September 16, 2021 

The road ahead for Mystics after Mike Thibault tests positive for COVID-19

Thibault, vaccinated, is feeling well but will miss upcoming games

Throughout the season, Washington Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud has ended many of her media sessions by saying, “Get vaccinated, wear a mask, don’t be an asshole.”

On Wednesday, the reason why that still needs to be said hit close to home, as Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault entered the WNBA’s health and safety protocols after testing positive for COVID-19. As a result, Thibault will be unavailable to coach in the team’s final two regular-season games, and his status for a possible playoff run is in question.

“You’re scared immediately,” Cloud told reporters on Wednesday about the positive test. “I called Coach T immediately after they sent us a group text explaining what happened, just to make sure that he was okay. And then our other concern is [Thibault’s wife] Nanci and making sure that they’re healthy and that they’re safe.”

“I was surprised in the sense that you just don’t expect it,” said Eric Thibault, Mike’s son and the team’s acting head coach for at least the next two games. “But when you look at case numbers and everything across the United States and around the world, it’s not shocking that somebody would test positive. … It’s for sure scary, right off the bat. But I feel really fortunate that we live in the time that we do, for one, and that we have been able to, as a league and as a team, all our medical people here, handle the situation as quickly as you can handle it. So now all that’s left is to help him make a full recovery and keep everybody else safe.”

The Mystics confirmed in a statement that the 70-year-old Mike Thibault is fully vaccinated, as are all of his players. He was the only one in the organization to enter health and safety protocols as of Thursday, and he has been feeling well enough to participate remotely in staff calls and film sessions.

On Thursday, Thibault tweeted, “A big thanks to all who have sent good wishes. Covid is no joke – very thankful for being vaccinated.”

Thibault’s positive test was detected during routine surveillance testing, which occurs twice a week for all players and staff who interact with players regardless of vaccination status. WNBPA executive director Terri Jackson told The Next in a statement that testing protocols were strengthened after the Olympic break in response to “the emerging variants and the evolving science.” Another source with knowledge of the league’s testing protocols told The Next that all individuals must now wear masks during team activities such as film sessions, whereas before the Olympic break, fully vaccinated individuals were not required to wear masks.

The WNBA’s protocols combined with successful vaccination efforts have resulted in only a handful of known COVID-19 cases during the 2021 season. The WNBA stands apart from most other professional sports leagues, and well ahead of the country as a whole, in having 99 percent of its players vaccinated as of June 28. That day, the WNBA also announced that zero new players had tested positive for COVID-19 since the regular season began on May 14. However, Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage and Dallas Wings forward Isabelle Harrison both tested positive for COVID-19 in early September and remain in health and safety protocols.

As Eric Thibault noted on Wednesday, Mike Thibault’s absence could hardly have come at a worse time for the Mystics. Despite a rash of injuries that Mike Thibault recently called his “worst in 50 years of coaching,” the Mystics are one game ahead of the Los Angeles Sparks and 1.5 games ahead of the New York Liberty for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Mystics play at New York on Friday before finishing the regular season at home against Minnesota.

“It’s kind of been the theme of the season that … once you get one person [back], somebody else is out,” Eric Thibault said. “But it is different. I mean, it’s a different scenario where you’re actually concerned for somebody’s health.”

Thibault suggested that the high stakes of Friday’s game were helping the players compartmentalize and focus on basketball. “Obviously, everybody’s concerned for Coach. But it also helps you walk into a film session and practice today and you’ve got everybody’s full attention because everybody knows what Friday night means,” he said.

And Thibault is prepared to assume the head coach’s seat for the first time in his career, having been on his father’s staff in Washington since 2013 and the team’s associate head coach since 2019. “[Mike] hasn’t had the decency to get ejected in nine years before now, so I guess this is how I’m getting thrown into it,” he joked on Wednesday.

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He and several players agreed that not much will change with him in charge, as he had already been running practices at times as the associate head coach and is someone the players fully trust. “I can’t speak enough about how ready Eric is for this moment,” Cloud said. “… His basketball IQ is just through the roof and he’s been great for us. For the seven years that I’ve been here, he’s been great for us, so I’m just really excited for him.”

“Yesterday … we put ourselves in a bunch of late-game situation type things, end of shot clock type situations, timeouts where he had the board in his hand,” forward Theresa Plaisance said on Thursday. “And seeing him in the position that he is now put in, he was very comfortable. He did a really great job, and we trust him at the head right now. This is our guy and this is who we’re rolling with, and I think that we’re in really great hands. … He knows every team, every set that every team runs by name and hand call. So if there’s someone that’s prepared, it’s Eric.”

Cloud added that Mike Thibault had progressively given her more ownership over the offense and playcalling in games, and she hopes that her leadership will help Eric in his head coaching debut. “I’m going to have to step up a little bit more this weekend for our team, but everyone collectively needs to step up,” she said. “… I need to be the consistency for Eric because this is new for him. I have no worries in the world. I’m really confident in him. I know he’s confident in himself. But I can do him a real solid if I’m just my poised self. And we’re going to attack this together as a team.”

The Mystics expect to have close to a full roster of players available on Friday, as forward Myisha Hines-Allen is feeling better after contracting a non-covid illness and guard Ariel Atkins will play after missing two games to attend a funeral. However, two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne, plagued by persistent back problems, will not travel or play. The coaching staff will also be shorthanded without Mike Thibault and assistant coach LaToya Sanders, who had her first child on Sept. 9 and remains away from the team.

While the Mystics are as prepared as they can be to play without their head coach, his physical absence on Friday will surely be noticed. But Mike Thibault’s influence will still be felt from afar, from the in-game tactics to the confidence he has imbued in players and staff alike that they can rise to the challenge.

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. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.

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