Most of WNBA’s older coaches OK with Florida virus risk

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Nick Wass / AP

In this Sept. 17, 2019, file photo, Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault, right, gestures against the Las Vegas Aces during the second half of Game 1 of a WNBA playoff basketball series in Washington.

Mon, Jul 6, 2020 (8:26 a.m.)

NEW YORK — Mike Thibault knows he could be at higher risk for severe illness if he gets the coronavirus because of his age.

The 69-year-old Washington Mystics coach didn't hesitate about going down to Florida with his team Monday to prepare for the virus-delayed WNBA season.

“There’s no guarantee. Living in D.C., I wear my mask and stay away from people,” said Thibault, who turns 70 in September. "You go to the grocery store or have food delivered, there is some risk involved in your life. That’s the nature of the virus. I'm not at the same risk as that grocery store worker or restaurant owner heading to work every day. We're going to a controlled environment.”

Thibault is one of five head coaches in the league over 60, including three over 65 — which puts them in the higher risk category, according to the CDC. No other major sports league has as high a percentage (41.6) of head coaches over 60.

“It's our job,” said Dallas Wings coach Brian Agler, who is one of the five. “I'm not more concerned because it's Florida, as the virus is hitting everywhere right now.”

Florida is one of the current hot spots for the virus in the U.S., with the state reporting more than 21,000 new cases this weekend, including more than 11,000 on Saturday.

While four of the five sexagenarian head coaches plan on being in Florida, Seattle’s Dan Hughes announced last month that he won’t coach after he was determined to be at higher risk for severe illness if he contracted COVID-19. The 65-year-old Hughes missed nine games last year after having a cancerous tumor removed from his digestive tract.

“I know that Dan had a difficult decision to forego the 2020 WNBA season," said Indiana Fever coach Marianne Stanley, who is 66. “My colleagues and I will certainly miss seeing him on the sidelines this summer; however, we all respect his decision to prioritize his health at this time and continue to wish him well.”

Gary Kloppenburg, who is 67, will take Hughes' place leading the Storm.

Los Angeles Sparks assistant Fred Williams, who is also in his 60s, will be working from home instead of going to Florida, citing precautionary health reasons.

Williams will continue his duties including scouting, practice and game preparation, and film study from home.

“I truly appreciate the Sparks organization for their understanding in this unprecedented situation,” Williams said. “I look forward to continuing to assist Coach (Derek) Fisher and the coaching staff remotely as we work towards a WNBA championship.”

All the coaches know the league is taking every precaution it can to ensure the safety of everyone heading to IMG Academy, including testing, mask wearing and social distancing.

“If people do what they are supposed to do, we’ll be safer than the rest of the country,” Thibault said. “We are going to a facility where we are minimizing risk and we should be in a safe environment.”

Bill Laimbeer has been socially distant since the pandemic hit, spending time in Michigan and Florida.

He is more concerned about the day-to-day operations for his team, the Las Vegas Aces, once it gets to Florida than worrying about contracting the virus.

“They definitely have the testing and medical protocols down,” the 63-year-old coach said.

Everyone headed to Florida will have had at least three coronavirus tests before arriving, according to the 2020 Season Player Guide obtained by The Associated Press. The players, coaches and staff will be tested daily the first few days they are quarantined in IMG Academy. They will then be tested regularly once training camp and the season begins.

The WNBA announced the first round of test results Monday, and seven of the 137 players have tested positive. The league and teams didn’t reveal who the players were, except that Indiana announced it has two of them.

The Fever will delay their travel by at least five days to self-quarantine in case any of them came into close contact with the infected players.

While the testing is clear, Laimbeer said there were a lot of unknowns as far as practice, game schedule and other basketball-related items.

“It's as clear as mud,” he deadpanned in a phone interview.

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