Mike Thibault talks about his career, his family and Emma Meesseman

After 18 years as a head coach in WNBA, Mike Thibault is the winningest amongst them in the regular season. Last year, he achieved the final goal by winning a championship with the Washington Mystics.

Between two Zoom calls, he’s been kind enough to talk a bit with us about the lockdown, his life as a coach, his long and successful career, and of course Emma “EmmVP” Meesseman.

Swish Swish is a french speaking media but we like to share some of our interviews in English. They can be found here.

First of all, I hope you’re doing well in these unusual times. I dont know if you’re still fully locked down in Washington ?

Well, I’ve been able to go out and exercise every day, go down to the National Hall for a walk with my wife. That has been our time “out”. Otherwise, it’s a lot of time indoors, in our appartment, so it’s been a long stretch of months, just like everybody else.

Do the players have access to the facilities ?

It has started just about 10 days ago (+/- 15 juin). We were a little bit behind the NBA partly because half our league is owned by NBA teams and half are not and we had to make sure that everybody in our league was up to speed on all the medical protocoles that are required going into workout.

So the players have access but on a very limitated basis. They come in. They can do one on one workout with one coach who can rebound and pass. The coach is wearing mask, gloves. Everyday when the players come in, they go to a temperature check and they have an all special designated space to get their shoes on and it’s very, very controlled. We do a cleaning between each set of players who come in. So it’s not like just walking accross the street, going in the gym and just start shooting. It’s very strict about what we’re doing to try to keep everybody safe.

I suppose, as a coach, it’s very different as well. How did you manage to prepare the team ?

Mostly by Zoom calls. We talked to all our players since it’s started. We do daily medical checks with our players and with our trainers just to make sure everybody is feeling good. Every one of our coaches tries to text or call our players at least once a week and then we have weekly zoom calls where they will do ball handling workouts with one coach leading it. Our strength coach comes on and lead them to exercises, stretches and conditioning. We have been doing, every other week, video calls where we have showed them film and sent them to look at it and we discuss it. One time it was a scouting film. One time we discussed the Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance. One time, I was taking late games or end of quarter situations and talking about different strategies. And so just trying to keep them engaged while we’re away and then just give them some exercise. A lot of our players did not have access to a basket. Some did but most did not. So they had to do things just on ball handling, running and all those kind of things just to stay in shape. As they get here we can add shooting drills and things like that, but we really won’t do any group stuff until July camp.

Let’s go back a long time ago. 1984. I think you were in the room at Draft night with the Chicago Bulls Front Office. What did you think when you saw Portland pick Sam Bowie ?

(Laugh) We were all thrilled ! If we had had the first pick, we’d have taken Olajuwon. But after Olajuwon, Michael was the guy we wanted whether we get that with the second pick or the third pick. At least, I say “we”, Rod Thorn (Chicago Bulls’ GM in 1984 – editor’s note) and I, that’s who we wanted. They were different opinions in the room. I mean some people still wanted a post player because that was our probably biggest need in some ways but we couldn’t pass on somebody we tought could be a star player.

Good choice ! Since your first years as a scout then coaching in minor leagues and as an assistant in the NBA, you were working in men’s leagues. Then in 2003, you’re hired in the WNBA by the Connecticut Sun and you start working with woman players. Is that something you wanted to do or just an opportunity you seized and never left since ?

I think it was a combination of things. I think number one, I knew that in the NBA I was gonna be an assistant coach for most of my life. I did not think that, because I hadn’t played in the NBA or done things like that, I was gonna have a great opportunity to coach in the NBA. And I wanted to be a head coach. Number two, my daughter was young. She was probably ten or eleven years old, starting to play basketball. She kept saying me “Hey dad, we need more good focus on women’s basketball. And I had friends who were coaches or GM in the WNBA who told me they thought I’d like it and that I should try it, see what I’d thought.

The opportunity came along at Connecticut and it just worked. We kinda interviewed each other and hit it off and it seemed like the right thing at the right time. You know, I didn’t know how long I would do it and if I would do it forever. I thought that if the right NBA job came back at some point I might consider it. But here I am, 18 years later. I had 4 or 5 chances to go back to the NBA. But this is just what felt right. I love what I’m doing. I try to have an impact. And it’s been great for my family and we’ve loved it.

Mike Thibault donne ses instructions en bord de terrain
© Lorie Shaull

Talking about your family, you work with your son, Eric, as an assistant coach. What is it like to work with his own son ? Does it bring some extra tension or on the contrary you have some more natural chemestry?

It’s been great. I mean we have our days where we probably go at each other a little bit more maybe than a normal head coach and assistant coach would because we’ve had that dynamic through our lives where we can discuss things. I think the first couple years the rest of my staff kinda held their breath .when we debated things, because they weren’t used to be in that situation. But we’ve never been in a situation where a disagrement lasted. I encourage my assistant coaches in general to give their opinion, to debate things, stick up to what they believe in. I’ve allowed them to change my mind about things. I think it’s healthy. And I think both he and I have handled it as well as it could be expected because when a lot of times when you’re coaching with people you can go away in the locker room. And it’s not as true when it’s a family member. We don’t live in the same house but we see each other more often, there’s a different dynamic. I think, for the most part, it has been very satisfying. You don’t get to keep that same contact with your kids in a normal life. And this has made a special relationship.

Your daughter is coaching as well as an assistant of Lindsay Whalen at the university of Minnesota. So your wife is surrounded with basketball. Do you talk about games is sunday family dinners ?

Sometimes. We kinda try to balance it, but it’s hard not to. My daughter’s husband is a coach. My son’s wife is an athletic trainer in basketball so my wife is really surrounded by. But I think we have so many other interests that we can talk about other things. It’s still coming back a lot on some things that’s happening in basketball that day or the day before and you talk about it. You’re not talking about strategy and stuff. You end up talking about people situation and the kind of experiences that you have, not necessarily the nuts and bolts of coaching the game. You talk about all the stuffs that come with it. You can share experiences and come back with different ideas about stuff too.

My daughter being a college coach sees things differently because she’s coaching younger players and so is her husband. So they have one kind of perspective. I’m an older person who has looked back and seen it from a different view and coached the game before they were ever born. So we all have different perspectives and that’s kinda fun to share. But we certainly have other things in our lives that we talk about. Whether it’s politics, music or movies or whatever. That’s still part of the general conversation.

For our Belgian readers, let’s talk about Emma Meesseman. Last season, we saw another step in her wonderful career so far. Is that something you knew was possible ? What was the project when you drafted her ?

Well, I knew it was possible once I saw her play for us. She’s a special talent. We drafted her when she was 19 years old. I hadn’t seen her play much other than on film. And so we were taking a player that we said “It’s the kind of skillset that we were looking for”. An athletic post player who can do a lot of other things. She’s a great passer. She can shoot. She just has been well coached when she was young. And I think that’s a credit of how she’s brought up at home. Her mom played. And she had good coaches around her. And I think that’s what gave her a great fundamental base to start.

But when she first came here it was funny because, she didn’t really think she was gonna make it. She thought she was there for a couple weeks. She didn’t bring enough clothes on her first trip. She had to ask for more clothes. I think she thought she’d be there about a week and go home. Obviously, that wasn’t the case. And I told our staff when we drafted her : “No matter what, when she comes, we’re keeping her”. And I tried to explain that to her. But that didn’t really sunk in. We were gonna keep her and give her time to grow and get better.

I think she’s had times when she’s been frustrated with me and I’ve been frustrated with her because I push her to be great. And I don’t know when she was younger if she saw how good she could be. She’s clearly have seen that now. I think last year was kind of the last step I hope for a mental breakthrough about “Hey I can take over a game. I can have a huge impact on our team winning”.

We told her last year when she came. She was the missing piece. And I don’t think that really sunk in until she saw what kind of an effect she have on our team and how much her teamates wanted her to take over a game. I think she saw bits and pieces of that in the previous few years but I think last year it kinda lock in together.

This lack of aggressiveness. Was that the main flaw in Emma’s game ? Your biggest challenge with her ?

I don’t even know if I would call it aggressiveness. It is more assertiveness, in a sense that understanding it’s ok to take over a game. I think she’s by nature a very unselfish player which is a great trait to have as a player. But I think sometimes you can… I used to tell her : “You don’t help a team for being too unselfish”. I said “sometimes you pass the ball when the shot clock is running out to a teamate, because they’re open, who aren’t as good a shooter as you are. You already had kind of a good shot to take. And you pass it up to make one more pass because that person’s open. Sometimes they’re open for a reason (laugh).

You know, if your’e a 50% shooter and you’re open, passing it to a 40% shooter is not a good basketball play for our team. I understand why you do it because you see an open teamate. But sometimes you have to be the one that makes the basketball play for the team. And I think that was kind of the last step for her. You’re not gonna be selfish by doing that. You’re gonna be making the good play. And I just think that’s part of maturity for her.

And for that, the whole belgian nation thank you a lot because that’s something we witnessed more and more recently with the national team.

In your career you had some european players in your teams. Obviously Emma and Kim Mestdagh last year but also Sandrine Gruda or Margo Dydek at Connecticut. Do you spot a difference between european and american players ?

More so before than now. I think the word is getting closer in how the game is being played and taught I think. But I would say, when Emma was younger, I would say the difference was that european players were given the opportunity to be more well rounded, have more skills. I thought that for a long time, american players were kind of put into categories at a too young an age. You’re a post player. You’re a point guard. You’re this. And I think that european players were told more – by how they’re coached : “You’re a basketball player. And you’re gonna learn how to do all these things.” And I think that gave them an advantage.

I think we’re seing less and less of that in the US now. We’re seing more well rounded players. Ijust felt that coaches were putting people into categories that they didn’t need to be put in. And I like to have people who are just basketball players. I don’t want to just label them. And so I thought that was the biggest difference. I think that differences are not as big as what it was maybe seven, eight, nine years ago.

A small trick question : You worked with both these athletes. Last play of the game, you’re down by two. At their prime you’d rather give the ball to Elena Delle Donne or Ray Allen ?

Oh jeez, I don’t even know. (Laugh) The difference for me would be for Elena. She can go get her shot on any spot on the floor. She could be a post up late game or she could pull outside and you wouldn’t matter necessarily who’s she’s been defended by. You wouldn’t post up Ray Allen. They’re both great three point shooters so I couldn’t go along with either one. They’re both great free throw shooter so I couldn’t go along. But I think Elena, if you’re just calling up a last play has more things that she could do. Ray Allen got a lot of his open looks because of his teamates. Elena creates the open looks for other and herself. That’s the difference between those kind of players.

What’s the greatest pride in your career ? Some proposals : The Washington Mystics title ? Your 3 coach of the year awards ? Emma Meesseman Finals MVP ? Lindsay Whalen starting a coaching career ?

Oh boy ! I clearly don’t have any one thing. The one I wouldn’t even consider the coach of the year thing, they don’t even count. They’re just a matter of having good players who bought in what you’re doing. It’s more a matter of how you won that.

I mean I go back to where I first started coaching. I was coaching high school sophomores. We won a championship but I was just as happy for those players as I was for our Mystics players. Because players on any team go through the same kind of ups and downs in a season and I think as a coach you’re a teacher, you’re a father, you’re whatever. You wanna see people succeed because they worked at something. And so those same fifteen years old, fourty years ago for me, were just as important as these players today. The only difference is those players did it in a gym with maybe a hundred people watching and this is different when you’re on tv worldwide and your players succeed. I don’t think as a coach you can easily compare those things. I think that’s hard to do. I prefer the individual success of a player than the coaching thing.

When I was a young NBA coach, when I came to the NBA, I was the youngest assistant coach. But being a part of two championships (1980 and 1982 with the Los Angeles Lakers – editor’s note) when I was young I don’t even think I understood then how hard that is. This last one with the Mystics I have a more appreciation for because, having done this so long, you understand how hard it is to do, to be the last team standing. You have to have good grace sometimes, you have to stay healthy. I think the best team I ever coached for a long time was when we went to the Finals with Connecticut. We played Sacramento in the Finals and I thought that was one of the best WNBA teams I ever coached. We had Lindsay Whalen get hurt in game 1 of the Finals and we played without our starting point guard for most of the Finals. So you know how different that is, that you can be really good and something happens and takes away from it. So you can’t, as a coach, just put all your eggs in one basket and say “This is the ultimate this, this is the ultimate that”. I just don’t think you can do that.

One of my most satisfying moment or proudest moment, just because it means a lot, and I think Emma could tell you this, is when you represent your country and you win something. When we won the gold medal at the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, I remember sitting there with my son who had just turned 21, and having a cigar and drink that night a few and we were really proud. So you have a lot of those moments when you coach. And I just don’t know if you can isolate that easily.

Last question, for fun. I know that as a young man you wanted to be a rockstar and played the drums in a band. What’s your favourite band and your favourite drummer ?

I don’t know if I have a favourite drummer. I mean when I was young, a lot of people listened to – because it was rock and roll era more than anything else – a guy like Ginger Baker in Cream. He was one of the world most well-know drummer. For me I have different kind of band that was my favourites. I liked bands like Earth, Wind and Fire. There’s a band from California called Tower of Power that is from Oakland. I like that kind of music. I played in bands that play all kind of music. We played rock and roll. We played soul music. We did all kinds. I’m just the kind of person who appreciates all kind of music. But if I had to cut one thing to listen to, it would have been those funk bands or soul bands with horns and stuff. I just like that a lot.

Do you have a wish for the season and for the years to come ?

You know it’s funny. I mean every season when you start out your goal is to win a championship. Nobody has won back to back championships in our league in 18 years. Our team is gonna look a little bit different with a couple players not playing, but I think we’re still gonna have an opportunity to compete. I look at every year as a new experience. I try to enjoy the journey of the year. Because you’re gonna have ups and downs and different moments. We kinda have a rule with my coaching staff. We try to have at least one laugh every day. Usually that happens because of our team on the court or behind the scenes. (laugh)

You know I just think that you’re going to every season as a teacher does with the start of a new year. You have a groupe that is going to be a little different that the one before. Act a little different. Have different experiences. And try to enjoy it as much as possible every day. We’re still playing a kid’s game and we’re getting paid for it. So we should be enjoying it every day and make the most of it. When that stops happening, then you shouldn’t do it anymore.

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