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The succession plan for the Mystics is looking like a father-son affair

The plan down the road for the Washington Mystics is for Mike Thibault to hand head coaching duties to his son, Eric, once he retires. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Eric Thibault is 33. He is 34. The article has been corrected.

Mike Thibault wanted his son to become a writer. The winningest coach in WNBA history got about 30 pages into Eric’s thesis and truly believed his baby boy had a future with the written word.

“I’m going: ‘Why the hell does he want to coach? He’s such a good writer,’ ” Mike said. “Then I got to about 60 pages in it, and he had written it so well about basketball that I said, ‘No, I get why he wants to coach.’ His writing was good enough to convince me, just reading it, that he loved the game. So I stopped trying to talk him out of it.”

Trying to talk his kids out of coaching may be the biggest failure of Thibault’s life. Eric is the associate head coach on Mike’s Washington Mystics staff, and Mike’s daughter, Carly Thibault-DuDonis, coaches the Fairfield University women’s team. The kids never really had a chance.

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Eric, 34, is in line to be the Mystics’ coach when Mike decides to step down. The plan is for Mike, 71, to retain general manager duties as Eric slides over to the first chair. Mike reevaluates his situation after every season and doesn’t seem eager to walk away, but Eric has passed on other opportunities in anticipation of taking over one day.

The job isn’t guaranteed to be Eric’s, but Mystics ownership has always trusted Mike’s decision-making.

“What’s most interesting is that players tell you when a coach is doing a good job or not doing a good job,” owner Ted Leonsis said. “We believe in Mike so much, he’ll have a big voice and say in what we do. Mike wouldn’t put the wrong person in. We have to approve as ownership, but Mike is tending to the team and is involved in every part of what we do. Eric is playing a bigger and bigger role, obviously. But we really trust and believe in Mike, and he’ll let us know when the time is, who the succession should be and why. And then we would stress test that. But it’s not the royal family.”

Mike and Nanci Thibault met through basketball when he was coaching before he had graduated from Saint Martin’s University in Washington state. The rest of their lives have revolved around the game: Mike won two NBA championships as an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers, was a Chicago Bulls assistant in the early Michael Jordan years and had stints in the World Basketball League and the Continental Basketball Association before returning to the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks. His WNBA career began in 2003 with the Connecticut Sun.

Eric came along in 1987 and was born a basketball junkie.

The parents used flashlights so Eric could script and mimic the Bulls’ introductions, going through every player, including high-fives. He was drawing up plays as a child, with each ending in a Jordan dunk. By high school, Nanci was bribing Eric to get out of bed with the promise of being able to watch “SportsCenter” during breakfast.

“It was the best idea I ever had as a mom,” Nanci said.

The game was intertwined with their lives to the point that Eric took ESPN analyst (and former NBA player) Tim Legler to elementary school one day and was paid by former Bucks center Ervin Johnson to run errands. Nanci chuckled and said young Eric thought Legler was his best friend and came to the house just to see him. While many college students spend their summers running amok, Eric hurried back to Connecticut to work with the Sun — and eventually write that paper about its 2009 season.

“I was just trying to avoid doing a research thesis,” Eric said with a laugh.

Mike had a difficult decision to make as he took over the Mystics in 2013. The newly hired coach and general manager was constructing his staff and wanted to bring his son along. But would players older than Eric respect him as a coach or believe nepotism was at play?

Thibault turned to a few former Connecticut players to get their thoughts.

“I’m like, ‘Why would he not?’ ” said Asjha Jones, a two-time all-star and an Olympic gold medalist. “He would be in drills. He was there all the time. So we kind of saw how he worked. And you trusted him. He was there every day, so you knew he knew what he was talking about. And he’s dedicated his life to this sport. So he knew things already that it takes people years to kind of home in on and develop.”

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Mystics players offer that same line of thinking. Eric, who was named associate head coach four years ago, runs practice as much as Mike, if not more, and is hands-on — participating in drills, running full-court five-on-five and doing one-on-one development with every player. He takes part in three-point contests and spends pregame with a laptop on the sideline going over video with players. Twice this season, Eric had to coach regular season games because Mike was unavailable.

Elena Delle Donne raves about Eric’s knowledge of X’s and O’s. Myisha Hines-Allen points to his passion, leadership and intelligence. Las Vegas Aces forward Theresa Plaisance, a coach’s kid herself, noted the sophisticated way he sees the game and said Eric sees things two or three steps ahead of the players.

“He does a really great job of establishing himself as Eric and not Coach Thibault’s son,” said Plaisance, who played for the Mystics in 2021.

This is a transformative period in the Thibaults’ lives. Carly is about to start her first season as a head coach. Mike and Eric are trying to maximize a championship window — the playoffs begin next week — that featured a Finals trip in 2018 and a title in 2019, but Mike doesn’t want to leave the cupboard bare when he departs. And Eric recently found out he’ll be a first-time father in January.

There’s a balance between being present and preparing for a future that gets closer every day, but there’s no rush for Eric.

“The last thing the world needs is Mike Thibault thinking he left too soon,” Eric joked, then said in all seriousness: “It would be selfish of me to be like: ‘Oh, yeah, I think about that all the time. But everybody else stay in your role, do your role.’ I’ve got to do my role for this team first and foremost. I’ve had a lot of support and indications that I’ll hopefully be able to be here for a while, and we’re treated very well. So that’s it. That’s pretty simple to me. I like my life in D.C.”

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The years have gone about as well as could be expected as Mike was able to tutor Eric along the way. They shared the 2019 championship after Eric was offered another WNBA job beforehand. They don’t hesitate to challenge each other, and there are days when Eric may decline a dinner invitation from Nanci after spending all day with his dad.

But basketball is the family business for the Thibaults, and it has been good for four decades.

“When they decided to start working together, it was a family decision really,” Nanci said. “And mine was, ‘If it starts to wear our family life out, this isn’t going to happen, because that’s what’s important.’ And they have done amazingly well.

“I mean, that’s a hard thing to do. I’ve never had to say, ‘Okay, you guys can’t do this anymore.’ Not once. . . . It hasn’t gone without its fireworks, but it has gone well.”