When reporting for this month’s print sports column about the status of D.C. sports a few years removed from the 17-month stretch of winning championships in 2018 and 2019, I knew I wanted to interview someone who had intimate knowledge of what it takes to be a sports champion. One person that fit the description kept popping up in my head: Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault. Not only did Thibault lead the Mystics to the WNBA Finals in 2018 and then the franchise’s first WNBA title a year later, but Thibault was part of one of the most storied sports dynasties with the Showtime era Los Angeles Lakers that ultimately won five NBA titles and reached the NBA Finals eight times between 1980 and 1989.
From 1980 to 1982, Thibault worked as the director of scouting and assistant coach with the Lakers before serving in the same roles with the Chicago Bulls from 1982 to 1986. In 1984, the Bulls drafted Michael Jordan. Thibault understands just how rare and difficult it for teams to remain consistent champions. It requires skill and talent but also luck and timing. This year, the Mystics are playing with essentially a new team compared to their championship roster as former WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne continues to recover from a pair of back surgeries. They are currently 3-5 with 24 games remaining in the 32-game regular season. Still, Thibault believes the Mystics have a chance to extend the city’s District of Champions era.
The following interview, which took place on June 7, has been edited and condensed.
WCP: How difficult is it to consistently win championships? What has to go right?
Mike Thibault: I think the first thing is that, at the end of every year, the simple mathematics say only one team gets to win. And in pro sports, no matter what league you’re in, there’s always multiple really good teams. So just because you win one year, you might’ve gotten the right bounce, the right break, or you stay healthy or whatever. But there are always good teams every year. So judging dynasties by championships, and yet, I’ve seen teams who were in my mind kind of dynasties, but they didn’t win it every year, but they were right there every year too. And so, I mean, I think that’s part of it. I think the second thing is, health is always one of the biggest things. I remember my first year winning in LA in ’80, for the most part, we were healthy most of the year. In ’81, we come back and we lose in the first round to Houston, who was really good … We were in a situation where Magic [Johnson] missed half the year … And when he came back, there wasn’t a lot of time … But staying healthy is a big part of it. I mean, in reality for us a year ago, here in D.C., we didn’t even really have a chance to defend it, we had just missing players, for all the various reasons. So I think health is a huge thing. I think the fact that you have a target on your back after you win makes it difficult. So teams that can understand and sustain that, it’s understanding that you’re gonna get everybody’s best shot every night, and there’s a mental grind that goes with that and kind of from both a player and coaching standpoint, in balancing out the emotional or mental part of being a defending champion is tough … There becomes so much interference when you win, expectations, people telling you how good you are, both publicly and behind the scenes … And to maintain that hunger that you have to win it before is hard. It’s human nature to think it’s all good. And it’s not, because one other factor is out there. When you win, every other team tries to get better to match what you did or defend what you did. Teams that win a couple times or win and they’ll be consistently good, the people that are trying to beat them tailor their rosters or their game plans to beat the team that’s on top. And so you have to still be able to make adjustments.
WCP: Do you feel that happened with the Mystics last year?
MT: No, last year, I think for us was really simple. No Elena. No Tina [Charles]. No Aerial Powers for 90 percent of the year. No Natasha Cloud. No LaToya Sanders. And they each had different roles. And then Kristi Toliver didn’t play; she had gone to sign in LA and didn’t play for either team. So you’ve taken your team and we go back there with people who are backups or fourth [options] having to now carry the load … We just had a brand new team and that’s an adjustment even now. Everybody [is saying], “Well, they should be one of the favorites.” And we will if we’re healthy … We’re a different team. I have to remind everybody in the organization and in our returning players that this isn’t 2019. We have to forge a whole new identity.
WCP: What does the slogan District of Champions mean to you?
MT: To me, it means that you have everybody, all the teams in our city, and it’s interesting, because three of them [Mystics, Wizards, and Capitals] are owned by the same group. And you have some crossover and ownership between minority owners on the Nationals and Wizards’ sides … But I just think that it means, to me, is that we all push each other. We all root for each other. I think all the athletes in the city root for their compatriots on other teams. They support each other. I think that it helps the pride in the city. But I think when you see another team in the city be good, you don’t want to be the one that’s like lagging. I think it’s put pressure on the Washington Football Team to rethink how they did things. I don’t have any inside information, but I think the hiring of Ron Rivera was … there’s some motivation in there to, “Hey, we’ve got to do this the right way. We’ve looked at these other teams, and there’s a method. Every team’s been built meticulously.” I mean, the Nationals were built a certain way, the Caps were, we were … You have to have great people in your organization, you got to have great leadership, and your athletes have to be highly motivated and willing to represent the community that they live in, and I think one of the things I’ve observed is a lot of the athletes on these teams that have been winning, kind of committed themselves to D.C. a little bit too.
WCP: Do you feel the District of Champions era was just 2018 and 2019?
MT: I know we’re doing our best to extend it [laughs] when we get healthy … I think the Football Team feels like they’re getting better. I think that’s the disappointment with the Capitals is that, “Hey, we expect ourselves to be that every year.” But I think it’s a lesson for fans on how hard this is. It really is. I mean, teams went out to structure their rosters in hockey, to try to say, “OK, here’s what the Caps did. We have to be better than that. Here’s the trends that they had on their team.” It’s all part of it.
WCP: How close do you feel the Mystics are to being how you were in 2019 and 2018?
MT: I think a lot of it will depend on what our team looks like roster wise with health and who’s on the roster after the Olympic break. If Elena’s healthy and Emma Meesseman is back, we will be back in that favorites group. We’re going to be a better team regardless by then, but we’re still kind of introducing ourselves. Tina Charles has never played with these players before.
WCP: Where is D.C. sports right now?
MT: D.C. sports is in a way better place than what I showed up here nine years ago. When I was here nine years ago, the Caps were getting bounced out. They had the best record and were losing in the playoffs and the Nats were consistently a good team, but losing in the playoffs. The Wizards were one year good, one year not. The Football Team was whatever it was … had the one hopeful year with … Robert Griffin III. But everybody was longing for the old days … And you’ve added two pro soccer teams to the mix. I think people in general see—I don’t know, maybe I’m misreading fans—but I think they should see that each team is trying to compete at the highest level. They’re not cutting corners. I don’t see any teams in D.C. cutting corners, doing salary dumps, and doing tanking and all that. I think fans in D.C. are seeing teams that are trying to be good every year.