At Thibault family get-togethers, the conversation will inevitably turn to basketball. Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault joked that his wife Nanci, though an athlete in her high school days, “feels like she’s the lone wolf in the whole thing.”
For the winningest coach in WNBA history, the coaching profession became a family affair. Thibault’s daughter Carly Thibault-DuDonis and her husband Blake DuDonis both coach at the collegiate level, and son Eric Thibault has served on his father’s staff for all seven seasons he’s spent in Washington.
“There’s always a game on, there’s always some discussion,” Eric Thibault said. “We all have other interests, we all like other things, but I think it always kind of ends up coming back around to basketball.”
Like most players on Washington’s roster, the father and son are setting out to capture their first WNBA championship. The No. 1 seed Mystics off their latest playoff run Tuesday when they host the Las Vegas Aces in Game 1 of the league semifinals. If they succeed, Eric Thibault will have played a vital role.
Last winter, the Mystics elevated the younger Thibault, 32, from assistant to associate coach, but his family and Washington’s players aren’t the only ones who see his value and potential. Mike Thibault told The Washington Times that another WNBA team offered his son a head coaching job.
“He’s clearly ready to be a head coach,” the elder Thibault said. “That’s why we made him an associate coach. That’s why he turned down another head coaching job in this league in the last year, because I think eventually he’s the obvious heir apparent when I give this up. I don’t know when that will be.”
Eric Thibault smiled as he said of his soon-to-be 69-year-old dad, “He’s gonna coach for 15 more years, anyway, no matter what he says.”
The younger Thibault went to the University of Missouri to study journalism, but he missed the sense of team that sports provided and basketball called him back. Throughout his college summers, Thibault helped his dad with scouting and individual workouts when he coached the Connecticut Sun.
“He grasped things early on as a little kid,” Mike Thibault said. “He has a great feel for players and how to talk to certain players and get through to certain players, and he’s a great teacher. You don’t have to be a great player to be able to teach the things that are important. He just had that knack.”
When the Mystics hired his father. Mike asked himself a tough question: Will a father-son collaboration work?
“I kind of debated and I asked some of my players in Connecticut who he had been around,” Mike Thibault sad. “Kara Lawson, Asjha Jones … They said I would be crazy if I didn’t hire him. They respected him and they were all older than him. I thought that was a great endorsement of their respect for his knowledge and his demeanor.”
The Thibaults and the rest of the staff now face the task of getting the Mystics ready for a healthy and dangerous Aces team in the semifinals. Though the chance for his first WNBA title hangs in the balance, Mike Thibault said he feels the same as he does any day during the season.
“The job of a good coach is to be a steady influence for your team,” he said. “They need to know that what I’m doing is putting them in their best position to win. That’s the trust factor that they have with each other and with me.
“We built up to this, and here we are.”