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Mike Thibault: The social justice and WNBA champion D.C. needed

Had Mike Thibault walked away from coaching after his time in Connecticut, he still would be a WNBA legend. Yet, he went on to become the winningest head coach in league history, came to embody what it means to be a Washingtonian, and oh yeah, got that monkey off his back.

WNBA Finals Portraits
Mike Thibault (middle) with Elena Delle Donne (left) and Emma Meesseman (right) after the Washington Mystics’ 2019 WNBA championship.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

When Mike Thibault was hired by the Washington Mystics in December of 2012, he was not worried about his legacy as a WNBA coach.

“I was comfortable with what I had done in Connecticut,” he said during a Dec. 18th conference call. “If that was the last day I ever coached in the WNBA, I was fine with what I had accomplished. Obviously I want to win a championship. That was the only thing I felt didn’t happen and clearly Connecticut thought it was the only thing that didn’t happen. But I would have been ok with that. I would have moved on to do some other things.”

When Thibault addressed the media on Wednesday after announcing his retirement from coaching — though not from being the Mystics’ general manager — he, still, wasn’t concerned with his legacy, at least not when it came to winning and losing.

“I’ve never cared whether I got known as the winningest coach,” he said. “What I would like is for our own players to feel like when they’ve walked away from this, they are better players and better adults, better human beings for being a part of this experience. I think that’s a major part for me. It’s part of our culture, we talk about it with our team constantly — about being great teammates and learning to become great leaders on their own.

“I think the other part of it for me, because I’ve been in the league for 20 years, I would like to think that over the course of 20 years, I’ve somehow helped grow the league and women’s basketball by what we’ve done, by whatever example we’ve been able to set. (That) it advanced the game. I think that the league in general has grown up a lot and I would like to think that I had a part in that somehow and be remembered for that.

“At the end of the day, you don’t remember the wins and losses. You remember all the people that you came in contact with. I was talking with some other coaches in the league and some former coaches the last two days. And we were all commenting on, you know, it’s a tight-knit league, you got 12 teams and we’re fierce competitors on the court and we all want to be good. But we’ve been able to forge great relationships with some of the people that are our biggest competitors. And that’s part of life. I mean, we play a kid’s game and we get paid for it and we should remember that it’s fun.

“I enjoy the journey part a lot. I really have. I like the camaraderie of our staff going out for dinner the night before a game on the road. I like sitting down with coaches that I’ve just competed against or I’m going to compete against and just talking about the game and where we are. That part for me is still special. And it’s probably what I’ll take away from this game as much as anything else.”

Thus, Thibault’s son, Eric, the next head coach of the Mystics, wasn’t misplacing praise when he said of his dad, “More than anything else, I’d like to handle myself with the type of class he’s shown for 55 years.”

Thibault said it in 2012 and he said it in 2022: it was never about personal accomplishments or attention for him.

And, the day after Eric opened his introductory press conference by bringing attention to Brittney Griner’s wrongful detainment in Russia, it’s only right that we point out the way Mike wholeheartedly embraced the responsibility of being the head coach of the professional women’s basketball team in the nation’s capital during a time when seeing things as bigger than basketball was of the utmost importance.

Perhaps most notably, we all saw him give Ariel Atkins and Myisha Hines-Allen the space they needed to make the bold decision to rally the rest of the WNBA to sit out in protest of the Jacob Blake shooting in 2020. Afterward, he praised the pair for rising to the occasion, saying, “I think that their passion for what we’re trying to accomplish has served them and our team well. It’s nice to see younger players learn to have a voice and I’m proud of them for that.”

The Mystics have been at the forefront of the social justice movement beyond just that moment and Thibault has had his fingerprints all over that, which you can see from some of his tweets.

It’s this type of involvement in social justice that has endeared Thibault to a D.C. community that is made up of many people who live there for a reason: they care about change. They have embraced him as one of their own and he has embraced the city. The fact that he was content with calling it a career before ever coaching a single game for the Mystics, leads to a “what if” question that is rendered irrelevant by 10 years and counting of what is a part of D.C. sports lore.

In his first year in Washington, 2013, Thibault led a 12-game turnaround and became the winningest coach in WNBA history with a July 6th victory over the Seattle Storm at what was then called the Verizon Center and is now Capital One Arena, home of the Washington Wizards.

Thibault will forever be linked to Emma Meesseman, who was a 20-year-old rookie in 2013, played seven seasons under Thibault, went to the All-Star Game in 2015 and won Finals MVP in 2019. A homecoming caused Thibault to also forever be linked to all-time great Elena Delle Donne. That the two-time MVP is from Delaware led her to request a trade to D.C. and the rest is history.

With Delle Donne, Meesseman, Cloud, Atkins, Kristi Toliver and others leading the way, the Mystics won the 2019 WNBA championship, defeating Thibault’s former team, the Connecticut Sun, in five games. Thibault was given the Peyton Manning-John Elway-Kevin Garnett-Tamika Catchings treatment in the years leading up to the title — he was one of the greatest without a ring the game had ever seen. He finally got the monkey off his back and completed his rebuild of the Mystics.

Thibault also went to the Finals in 2018 with the Mystics and in 2004 and 2005 with the Sun. He went to the semifinals in nearly half of his 20 years as a WNBA head coach (eight times) and made the playoffs 16 times. In the 2020 wubble, he took a team that was missing Delle Donne, Tina Charles, Cloud and LaToya Sanders to the playoffs. Another key player in Aerial Powers missed all but six games. In 2022, Thibault led a great bounce-back season, making the playoffs one final time and putting his team in a position to contend for a championship — they were one of five teams considered to be in the top tier, but fell to the Storm in a very competitive first-round series.

It’s amazing people don’t talk about it more, but Thibault was the director of scouting for the Chicago Bulls when they drafted Michael Jordan. He was an assistant coach for the Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks, as well as the Los Angeles Lakers, the team with which he got his start and won two NBA championships. He was also the head coach of the Calgary 88s of the World Basketball League in 1988 and the Omaha Racers of the Continental Basketball Association from 1989 to 1997.

On Wednesday, Eric mentioned that he’s had a “front-row seat” for all of his dad’s coaching from Omaha on, including the time with the Bucks from 1998 to 2002, as well as the 20 years in the WNBA. It was expected that Eric would take over the head coaching position for the Mystics when Mike decided to retire.

“If it was anybody that I felt should be the head coach of this team after I left, I would be proud,” Thibault said. “But it’s a little bit more special, to be honest, to watch your own son coach a team. Because he’s grown up in pro basketball for a long period of time, both when I was in the NBA, and in the old CBA and in the W. And I think I’m excited because he’s had an experience as a coach growing up that a lot of people don’t get in the sense that he’s got to see it from different angles.

“He’s been a player, he’s been an assistant coach, he’s been in college, he’s been at this level, he’s been around NBA guys when he was growing up. And so, his life’s experiences as a coach are certainly way ahead of where I was at the same time. And I was a young coach in the NBA, but I was nowhere near as knowledgeable as he is today. And I think that’s an exciting thing for me. You know, I said this and I mean this in all sincereness: he is a way-better coach right now than I was at the same time. And I think that should be exciting for our players, for our fans — that we have a chance to continue something special here and even keep getting better.”

Eric, age 35, also believes he is ready to be a WNBA head coach and offered some thoughts about what the team will be like with him at the helm.

“I think we’ve always tried to build a culture here based around respect and unselfishness,” E. Thibault said. “We have an identity, probably when we’ve been at our best, about sharing the ball and moving the ball, spacing the floor, playing with great energy and everybody being really connected on the defensive end. We have a situation where we were the best offensive team in the league a few years ago and this past year we were the best defensive team. And now we’re just gonna try to find a little bit more balance as we go forward.

“We need to play a little bit faster, we know that. We need to be a little bit better in transition, in our early offense. So we’re gonna try to play with a little bit more pace. I don’t know that we’re gonna suddenly be the fastest team in the league. But we’re gonna play with a little bit more pace, we’re gonna get back to having great spacing and sharing the ball, and try to keep some of that defensive edge that we’ve found more recently and really hang our hat on that end of the floor as well. So just a brand around being unselfish, sharing the ball, shooting the ball and being really tough to play against every night.”

Eric also made a point to tell people to stop asking his dad if he’s going to start golfing more. Thibault is still going to be very much a part of the Mystics, as he continues his GM job, something he is very good at. His legacy in the nation’s capital continues.