“So I stopped trying to talk him out of it.”
Trying to talk his kids out of coaching just may be the biggest failure of Thibault’s life. Eric serves as associate head coach on Mike’s Washington Mystics staff and his daughter, Carly Thibault-DuDonis, is the head coach of the Fairfield University women’s basketball team. The kids never really had a chance.
Eric, 34, is in line to be the head coach when Mike eventually decides to step away. The plan is for Mike to retain his general manager duties while Eric slides over to the first chair. Mike reevaluates his situation after every season and doesn’t seem eager to walk away, but Eric has passed on other opportunities in anticipation of taking over one day.
The job isn’t guaranteed to be Eric’s, but ownership has always trusted in Mike’s decision-making.
“What’s most interesting is that players tell you when a coach is doing a good job or not doing a good job,” owner Ted Leonsis said. “We believe in Mike so much, he’ll have a big voice and say in what we do. Mike wouldn’t put the wrong person in.
“We have to approve as ownership. But Mike is tending to the team and is involved in every part of what we do. Eric is playing a bigger and bigger role, obviously. But we really trust and believe in Mike, and he’ll let us know when the time is, who the succession should be and why. And then we would stress test that. But it’s not the royal family.”
Mike and Nanci Thibault met through basketball when he was coaching before he had graduated from St. Martin’s University. The rest of their lives have revolved around the game as Mike won two NBA championships as an assistant with the Lakers, was a Bulls’ assistant in the early Michael Jordan years, had stints in the WBL and CBA before returning to the NBA with the Bucks. His WNBA career began in 2003 with the Connecticut Sun. Eric came along in 1987 and was born a basketball junkie.
The two parents used flashlights so Eric could script and mimic the Bulls introductions, going through every player with high-fives and all. He was drawing up plays as a child with each ending in a Jordan dunk. By high school, Nanci was bribing Eric to get out of bed with the promise of being able to watch “SportsCenter” during breakfast.
“It was the best idea I ever had as a mom, I felt,” Nanci said.
The game was completely intertwined with their lives to the point where Eric took ESPN analyst and former NBA player Tim Legler to elementary school one day and was paid by former Bucks center Ervin Johnson to run errands. Nanci chuckled and said young Eric thought Legler was his best friend and came to the house specifically to see him. While many college students spend their summers running amok, Eric hurried back to Connecticut to work with the Sun — and eventually write that paper about its 2009 season.
“I was just trying to avoid doing a research thesis,” Eric said with a laugh.
Mike had a difficult decision to make as he took over the Mystics. The newly hired coach and general manager was constructing his staff and wanted to bring his 23-year-old son along. But would players older than Eric respect him as a coach or believe that nepotism was at play?
Thibault turned to a couple former players with Connecticut, where Eric would help while still in college, to get their thoughts.
“I’m like, why would he not?” said Asjha Jones, a two-time all-star and Olympic gold medalist. “He would be in drills. He was there all the time. So we kind of saw how we worked. And you trusted him.
“He was there every day, so you knew he knew what he was talking about. And he’s dedicated his life to this sport. So he knew things already that it takes people years to kind of hone in on and develop.”
That’s the same line of thinking from Mystics players. Eric, who was named associate head coach four years ago, runs practices as much as Mike, if not more, and is especially hands on — participating in drills, running full-court five-on-five and doing one-on-one development with every player. He takes part in three-point shooting contests and spends pregame with a laptop on the sideline going over film with players. Twice this season, Eric had to coach regular season games with Mike unavailable.
Elena Delle Donne raves about Eric’s knowledge of X’s and O’s. Myisha Hines-Allen points to his passion, leadership and intelligence. Las Vegas Aces forward Theresa Plaisance, a coach’s kid herself, noted the sophisticated way he sees the game and said Eric sees things two and three steps ahead of the players.
“I think he does a really great job of establishing himself as Eric and not coach Thibault’s son,” said Plaisance, a Mystic in 2021.
This is a transformative period in the Thibaults’ lives. Carly is about to start her first season as a head coach. Mike and Eric are trying to maximize a championship window, as the playoffs begin next week, that started with a Finals trip in 2018 and a title in 2019. Mike, however, doesn’t want to leave the cupboard bare when he departs. Eric recently found out he’ll be a first-time father in January.
There’s a balance between being present and preparing for a future that gets closer and closer every day, but there’s no rush for Eric.
“The last thing the world needs is Mike Thibault thinking he left too soon,” Eric joked and then said in all seriousness, “It would be selfish of me to be like, ‘Oh yeah, I think about that all the time. But everybody else stay in your role, do your role.’ I’ve got to do my role for this for this team first and foremost.
“I’ve had a lot of support and indications that I’ll hopefully be able to be here for a while. And we’re treated very well. So that’s it. That’s pretty simple to me. I like my life in D.C.”
The years have gone about as well as could be expected as Mike was able to tutor Eric along the way. They were able to share the 2019 championship together after Eric was offered another WNBA job beforehand. The pair don’t hesitate to challenge each other, and there are days when Eric may decline a dinner invitation from Nanci after spending all day with dad.
But basketball is the family business for the Thibaults, and it has been good for four decades.
“When they decided to start working together, it was a family decision, really,” Nanci said. “And mine was, if it starts to wear our family life out, this isn’t going to happen. Because that’s what’s important. And they have done amazingly well.
“I mean, that’s a hard thing to do. I’ve never had to say, okay, you guys can’t do this anymore. Not once. … It hasn’t gone without its fireworks, but it has gone well.”