Sun Didn't Impress, In Many Ways, For Mike Thibault's Return

Nothing Special Done To Welcome Back Former Coach

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UNCASVILLE

Mike Thibault, always thoughtful, always prepared, almost always specific, quantified how many times he had thought about this game.

"Consciously? Four," Thibault said on the Friday night he returned to Mohegan Sun Arena for the first time since he was fired by the Sun last November. "One, when I took the job with the Mystics, I knew at some point this was going to happen.

"Two, when the schedule came out, I looked to see when it was. Three, was a month and a half ago when I helped my wife [Nanci] get a plane reservation and a car rental because she came a couple days early to see friends.

"And the fourth time, when I really looked at it, was Sunday night after we played Atlanta, because Connecticut was next on the schedule. I've been preaching to my players it's one day at a time and you don't look three weeks down the road. It would have been silly of me to do that. So it's the next game on the schedule."

It's a little bit of shame that the Sun treated it like the next in the schedule, too. Mike Thibault may have thought about this night four times. Yet it almost seemed as if the Sun, who typically do things first-class, treated it as if they hadn't thought about it at all.

We're not talking about the final score, although Thibault clearly was satisfied that his Washington Mystics used a late rally to score a 66-62 victory over the badly undermanned Sun. We're talking about the lack of anything special done by the Sun. Thibault built this franchise. He took the Sun to the playoffs eight times and the Finals twice in 10 years. No, he never won a WNBA championship, but he was nothing but a gentleman winner during his time here. He arrived in 2003 recommended by Jerry West and left recommended everybody in Connecticut right down to his neighbors in East Lyme.

"It was bittersweet [to see him]," said 2012 WNBA MVP Tina Charles, who said Thibault was the first person to donate to her charitable foundation. "I really miss him. If it was up to me, he'd still be here. But it's not. That's the business of the industry we are in. I wish him luck. He's a great guy. He loves my character and helped built that over the three years I played for him."

The Red Sox put together a video montage for Terry Francona when he returned to Fenway Park recently. How hard would that have been? The Sun played "The Imperial March" from "Stars Wars" when Bill "Darth Vader" Laimbeer returned as coach of the Liberty last week. For Thibault? Nothing. It was up to the 6,150 fans to spot Thibault as he entered the court, giving him a warm, respectful welcome. They gave him another warm, respectful welcome when he was named during team introductions. Quickly it was over. No boos. No hoots. Not until the fourth quarter, when he was yelling about a call, did a fan yell, "Sit down, Mike!"

"I made no special talk [to his players]," Thibault said. "It was a normal scouting report [put together in part by his son/assistant Eric]. I appreciate the fans welcoming me back at the start. It was nice.

"I liked making Connecticut a little nervous for a couple of days, just to get a little edge to something."

It's too early to call it the Curse of Mike. But, man, ever since poor Anne Donovan, whose only charge is to win the championship Thibault didn't, took over, the body count has done nothing but rise. First, Asjha Jones scratched from the entire season. Last weekend, Renee Montgomery suffered a high-ankle sprain and Tan White broke a finger. It got worse. Donovan sounded as perplexed as anyone about the severity of the back problem that forced Kara Lawson out of the lineup for this game.

Lawson said she'll be back ASAP.

Thibault never had a chance to have a going-away party with his friends and neighbors.

"There were literally people moving into our house when we closed, and I had to be D.C. later that day," Thibault said.

So Thursday night, 50 friends and former neighbors gathered at Flanders Fish Market in East Lyme for a feast.

"It was fun," Thibault said. "It was kind of closure, there."

Whatever emotions linger with the Sun, meanwhile, they don't involve Donovan. The two coached Team USA to the 2008 Olympic gold in Beijing.

"I was looking forward to seeing him today," Donovan said. "Mike is a good friend."

Through the minor leagues, through the NBA, through a variety of coaching and personnel positions, Thibault has rubbed shoulders with Michael Jordan and Michael Nobody. Thibault is a man without airs. He knows the X's and O's. He knows the Jills and Joes. More than that, Thibault understands the business as well as anyone. He knows that sometimes building a franchise isn't enough. He knows that sometimes being a big-time winner isn't enough. He knows it is the prerogative of management to demand a championship and to fire a coach if that demand isn't met.

"In general, no," said Thibault when asked if there were any hard feelings. "I felt there was one thing that could have been handled better, but I will keep to myself."

Anything to do with a player?

"No, no," Thibault said. "How it was handled, more than anything."

Thibault did not tell me this, but there had been some rumblings that he was disappointed that Mitchell Etess did not call him the day he was relieved of his duties.

"My own personal feeling is they made a mistake — time will tell," Thibault said. "Having been in the NBA a long time, having left four teams for various reasons, the staff got fired, somebody doubled my pay, coaches understand these kinds of things better than anyone else. Coaches are always held accountable. I get that.

"It's funny. Even as little as a year ago, I had fans in Connecticut ask me, why don't you trade for Diana Taurasi? Do you think if I could … when she came out in the draft we offered our whole franchise. Phoenix wasn't dumb."

The Sun lost nine games last year. The Mystics had only won 11 over the previous two years. Thibault brought in four rookies. He kept a core of four players. He is teaching a new system. His players had to get used to Thibault's up-tempo pace in games and practices.

"I am so engrossed in my own team right now, I'm not worrying about all the other stuff [left behind]," he said. "Washington is somewhat like when I started in Connecticut, taking a team that has been mediocre for a while, worse than mediocre. At least the team we took over here [in 2003] was a .500 team."

"From what I was told, they had long practices, some three-hour practices, where there was standing. I'm like, 'Let's go. Let's go.' That's probably the biggest adjustment. We're trying to teach better habits on a daily basis — little, subtle things."

Little, subtle things become big things. And not taking the time really show appreciation for a great coach upon his return, with a video tribute or the like, may be a little thing. But it felt kind of big.

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