June 1, 2022
‘We can’t go without her’: Meet Maria Giovannetti, the Washington Mystics’ assistant general manager and secret weapon
In nearly two decades with the Mystics, Giovannetti has gone from game operations to Mike Thibault’s potential successor as general manager
Theresa Plaisance played for the Washington Mystics for just one season, in 2021. But the WNBA veteran returned to Washington on May 10 with the Las Vegas Aces, and as she walked off the court following her team’s 89-76 loss, she stopped to hug a member of the Mystics’ staff who had had an outsized impact on her experience: assistant general manager Maria Giovannetti.
“Maria is so much more than what her job title entails,” Plaisance told The Next that night. “… Not only does she handle everything for the Mystics, but you can talk to her as a friend and as a mentor … She’s a person first, and you definitely feel that in everything that she does.
“I have only great things to say about Maria and the Mystics organization. … It’s no surprise there why the Mystics are consistently at the top, and it starts with Maria and Coach [Mike] Thibault.”
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Giovannetti has worked for Monumental Sports and Entertainment, the company that owns the Mystics, since 2006, when it was known as Lincoln Holdings Company. But she took an unusual route to the top of the organization. As a guard at Virginia Commonwealth University, she started 80 of 105 career games and averaged 7.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.0 steals in 23.4 minutes per game. She also led the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) in free-throw shooting percentage, at 83.8%, as a senior in 2005.
“I was the player that guarded the opposing team’s best player,” Giovannetti told The Next. “I tried my best not to be a liability offensively.”
Giovannetti graduated in 2005 having earned a degree in criminal justice, two CAA All-Academic Team selections and the 2005 CAA Scholar Athlete of the Year award. The following year, when she was a graduate student at George Washington University, a friend was working for the Mystics’ game operations staff and invited Giovannetti to help out at the next home game. She did, and the Mystics invited her to keep coming back.
Giovannetti never left, joining the sales department as a full-time account executive in 2007 and helping to launch the Mystics and Wizards’ youth basketball program in 2010. She also built up institutional knowledge and relationships, including with Trudi Lacey. Lacey was on the Mystics’ coaching staff in the 2009 and 2010 seasons and ran several community events with Giovannetti’s help.
“I saw in her a person who, one, cared deeply about what we were trying to do and developing our players, not only as basketball players but as people, and embracing the Washington, Virginia, Maryland community,” Lacey told The Next. “She was very dedicated to that, but more importantly, she was very organized, very efficient, easy to be around and easy to work with.”
Lacey was promoted to head coach and general manager in November 2010, and she eventually hired Giovannetti to fill the job she’d always coveted, director of basketball operations. The Mystics were rebuilding around young players, and Lacey thought Giovannetti could teach them how to be professionals, from showing up on time to packing the right things for a road trip. Lacey, who was previously an assistant and head coach with the Charlotte Sting for five seasons, admits that promoting someone from sales to basketball operations is “pretty radical” in the WNBA, but she knew Giovannetti had an interest in working on the basketball side of the organization and decided to give her a chance to develop alongside the players during the team’s rebuild.
After the 2012 season, though, Lacey was fired, leaving Giovannetti’s future with the Mystics uncertain. But she convinced the organization to let her interview with the next coach and general manager, and Thibault opted to retain her.
“She has a complete understanding of how the whole organization works,” Thibault told The Next, referencing her experience in both sales and basketball operations. “So that’s huge. I mean, I inherited her in a sense when I came here and just kept promoting her because she’s that good.”
That promotion occurred in 2017 when Giovannetti became the team’s assistant general manager — a jump that Lacey called “unusual” but not unprecedented. In the team’s press release, Thibault called Giovannetti “one of the most integral parts of the Mystics organization since I have been here.” Giovannetti helped lead the franchise to its first WNBA title in 2019, and her contract was extended last November.
“As an assistant GM, I couldn’t ask for better,” Thibault said. “She’s one of those people that anticipates things in advance that maybe I don’t have on my radar yet. She’s already got it ready.”
“She flies under the radar … but she’s definitely an integral part of this team,” said forward Myisha Hines-Allen, whom Giovannetti helped draft in 2018. “We can’t go without her.”
Giovannetti’s role encompasses a wide variety of tasks that she puts in two broad categories: “office work” and “court work.” Office work includes coordinating the team’s travel and daily schedule, managing player contracts and the team’s budget, and other daily operations work. On the court, she participates in coaches’ meetings, helps with scouting and film work, leads offseason player development alongside associate head coach Eric Thibault, and even serves as a practice player once in a while, despite having knee surgery in 2020. She also traveled on every road trip from 2012 to 2021, though she will stay home at times this season to spend more time with her three-year-old daughter and one-year-old son.
“Maria is awesome,” said forward Tianna Hawkins, who is in her seventh season with the Mystics. “It’s been a lot of days where the coaches were out of town and me and Maria would just get in the gym … I’m from here, so I don’t really need much from the team in regards to living and logistical things [in the offseason], but as far as working on my game, expanding [it], she’s been there … every single day.”
For LaToya Sanders, who played four seasons for the Mystics and is now an assistant coach, Giovannetti’s presence helps her breathe easier throughout the season. Sanders gave birth to her first child, son Semih, in September 2021, and he travels with her on every road trip.
“[Maria] makes sure he always has his ticket, or my nanny or my mom, whoever travels with me, to help make sure they have all their rooms together, even on the same floor,” Sanders told The Next. “Just little stuff that you probably don’t think are important, but it means a lot, especially to a new mom.”
As a former college player, Giovannetti can also relate to and empathize with the players, and they appreciate the emotional support — and sometimes humor — she provides. Plaisance called Giovannetti “the perfect person to talk to about anything,” while Hines-Allen said that Giovannetti is “someone that you know is in your corner and wants you to do good and [is] able and willing to help you, no matter what it is.”
“She just has a great rapport with us,” 2019 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne told The Next. “She’s hilarious. She’s got a dry sense of humor. So there’s little things she’ll drop and say to me throughout a practice or a day that just crack me up. [She] keeps things light … I love Maria.”
In 2020, Giovannetti got to know some of the players even better at the WNBA’s bubble, or “wubble,” in Bradenton, Florida. She and her family lived directly above some of the players, including Hines-Allen, and the players frequently stopped by to socialize. Giovannetti’s daughter Estelle also had several playdates with Hawkins’ son Emanuel.
But Giovannetti’s job was all-consuming, with games occurring almost every other day and teams limited in the number of staff members who could come to Bradenton. She worked around the clock and took on more player development responsibilities in the absence of Sefu Bernard, the team’s director of player development. She filmed practice when the team’s video coordinator wasn’t present and even learned some uniform design skills.
“I was literally making jerseys for players in the bubble,” she said. “[I] learned how to heat press the whole thing.”
This season, short-term contracts have kept Giovannetti on her toes. On May 6 alone, the Mystics signed Stephanie Jones to a hardship contract, then were awarded wing Kennedy Burke off waivers and had to cut guard Katie Benzan just a few hours before the season opener. Sitting on the Mystics’ bench pregame, Mike Thibault walked reporters through the transactions and said that he was glad to have Giovannetti handling all the logistics. (Benzan rejoined the team a few days later on another hardship contract.)
Giovannetti has also gotten to participate in one of a general manager’s signature moments by calling the WNBA to submit the Mystics’ most recent first-round draft picks, Kiara Leslie in 2019 and Shakira Austin in 2022.
“When you’re a kid … you see the person walk out to the podium and they say, ‘With the third pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft, the Washington Mystics select.’ So you know those lines word for word. It’s like your favorite song or whatever,” Giovannetti said. “But you don’t really think about what happens before they get to the podium, which is someone from the team [has] to call it in. So it’s pretty fun. I appreciate Coach T for letting me do that.”
Thibault said that he wanted Giovannetti to have that moment after he had done it for so long. But not every general manager has that option because some teams don’t even have an assistant general manager position.
“I don’t really remember having a Maria when I was in LA, Phoenix or Minnesota [from 2008-11],” Sanders said. “You had one person that had like five titles. So just to have Maria as the assistant GM … to me, it’s an integral part of our league, and I think every team should have somebody that takes care of that.”
Even when Lacey was the head coach and general manager in Washington, the Mystics didn’t have an assistant general manager. Asked how helpful that position would have been, Lacey didn’t hesitate: “About 100% helpful.”
In some ways, the assistant general manager position is perfect for Giovannetti as a jack-of-all-trades who prefers to stay out of the spotlight. Yet the Mystics might promote their secret weapon again one day — this time following a much more traditional path.
“Somewhere down the road, she’s probably my heir apparent as the GM,” Thibault said.
For now, though, Giovannetti will continue to be a difference-maker for the Mystics in her current position. According to Eric Thibault, her biggest strength is that she can not only handle but excel in all the different responsibilities of her position. And Giovannetti enjoys the variety, struggling to identify a favorite task.
“Oh, man,” she said. “That’s so hard. I don’t even know if I can narrow it down.”
She ultimately settled not on a specific task, but on the ripple effect of all her tasks beyond wins and losses. “My absolute favorite is having my daughter come and watch them practice, work their tails off, and just be outspoken, powerful women,” she said, adding that she hopes her son can start watching practices this season, too.
As Giovannetti’s children get older and spend more time in the Mystics organization, they will likely see what everyone else sees: Their mom is someone who, quietly and methodically, always pushes the organization forward.
“She’s the glue,” Hawkins said. “… She’s the engine to keep everything going here in DC.”
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.