Mystics coach Mike Thibault closes in on elusive title in WNBA Finals

Elena Delle Donne considers Mike Thibault as family and a hall of fame coach. "To be on the team that could bring him a championship would mean so much," she said. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Mike Thibault looks like the ultimate basketball professor on the sidelines. But as a California teen in the late 1960s, he had a different aspiration.

"I thought, 'I'm going to go to college and be a rock 'n' roll star,'" Thibault said, chuckling, after a recent Washington Mystics practice. "Music was my other love."

Saturday, Thibault turns 69 years old, and Sunday, his Mystics host the Connecticut Sun, his previous team, in Game 1 (ESPN, 3 p.m. ET) of the WNBA Finals. The one-time drummer and trombonist has made a successful life in basketball, and both his children have followed him into coaching.

"He's been doing this for more than 50 years now," his wife, Nanci, said. "Can you believe it?"

It's been an eventful journey for Thibault, who grew up dealing with an extended family tragedy, got into coaching somewhat by happenstance, had a part in two famous NBA dynasties, and ended up becoming one of the most successful coaches and biggest advocates for pro women's basketball. This is his fourth trip to the WNBA Finals, and he's seeking his first title.

"I love that guy; he's family," Mystics star and 2019 MVP Elena Delle Donne said. "To be on the team that could bring him a championship would mean so much."

Thibault said he wants the title for the longtime Mystics fans, who've seen some lean years, and his players for how well they've bought into everything he's asked of them.

"If we win it, I'll probably feel a little more complete as a WNBA coach, but I don't think it's vindication one way or another," Thibault said. "I'm not going to let myself be defined by winning a championship. I'm going to judge myself on why I got into this in the first place, and that's to teach and watch people grow on the court and off the court."

Thibault learned perspective early. The oldest of nine children, he lost five siblings to cystic fibrosis, either as children or young adults. None of them lived past age 21.

"I don't know if it was a coping mechanism, but you say, 'That's just how life is,'" Thibault said of dealing with the disease. "I didn't think it was fair to my parents or to my siblings. But I grew up with the fact that this is just part of life."

Nanci, a retired registered nurse, said Thibault has a lot of empathy, but tends to be stoic and composed.

"For them to go through what they went through, but still have such a strong family bond, I give his mom and dad a lot of credit," she said. "I don't know how much of the tragedy of it all that Mike processed when he was young. To him, it was just the way things were."

Nanci recalled a story told by one of Thibault's sisters who didn't have the disease and would help Mike and their parents do treatments, such as pounding on their siblings' backs to loosen the congestion in their lungs. Thibault used his passion for drumming to do this, putting on music and pounding to the beat.

"It was Mike's way of taking something difficult and trying to make it more fun," Nanci said.

Choosing to coach

Thibault's work ethic kicked in early, as he got multiple part-time jobs as soon as he was old enough to help with family expenses. He also loved sports. A self-described mediocre basketball player, he'd been cut as a high school junior, but was expected to see playing time as a senior. Then he tore ligaments in his ankle just before the season started.

His coach saw him moping a bit, and asked if he'd like to coach a freshman team to lift his spirits. Thibault did that, but went to college as a music major. Then he was asked to coach another high school team.

"I was trying to do both: play night-time band gigs and also coach," he said. "I was in two totally insecure professions; neither of them has any job security. But I decided I was more in love with coaching."

Between that, doing other odd jobs and switching colleges -- he ended up at St. Martin's in Lacey, Washington -- Thibault developed his basketball philosophy. He worked at legendary UCLA coach John Wooden's camps, and watched how Wooden approached athletes, no matter how great their stature.

"It always seemed to me that the coaches who were the most honest with their players had the best results," Thibault said. "I will tell every team I've ever coached: You're not always going to like what I say, but I'll always tell you the truth."

Nanci laughs as she says you should never ask Mike his opinion if you aren't prepared to hear it. He doesn't sugarcoat anything.

At the same time, Thibault said, "What I've gotten better at as I've gone along is reading when a player needed a kick versus a pat on the back."

Thibault worked with the Los Angeles Lakers during part of the "Showtime" years in the early 1980s, and then was on the Chicago Bulls staff that drafted Michael Jordan. Maybe most crucial, though, were his eight years as coach and general manager of the Omaha, Nebraska, franchise of the Continental Basketball Association.

"It was the first time on a pro level where every decision had to be mine," Thibault said. "I learned that what you thought was going to happen might not, because life changes quickly. You have to go with the flow and adapt. That's where I really learned how to coach."

WNBA a perfect fit

After a stint back in the NBA, with the Milwaukee Bucks, Thibault got a job offer to coach the WNBA's Portland Fire. As he and his family were preparing to move, the Fire folded. But another WNBA expansion team, the Orlando Miracle, was moving to Connecticut.

He got that job, and so began a 10-season stay that included two trips to the WNBA Finals. The Sun made it in 2004 as a young team, and Thibault didn't think they were ready to win. They were ready in 2005, but then point guard Lindsay Whalen was injured in the playoffs.

The playoff trip that ended his Sun career came in 2012, when Connecticut had a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals, but lost to Tamika Catchings-led Indiana. Connecticut let Thibault go, which was one of the best things that ever happened to the Mystics.

"It was actually a breath of fresh air," Thibault said of the move. "The situation in Connecticut had played itself out. This was a chance to build kind of from scratch."

The Mystics have made the playoffs six of Thibault's seven seasons. Last year, they advanced to the WNBA Finals for the first time, where they lost to the Seattle Storm. This year, the Mystics had the league's best record (26-8) and Delle Donne won her second MVP. Delle Donne insisted on a trade to Washington from Chicago before the 2017 season to be closer to her family in Delaware, and her presence, along with Thibault's coaching, transformed the Mystics into contenders.

It is a family business; son Eric Thibault is one of Mike's assistants, daughter Carly Thibault-DuDonis is an assistant to Whalen at the University of Minnesota, and Carly's husband, Blake DuDonis, is head coach at Wisconsin-River Falls.

Thibault sees the move to the WNBA as the best decision of his career. The summertime season gave him more time with Eric and Carly growing up. He feels he's making a difference in a league that has benefitted from his strategic knowledge and his advocacy.

"The coolest thing about him," Delle Donne said, "is he's a hall of famer coach, but each year he's trying to learn more."

And he still has his love of music. During the Mystics' trip to Las Vegas for the WNBA semifinals, he caught Santana in concert. He sold his drum kit when the family moved from Connecticut, but Thibault recently got a gift from Eric: studio time with drums.

Thibault thinks back to another memory of his youth in California, when he participated in a 2 a.m. jam session with Jefferson Airplane, playing trombone, at a music festival in Santa Clara.

"That was my rock 'n' roll highlight," Thibault said.

His basketball highlight might be coming up soon.