To Mike Thibault, the framed poster of Michael Jordan leaning against a wall in the corner of his office is “just stuff.” But anyone else that noticed the personalized message on it would likely view the souvenir as much more.
“Well, it was a gift from Michael,” Thibault said, almost sheepishly. “I mean basketball has made me meet people and taken me places I never dreamed of. My goal was to be a high school coach and an English teacher.”
Thibault, the new general manager and coach of the Washington Mystics, doesn’t often boast about being the director of scouting for the Chicago Bulls back in 1984 when they selected Jordan with the No. 3 overall pick, or the two NBA championship rings he won as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers. Only if asked will he note former UCLA great John Wooden was one of his mentors.
But this wealth of experience during a career that spans five decades has been the cause of optimism for a franchise that is on its 13th coach in 16 years and won just 11 games total the past two seasons. The Mystics (1-0) will play their home opener against the Atlanta Dream on Sunday afternoon, and after recent struggles, they have turned over basketball operations to a coaching lifer with a track record few in the WNBA can match.
“I don’t want to say free rein, but it gave me a freedom to not worry about protocol or what was done in the past, because whatever was done in the past couple years obviously wasn’t working,” Thibault said. “There’s a plan somewhat in place in my mind about how you go about things, because I’ve done it before. I can’t give you all of the specifics. I just know what it feels like.”
Thibault, 62, came to the women’s game 10 years ago after friends kept insisting he might enjoy a chance of pace. He had previously been a head coach in the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association and World Basketball League, and longed for another chance to lead a team. He knew that was unlikely to happen in the NBA.
So in 2003 Thibault became the first head coach of the Connecticut Sun, which had just moved to the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn., from Orlando. He proceeded to qualify for the WNBA playoffs eight times in 10 years, including last season, and took the Sun to the WNBA finals twice (2004 and 2005). He is currently the league’s winningest active coach.
Nonetheless, Thibault was fired this past offseason because of his inability to win a championship. When it happened, Marianne Stanley, a former Mystics head coach who served as an assistant under former coach Trudi Lacey the past two seasons, thought Washington “would have been crazy not to hire Mike.”
“Mike is a guy without pretentions. At this stage in his life, he knows exactly who he is and he doesn’t try to put on airs or anything,” said Stanley, who Thibault retained on staff. “You can see where we’re going. You can see where Mike is taking us.”
Just six months after being hired, Thibault’s fingerprints can already be seen throughout the organization, whether it be a roster that includes four rookies and only four holdovers from last year’s team, or more efficient practices that focus on details like where the ball should be inbounded after a basket.
“He knows what he wants and he lets us know what he wants,” forward Crystal Langhorne said. “There’s no indecisiveness with him.”
The players also appreciate the freedom he has allowed on offense — “He gives you an outline and you fill in the A, B, C and D,” forward Monique Currie said — and they marveled at the way he handled the huddle in crunch time when Washington opened the regular season with a 95-90 overtime win over Tulsa last Monday.
His everyday rapport and dry sense of humor have been a surprise after watching him yell on the opposing bench during his decade with Connecticut. Guard Matee Ajavon is still shocked Thibault told her right away, ‘You’re never gonna hear a coach say shoot as much as I’m gonna tell you to shoot the ball.’ ”
“He’s not really a ranter and raver. He’s not your typical, ‘Get on the line and run sprints,’” said Thibault’s son Eric, an assistant coach on his father’s staff this season. “But he’s gonna be stubborn. If you don’t play what he feels is the right way, it’s gonna be a struggle for you.”
Thibault said he has turned down at least four different positions in the NBA during his time as a women’s coach. He calls working in the WNBA “a sanity-keeping job” since it allowed him to spend more time around his family.
Aside from the signed Jordan poster and a bobblehead of Ray Allen that sits on his windowsill, most of his NBA memorabilia is in storage or locked in a safety deposit box. Langhorne, Currie and Ajavon all admitted last week they didn’t even know Thibault had coached players such as Jordan and Magic Johnson.
Thibault, it seems, is simply consumed with creating another winner in Washington.
“Good players and good coaches are always trying to prove that they’re capable of being the best,” he said. “I want to build a championship team. I don’t know how fast it’s gonna happen, but that’s the goal. I’m sure it’ll be in the back of my mind that, ‘Hey, [Connecticut] made a mistake.’ But that’s something long term at this point.”