After the Chicago Bulls sent you to scout Michael Jordan at North Carolina, after you’ve won a championship with Magic-and-Kareem’s Lakers on Pat Riley’s staff and gone to the Eastern Conference finals with Ray Allen and George Karl — after a multitude of successes and stops as an NBA lifer — why?
Why give up the relative security of a career assistant in the world’s greatest basketball league to coach in the WNBA, where Mike Thibault’s career forked almost 11 years ago?
“People had been tellin’ me for two or three years, you might want to try the WNBA if you want to be a head coach,” Thibault (pronounced TEE-Bo) said earlier this week.
Sitting on a folding chair inside the practice facility the Washington Mystics share with the Wizards at Verizon Center, he peered through his wire-rimmed spectacles and added, “I was never an NBA head coach. I would’ve liked to have been. At that point , I wasn’t an ex-player in the NBA. And most of the times, that’s the story: You get the job because one of your friends gets fired and you move up. I just didn’t . . . . I wasn’t going to wait forever for that to happen.”
Thibault is in his first year as coach and general manager of the Mystics, who were 11-57 in the two years prior to his arrival. On Thursday night, they won their first playoff game in nine years, thumping Atlanta on the road with just one casualty: Their 5-foot-something, 62-year-old, follicle-challenged coach tweaked his knee during the game and could be seen limping noticeably across the court at game’s end. The fear is an MCL tear. He’s due for an MRI, but here’s guessing Thibault’s availability for Game 2 is more than probable.
The league, this team — he’s never envisioned it as a last-ditch stop on the circuit.
“I want to be here,” said Thibault, who became the WNBA’s leader in career coaching wins this past July. “I get up every day and I enjoy coaching here.”
On Saturday, Thibault will be named WNBA coach of the year.
He ended up in Washington because the Connecticut Sun got tired of only the most successful coach in team history. Beginning in 2003, he took the Sun to two WNBA Finals, barely missing a championship when Nykesha Sales missed a close-out shot against the Seattle Storm in 2004.
Deciding to go young and rebuild in 2010, Connecticut went from 17-17 to 21-13 to 25-9 in just three seasons. But after losing in the conference finals, the Sun bid its longtime coach adieu — kind of like Andy Reid in Philadelphia (well, if Reid had the second-youngest team in the league, the second-best record and the second-lowest payroll.)
“They said, ‘We want to go in a new direction,’ ” Thibault recalled from his firing last November. “Then I said the only smart-ass thing I think I’ve said in any [job situation]. I said, ‘Besides up?’ ”
Thibault instantly became a balm for the team’s fans, many of whom were still aching over getting the No. 4 selection in the WNBA draft whose top three players were Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins and Elena Delle Donne, the rookie of the year with the Chicago Sky who has lit up the league. The Mystics had the best chance of securing the No. 1 pick, which made Thibault closely resemble Rick Pitino in Boston when the Celtics didn’t get Tim Duncan.
“Obviously you want one of those top picks, but we got a great player,” Thibault said of Ohio State guard Tayler Hill, who has averaged almost 22 minutes per game and been a great addition to Washington. “The challenge now is finding that next player that can put you over the top.”
Good thing Thibault does reclamation projects well.
He once collected a paycheck from Jack Kent Cooke, while with the Lakers as a part-time scout in the late 1970s. He then became an assistant under Riley during the 1982 championship run and left when the Bulls doubled his salary to become director of player personnel, where he ensured Jordan was taken No. 3 and Charles Oakley and John Paxson were also brought in to turn around Chicago.
“Funny thing is, the year we got Oakley, Karl Malone started sliding in the draft,” Thibault said. “I wanted to take Karl Malone. And [former Bulls General Manager] Jerry Krause said no because he didn’t come for his interview. I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”
Oakley was taken ninth by the Bulls while Malone went No. 13 to Utah.
“Malone was thought to go in the first eight picks, so he didn’t do interviews with the rest of the teams. But can you imagine if Jordan and Malone played together? They passed on him.”
Do people in Chicago know this?
“Now they do.”
Thibault’s disenchantment with the NBA came to a head when George Karl dismissed his Milwaukee assistants after four years. Considering several other assistant jobs at the time, Thibault listened to his daughter, Carly, who just finished her senior season at Monmouth University.
“She was about 8 or 9 and she said, ‘Dad, you know, women need good coaches too,’” he recalled. He talked to NBA friends who made the WNBA leap, including Ronnie Rothstein and Richie Adubato.
“When Connecticut called in 2003, I said, ‘Okay,’ thinking I would do this a couple of years. And I love it. I just do. I’ve had four opportunities to go back to the NBA as an assistant, but I like what I’m doing.
“Sometimes you’re meant to do certain things in life,” Thibault added. “Maybe helping grow this game and seeing young women athletes get better, maybe that’s what I was meant to do.”
He hasn’t ruled out the NBA again forever, admitting that he misses charter flights that return home the same night as the game. And as good as seeing Tamika Catchings, Diana Taurasi, Lisa Leslie and Lauren Jackson up close has been, Thibault can’t recall a better game he has been a part of than Jordan’s 63-point playoff game against the Celtics.
Still, on Saturday night, a stop-and-pop little point guard will dish to a nice post player who seven years ago helped Maryland to a national title. Ivory Latta will find Crystal Langhorne inside, Kia Vaughn most likely will hit some big shots down the stretch, and the Mystics will attempt to win a postseason series for the first time in 11 years.
And if it happens, their head coach, who has no career regrets, will celebrate just as much as he did when Magic and Kareem won it all three decades ago.
“People say, ‘When are you going to retire?’ ” Thibault said. “What the hell for? I’d drive my wife crazy. I love D.C. The Wizards are getting better, the Caps are good, the Nats are better . . .”
Thanks to Thibault, his staff and that team, for a change the Mystics aren’t bad either.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.