As the faces of Sue Bird, Candace Parker, Lindsay Whalen, Tamika Catchings and Sylvia Fowles filled the video board at Capital One Arena on Friday night, Mike Thibault hardly looked up, trying to focus on the game at hand while some of the WNBA’s most accomplished players wished him heartfelt congratulations.
Friday night was a twofer for the man who doubles as the Washington Mystics’ coach and general manager. Not only did his team defeat the Chicago Sky, 88-72, but Thibault got to celebrate a milestone he reached last Saturday in a win at Los Angeles, when he became the first WNBA coach to record 300 regular season wins.
“I didn’t even know until I walked through the door in L.A. and I was getting doused,” Thibault said this week of the moment his team sprayed him with water — not champagne — because that’s what it had handy on the road.
A bit more planning went into Friday night’s celebration. Reaching 300 wins is quite an achievement, especially considering the WNBA’s short seasons, so the Mystics gave Thibault a signed game ball and put together a pregame video featuring messages from his current players, his family and those women’s basketball icons, all of whom he coached with the Connecticut Sun or Washington or worked with through USA Basketball.
“You’ve done so much for the game of basketball,” Diana Taurasi said.
“I owe you so much,” Tina Charles said, smiling.
Last week’s win was significant not just because it marked a milestone. Toppling teams such as the 2016 WNBA champion Sparks and the 2017 WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx, as the Mystics did this season, shows they can hang with the best in the league. That win spoke to what Thibault has built in Washington 16 seasons into a WNBA career that has largely been spent constructing teams from scratch.
“D.C. was kind of up and down for years, but since he’s gotten here, I think the organization has changed for the better,” Mystics forward Monique Currie said. “We just have more of a winning mentality than we did in the past.”
Thibault made a name for himself with the Sun. He had come to the league in 2003 after more than two decades as a coach and scout in the NBA, World Basketball League and Continental Basketball Association. He was hired in Connecticut to refurbish a team that had just relocated from Orlando and needed an identity. It also had never won more than 16 games.
The 67-year-old said he remembers his first news conference, where reporters stared, dumbfounded, when he said his expectation was to compete for league titles. He remembers later that night, sitting alone in the arena in February at 10 p.m. It was dawning on him that it wasn’t just an identity that the Sun lacked; with two months before training camp, it didn’t have uniforms. It didn’t have basketballs. And he barely knew any of his players.
“I said out loud, literally, ‘What the [expletive] did I just do?’ ” Thibault said, all but censoring himself by lowering his voice. “I’ve left the NBA to go do this as an experiment. I thought at the time, ‘Eh, this might be three, four years; we’ll see how it goes.’ ”
He stayed in Connecticut for a decade, taking the Sun to eight playoff appearances and two trips to the WNBA finals. Along the way, he cemented his reputation as one of the better eyes for talent in the league. Thibault had sharpened those skills in the NBA — the Chicago Bulls drafted Michael Jordan and Charles Oakley while he was their director of player personnel — and he brought stars to the Sun as well. Thibault drafted Whalen out of Minnesota in 2004 and Charles out of the University of Connecticut in 2010.
Along the way, he established himself as a player’s coach.
“He is the kind of coach that puts players in positions to be successful. If you’re good at one thing, he’ll make a way for you to be able to get shots from that,” Currie said. “He has a reputation with players around the league who’ve played for him. They enjoy it.”
Thibault became the third-fastest coach in WNBA history to reach 100 wins (in 159 games) and just the second to reach 200 wins, but he never brought the Sun a championship. After the 2012 season, Connecticut fired Thibault, and he found himself in Washington, with a new team to turn around.
The Mystics had basketballs, at least, but they were coming off a 5-29 record and had missed out on nabbing Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner in the 2013 draft.
“I remember thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into again?’ ” Thibault said. “But it’s been fun building this. This has been the fun part, watching the team go from 5-29 with apathetic fans to trying to revive the whole thing.”
In Thibault’s five years in Washington, the Mystics have gone to the playoffs four times. He orchestrated trades to get Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver to stack the Mystics with enough talent to make a run at the finals. He picked up a third coach of the year award after his inaugural season.
On Friday, the Mystics (13-8) showed championship-caliber talent, for flashes.
Thibault has packed Washington’s roster with shooters, and Chicago (7-14) couldn’t keep up with the Mystics’ four starters in double figures. That included rookie guard Ariel Atkins (a career-high 25 points) and Delle Donne (25 of her own), who is four away from 3,000 career points. If anything, the Mystics should have won by a larger margin; they led by 22 at one point but had 14 turnovers, many of which came late.
The crowd of 5,858 applauded Thibault afterward, just as it did when he was honored before the game.
“I know people want it to mean a lot to me,” Thibault said, “but if I’m being honest, there’s only one thing that I want: a WNBA championship before I get done with all of this.”
Still, he took a moment Friday, after being handed the game ball and before getting back to work, to turn to the crowd, smile and wave — and admire everything that he had built.