- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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People can't always guess what summit their paths might lead them to scaling. Suffice it to say that if 20 years ago, you'd told Mike Thibault that he'd become the winningest coach in a pro women's basketball league, he would have given you that bemused Thibault look.
Not contemptuous. Not incredulous. More like, "Hmm, how is that going to happen?"
There was no such league then in the United States. In 1993, Thibault was already a career basketball guy on the pro side, having started as a scout with the Lakers in the late 1970s.
Over the next two decades-plus, he worked in the NBA, the World Basketball League, the Continental Basketball Association and with USA Basketball.
He knew about coaching in regard to the greatest talents -- the likes of Magic, Kareem, Jordan -- and every playing level on the hierarchy below legends. He understood finding talent that wasn't as obvious, making budgets work, selling the sport when you didn't have superstars.
He also learned to roll with the punches, if you will. Sometimes, even if you did your job well, you got replaced. He figured out how not to take that personally, how to avoid burning bridges. He was good at moving on when the time came.
When he made the jump to the WNBA in 2003, things in women's hoops were very different then than they had been in '93. But he still couldn't have known that this was to become the signature job of his career.
On Saturday with Washington's 62-59 win over Seattle, Thibault passed Van Chancellor for the most coaching victories in the WNBA, with 212. On Wednesday, he'll go for 213 against Chicago with the same businesslike precision that's his trademark.
Thibault is a numbers guy, with a basketball mind that has been molded by instinct, experience, and the fact that it isn't closed. Some coaches really don't evolve much; they stick with what has worked. Others have long-established systems, but are always open to the thought that maybe there's something they could tweak.
But Thibault is also, deep down, a caring person who respects athletes regardless of gender. He has coached and gone against many of the best male and female basketball players of the last four decades.
And it has been during Thibault's 11 years in the WNBA that the job of "pro women's basketball coach" has been more specifically defined in the United States.
There had been some short-lived attempts at women's pro basketball in this country, and there were pro leagues overseas. But when the WNBA launched, the job of pro women's basketball coach was still being defined and refined.
Chancellor -- like many of the coaches when the ABL began in 1996 (lasting two full seasons) and the WNBA started in 1997 -- spent much of his career coaching women's college basketball.
The coaching ranks in the WNBA were made up of two types of people. There were those who had always worked with women athletes, but had never (or very rarely) worked with professional athletes. Conversely, there were those who'd never coached women athletes (or sometimes hadn't coached at all), but were themselves former professional players who'd worked with fellow pros.
Merging "women's basketball" with "professionals" with "viable U.S.-based league" meant that a new breed of coach needed to develop. Thibault has been a big part of setting the standard for what that entails.
You can't treat pros like they're college kids, which is a problem some longtime college coaches have had when trying to transition to the WNBA. You have to understand that the reality of pro women's basketball is a nearly year-round commitment for players to maximize income, and thus you must deal with their fatigue and injury situations accordingly.
Being a WNBA coach also means needing to have a lot of very specific player-personnel knowledge; many of them have dual titles as general managers, or at least partake in some of those duties.
Thibault didn't have the GM tag during his 10 seasons in Connecticut, but he was heavily involved in all player-personnel decisions. His background in scouting and in managing so many aspects of his CBA team in Omaha, Neb., really helped make him a quick study in transitioning to women's basketball. He was able to evaluate talent and make long-term and short-term decisions even when he was still new to the women's side of the game.
Thibault won a CBA title as a head coach, and his goal remains winning a WNBA championship -- something that always seemed possible in Connecticut but just didn't happen.
The Sun went to the WNBA Finals in 2004 and '05, and made the playoffs in eight of Thibault's 10 seasons there. After finishing first in the Eastern Conference last season, the Sun fell to a destiny-propelled Indiana team in the East finals. The Sun's management decided a new voice was needed. Thibault didn't want to leave, but he'd been through these things before, and departed on good terms.
There was a perfect landing spot: Washington, a franchise that has been cursed not just by taking wrong turns, but also by not following the course after making correct moves.
In D.C., Thibault has gotten the chance to build almost from the ground up again. With a combined 11 wins in the two previous seasons, the Mystics were starved simply to feel again that things weren't hopeless.
Career victories 211, to tie the record, and 212, to break it, were more a relief than celebration to Thibault, because they meant the end of a five-game losing skid. No. 212 got the Mystics back to a .500 record. Right in the thick of trying to return the Mystics to being a playoff team, Thibault isn't going to take out much time to reflect on career numbers.
But it is a good time for us to appreciate what he has contributed to this league, and by extension to women's basketball in the United States, including with USA Basketball. There have been hits and misses in the WNBA when it come to bringing aboard coaches who'd spent all or most of their careers in men's basketball.
Thibault, by any measure, has been one of the biggest hits.
12dBonnie D. Ford