — locally and nationally — and, of course, fans since taking over the head-coaching job from Fred Hoiberg in December.
“Meathead,” “tough guy” and “over the top” labels are just noise to Boylen. But the term “old-school’’ still rankles him, even confuses him a bit.
“Since when did working hard and caring about the city become old-school?” Boylen said. “If it is, then we have a serious problem. This is important to people, fans, and it needs to be important to our players. It has to be.
“Look, you can’t [b.s.] NBA players, and you can’t fool your kids. You have to be honest and direct with both. There are no secret shortcuts to success. I know this is a business. I know there’s financial reward involved. But the secret sauce of it is you’ve got to care about your players and teammates, you’ve got to care about the franchise and I believe that it all comes back to you.
“All these pieces we have to put together, it’s all about building something, building a family and a unit. It has to be that way.”
Boylen takes a lot of pride in being a father to his daughters, Ashlen, 14, and Layla, 13. And he isn’t embarrassed about being like a father figure for his players.
Why would an NBA coach waste energy in that department? That’s what happens when you grow up with a father who was “inconsistent’’ in filling out that duty.
“My parents divorced, my dad was inconsistent as a father,” Boylen said straight-forward. “That’s affected a lot for me. I’m very cognizant of what an absentee father is to guys, and what I try to be is not be that. That means be there, be honest, be direct like a real father. That’s why I’ll go visit guys in the offseason and things like that. That was an early lesson to me of how that could make you feel and why that’s so important for me to not be that way.’’
For good reason. With a father in and out of his life, Boylen also went through his share of hardships.
“We had times of money and times of none, times when things were good and times when things were tight,” Boylen said. “I’ve been in both of those things. I’ve had moments in my life when turkey has been dropped off at the front door for Thanksgiving because we didn’t have one, and I’ve had times when we were fine. That’s just what happens in a divorced family sometimes.”
What Boylen, 54, did have was his mother and two brothers.
Freddy is four years older and Bobby two.
“They took care of me at times in my life emotionally, financially, spiritually,” Boylen said. “Very competitive people. Very physically tough, both of them, which I think helped me. Very supportive and very real. They were able to have the tough conversations with you when you were being a knucklehead and you needed an older brother to tell you something. They filled a big void, and I was blessed to have them.”
The relationship always has resonated with Boylen.
So, yes, there is emotion in his eyes when he talks about his daughters and praises the way his wife, Christine, has taken the lead in raising them while he has been chasing that NBA coaching dream. He takes pride in the fact that the lessons he was taught have been passed along to his girls.
“My wife does such a great job with them,” Boylen said. “In these professions when you travel and you’re gone, there’s a perception that your kids are somewhat neglected, when in reality I don’t choose anything over them but working. I don’t play cards, I don’t smoke cigars, I don’t go play golf, I don’t hunt, I don’t fish, I don’t go on a boys trip. I don’t do it. I’m working, or I’m with them. When I’m working, they can see you on TV working.
“They get it. They get the business.’’
“Make your feelings known, be direct, be truthful.”
Words that Boylen lives by.
Maybe that’s why he seldom walks quietly into a room. And he seldom walks quietly into a new job.
Watching Boylen on the sideline during a game, it often looks like he’s one bad decision away from running onto the court and defending an opposing player himself.
He’s animated, he’s loud and he’s passionate.
So when he took over from the laid-back Hoiberg, of course there was pushback in the locker room. Not from a lot of the players, but enough that it was considered a small mutiny before cooler heads prevailed.
Boylen wanted a conditioned team, one that went back to square one to re-learn the fundamentals it seemed to be ignoring. The country club was closing up.
That meant long practices, suicide sprints and more long practices.
“I tried to execute what Fred’s vision was as an assistant,” Boylen said. “That’s what I’ve done, and that’s why I’ve been hired six times. I’m good at that. Now it was my opportunity, and I felt we needed to take more ownership of the team and individually of how it operated. Take more ownership of the passion of the city of this team. It’s got to mean more to us. When things aren’t going well for you, you don’t work less. You work your way out of it, you focus more. For you to be able to do that, it’s gotta mean something to you.”
For you to be able to do that, it’s gotta mean something to you.”
But not everyone was buying what Boylen was selling.
Guard Zach LaVine eventually fell in line and now insists he has a great relationship with Boylen, but veteran Jabari Parker quickly checked out.
The former Simeon standout eventually was traded in February, but not before Boylen said he at least tried to reach out to Parker. Tried making him part of his new “family.”
“What I’ve learned is you can’t reach everybody,” Boylen said, never mentioning Parker by name. “I tried, spent a lot of time with him, told him the truth. You try and get them to understand that some of their behavior, some of the things they do hasn’t worked for them at their last couple stops, so the direct, honest approach . . . people in general don’t always get what they need to hear from anybody. I think it’s important, and I think we’re going to have to answer someday, did you tell those guys the truth or did you let them just be them without helping them?
“With family, there are times you will have those uncomfortable moments, but there’s an understood love. When you have a guy that comes in that doesn’t know you, you’re trying to accelerate that trust process that what I’m saying is what you need to hear, and not just I’m saying it because I’m the damn head coach. That’s why I put the time in, the video sessions with Zach and Lauri [Markkanen], the travel to see these guys, the moments in the office and the meal room. They matter.’’
The start to this season has been a disaster in the standings for the Bulls. Yes, it’s early, but 2-4 out of the gate with losses to Charlotte, New York and Cleveland was not supposed to happen.
Not when the front office was talking playoffs on media day.
Boylen is confident that it will turn around. Maybe he’s right, but the current mix of players is not jelling like it was expected to.
The coach isn’t flinching.
He knows his approach is different, but according to Boylen, the league is different, so coaches have to keep that in mind. Maybe that’s why the term “old-school’’ bothers him so much.
“We have 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds that I think the approach has to be different,” Boylen said. “With the way the contracts work now and the age of our players, you’re coaching a guy that is paid like he’s an established guy, but he’s not yet. He knows it, we know it, but the public perception is he is this, that and this. We all know that’s not true. So the job of a head coach in the NBA has changed over the years because the age in the league has dropped.
“Now if you’ve got four or five of those guys, which we do, there’s a lot going on. It’s not an excuse. That’s what the job is. So now you come back to family. We’ve got young guys that are away from their family or away from their college team, had a one-year, one-semester experience in college, where I think there’s some developmental holes or things that need to be filled in by the coaching staff. Why have our staffs gotten bigger around the league? Why have the demands on the head coach become bigger? Because we’ve gone from 13 players to 17, and we’ve gone with younger players. We need more eyes on guys.
“Hey, we have player-people in place to help guys with driver’s license, passports . . . you know why? Because they need help getting that stuff done. Going to buy a car, figuring life out. My staff has to understand that we are in the service industry. My staff has to be family.”
Veteran forward Thaddeus Young has seen his share of different teams and definitely his share of different coaches. He has known Boylen for a long time. He gets his coach’s “family” mentality and feels like if the makeup of the team is right, it has staying power.
“It could, but it definitely comes down to what guys you’re dealing with,” Young said. “We have a big thing that we say is ‘Know your personnel,’ K.Y.P — we always put that in the scouting reports. Know your personnel, know who you guard, how to guard them.
“But most of all, when I use K.Y.P. in this situation, it’s about know how you have to deal with people. You might not need somebody to be a father figure. You may not need somebody to be your brother. You might just need somebody to be there. For me, I have a father figure in my life, so with Jim, it’s more along the lines of player-coach relationship and building that brotherhood and that family off of that.
“Look, Jim is tough, definitely, but at the end of the day, he’s adjusting, and it’s an adjustment period for all of us. Jim holds everybody accountable, which [is] exactly what this team needs. That won’t change, and we’ll continue to do all we can to buy in.”
Which is all Boylen is asking from his players.
Buy in, take that leap of faith.
Pass or fail, Boylen can look back and at least say, yeah, maybe he tried something a bit unorthodox, but he took his shot and took it his way.
“I stand by the idea that you don’t reach people by being a [b.s.] guy,” Boylen said. “How many guys have gotten the job in midseason and kept it like I did? I wasn’t going to wake up 10 years from now and say, ‘Man, I could have been head coach of the Bulls, but I was too scared to do what I thought was right and fight for the things that I believed in.’ I wasn’t going to wake up and do that, no matter what happens.
“It’s not tough talk or anything like that. It’s just me. I won’t apologize for that.”
Not all garage doors have give to them.