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He walked on the floor at a little before 7 Friday night, Mike Thibault did, the floor he had exited so many times a winner. A winner in more than 200 regular season games. A winner in the playoffs. The architect of the WNBA's most consistent, if not star-crossed at times, franchise.
And the fans of the Connecticut Sun did what the organization did not: They acknowledged him. Who he is and what he did. They gave him a warm, 15-second ovation that built as Thibault walked past the bench he once occupied to the other end of the arena. The end of the arena where their friends were seated. Their friends who were once true, blue Sun fans, now strangers in a strange land, wearing the red of the Washington Mystics.
Thibault waved to the crowd.
And it was a crowd that would be vexed by the night's end, watching maybe the least talented compilation of Sun players in franchise history lose to their old coach, 66-62. Connecticut played without Kara Lawson (balky back), Renee Montgomery (sprained ankle) and Tan White (broken finger), leaving someone named Natasha Lacy to play nearly 34 minutes, take 14 shots and miss 13 of them.
After it ended, Thibault was in Section 18 with his friends and family, temporarily enjoying his homecoming, before worrying about tonight's game with Minnesota, which will not trot out someone named Lacy.
The Thibaults never had a chance to say goodbye to the many people they touched here for 10 years. So they did Thursday night at Cappy's, the hip little bar attached to Flanders Fish Market in East Lyme. They reminisced into the night.
"It was fun for me to come back and see friends and the fans," Thibault said. "I appreciated the fans welcoming me back at the start. That was nice. After being here 10 years, I'm glad they showed some appreciation. And I appreciate it.
"I liked seeing my friends and seeing our fans. I love the atmosphere here. And I liked making Connecticut a little nervous for a couple of days, just because."
Maybe that's it. Anxiety. Maybe that's why the franchise offered no acknowledgement of the man who only built everything here. So they can forge a 30-second video of appreciation for Terry Francona's trip back to Boston a few weeks back and they couldn't do the same here?
They could play the Imperial March for Bill Laimbeer during the season opener and they couldn't play something for Thibault?
It would have been a one-time, 30-second salute. No one's saying they had to give him a new Lexus. Then the game would have started. And the season would play out. And Thibault would be another coach here trying to impede the Sun's path to the playoffs. Just as it's always been here: cheer 'em at the beginning, boo 'em at the end. Just as the woman who yelled "sit down, Mike!" Friday night with the time of the game growing desperate.
The Sun's failure to acknowldege Thibault was far more disappointing than the outcome. Truthfully, the eight players Connecticut dressed gave great effort. They even had a 60-51 lead with 6:26 remaining before the offense got offensive.
"Obviously, they're really depleted right now, losing three really good perimeter people," Thibault said. "It put them in a tough spot."
This night become about Thibault even more than the game. Because there is no use trying to make pronouncements about an eight-player team for Connecticut that included two rookies and too many others who can't score. Sun coach Anne Donovan saluted her team's effort. She's right. There was just nobody left to make a shot at the end, not with Tina Charles surrounded and Allie Hightower pooped from chasing Ivory Latta all night.
The Sun might have a difficult time staying afloat until the cavalry arrives. But this is not Donovan's first rodeo. They'll be fine.
Thibault's next trip here in September will be just another game, perhaps with playoff implications. His first and only real homecoming ended happily for him. The fans of the Connecticut Sun showed their appreciation for 10 fun years. They know a good coach when they see one.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.