Published January 04. 2013 4:00AM
In the lobby of the hotel waiting for a ride Thursday, there stood a trespasser on the property of Neon Uncasville. It was Mike Thibault. You know. Him. The erstwhile coach of the Connecticut Sun.
How ironic, indeed, that the day Coach T turned in the car that had been part of his contract, the keys to the franchise he built were handed to one of his truly good friends in coaching, Anne Donovan. So there was Thibault, now the coach of the Washington Mystics, in the lobby of Sun headquarters about to take his final trip out, a postscript here now except for the memories, while Donovan was driving from South Orange to Sun Orange.
"I wish Anne luck," Thibault was saying later on the day he'd pretty much leave for good for D.C. and his new gig. "She's a great coach and a great person."
And then it was mid-afternoon at the Cabaret Theatre and all the media, maybe more than Donovan had ever seen, were peppering her with questions. Donovan answered them all seamlessly. She won her first news conference. Now we see if she can win all the games her predecessor did.
Then the one he didn't.
That was the point of the day, really. Business. Bottom line. You don't assume a coaching position from the man who will become the WNBA's career wins leader this season and do warm and fuzzy. This is about knowing your predecessor was canned because he didn't win a championship. And knowing it's your job now to produce one. Or two.
It had been a month earlier when the team's vice president and general manager, Chris Sienko, said the following during a conference call the day Thibault was dismissed:
"I don't think anyone can expect anyone to come in and ultimately win a championship their first year," he said, "but it can happen."
Au contraire. If Thibault was fired because he didn't win a championship, his successor should be held to the same standard.
His successor agreed.
"It's fair to have those expectations," Donovan said. "That's what they're hiring me to do and that's what I'm hoping to do. If I do my job and the kids do theirs, that's what we'll do … There's a comfort here knowing the leadership is as good as I thought it was. There's a comfort level with players on the roster."
It is the opinion of Sun management that the players need to hear a new voice. That perhaps some of them grew too complacent with Thibault. We'll all discover whether the new voice resonates. Donovan said this:
"This team is not far off. Look at the track record and success they've had. Maybe a different voice, different experiences and hopefully a different mind set will help."
Then she said: "At the end of my tenure in Seattle (where she won a championship) it was in my best interest and Seattle's best interest to have a new voice. I've used that term myself. In my case, it was just about a freshness, a new voice to be heard in practice. To reiterate maybe the same goals, but a different way of phrasing it, a different tone to it."
Donovan and Thibault coached the 2008 Olympic team together in Beijing. They complemented each other well. But the messages get delivered differently.
"We're different people with different styles on how we think and attack the game," she said. "How we're different is a good question. I perceive myself to be more behind the scenes. Mike likes to be up front and center. This (a news conference) is his thing. Not necessarily mine. There's a fundamental difference."
Mike Thibault out. Anne Donovan in. To think how their careers might have changed one fateful night in Seattle. The Sun, with a 1-0 lead in what could have been the deciding game of the WNBA Finals, trailed by two points in the closing seconds. Thibault drew a brilliant inbounds play to Nykesha Sales, who had already rained 32 points.
Sales, inexplicably, was wide open.
Ball goes in, Sun win it all.
Late, great Connecticut columnist Randy Smith called it the greatest inbounds play he'd ever seen.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Donovan said. "With expletives in there, in slow motion my mouth was going 'Oh, no.' As I stood on the baseline opposite where she took the shot, it looked like the shot was good. We came out of a timeout with a foul to give and we didn't foul. We switched on the screen we weren't supposed to switch on. The player that killed us gets the wide open shot."
The rest, as they say, is current events.
Welcome to Neon Uncasville, Anne.
Your friend set the bar very high.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.