In the early days of the WNBA when all the franchises were sisters to NBA operations, most of the teams took on nicknames akin to those of big brother. So when Washington arrived to become part of the same ownership of the NBA Wizards, it seemed appropriate to be called the Mystics. The Washington Mystics claim to be celebrating their 15th season in the WNBA, one less than the entire history of the pro league launched in the summer of 1997. Truth be told, there hasn’t been much to celebrate in that span. Elite players have come through the roster and coaches have come and gone through the front office turnstiles in the Verizon Center at a more rapid pace than politicians in nation’s capital.
Year one saw the Mystics go 3-27, a mark of futility that stood until an expanded schedule in later years to 34 games enabled the Tulsa Shock to top it by percentage performance last season with a woeful 3-31 record. But in the pre-lottery era, Washington’s ineptness earned the Mystics the right to the No. 1 overall pick and selected Tennessee superstar Chamique Holdsclaw. It seemed the way to go despite the seasoned superstars who were arriving in the same draft as refugees from the disbanded American Basketball League. (Yolanda Griffith, incidentally, the former ABL All-Star went second.)
Within a few seasons Holdsclaw began to suffer from mental health issues and was never able to lead the Mystics to the championship experience of her collegiate days when Tennessee captured NCAA trophies in 1997 and 1998. She was eventually traded to Los Angeles and then moved on to several other clubs. Holdsclaw, incidentally, now totally healthy again, though not in the league, currently has a book on her life which has just hit the market.
Playoffs for the Mystics were few and far between, though an early experience came under Marianne Stanley who has since returned as an assistant to Trudi Lacey. Then two seasons ago, Washington finally shook off years of misery, had its best-regular finish tying New York for first and taking the No. 1 seed in the East before losing to the Atlanta Dream in the first round.
But just when it seemed the Mystics had arrived at last, general manager Angela Taylor and coach Julie Plank were let go and two key injuries – an offseason leg injury to former Duke star Monique Currie, and an ankle injury to another former Blue Devil sensation, Alana Beard, in the early days of training camp, sent Washington on a plunge to a franchise second-worst 6-28 performance.
There was one highlight, however, that proved costly to the Los Angeles Sparks playoff chances when Washington rallied from a 24-point deficit in the second half at the Staples Center in Tinseltown. On the other hand, Los Angeles won the lotto and was able to pick former Stanford star Nneka Oguwmike last month as the overall No. 1 pick in what was a lean pile of hopefuls.
Washington’s pick, which became No. 3, in the lotto was owned via trade with the WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx, who, unlike the Mystics, eventually figured out how to translate a succession of lottery acquisitions, highlighted by former UConn star Maya Moore, into pouring champagne and capture the title trophy. However, Coach and General Manager Trudi Lacey, is quick to point out, beneath the stark bottom line of the Washington won-loss record is the fact that the Mystics were in 15 games that at the final two-minute mark still had the outcome undetermined (the Mystics lost 13 games by 8 points or less)
In the wake of that calamity as another season has gotten under way, Washington players at their recent media day could have been singing “Getting To Know You” from the all-time hit Broadway play and Hollywood movie “The King And I.” Only four players have been kept from last season on the 11-player roster. The mainstay is center Crystal Langhorne, the former Maryland star who helped the Terrapins win the 2006 NCAA title; former Duke star guard Jasmine Thomas, who was a rookie; and Currie, who is back to full strength; and Matee Ajavon, the former Rutgers star who stepped up in the backcourt getting more minutes in place of Beard. “This year my biggest thing will be consistency,” said Ajavon.
Trades and free-agent signees have resulted in veteran post players being acquired such as 6-4 center Ashley Robinson, 6-5 center Michelle Snow – both Tennessee alums – and 6-2 forward Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton, who was claimed on waivers after being let go by the Chicago Sky. Additionally, Jen Gillom, the former Los Angeles coach let go in early July last year, has been signed as an assistant coach and is also on the staff of UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s USABasketball Olympic squad.
“This is great,” said Langhorne, who may have set a WNBA record for gritting teeth a year ago in the wake of all those narrow defeats. “Now I’ll have the shot-blockers in the league alongside me instead of going against them. “We have a lot more veterans so at practice things are going a lot quicker because (Lacey) doesn’t have to repeat herself and explain to a lot of rookies what we need to do. “With the veterans, having Monique back, is going to help us a lot this year.”
Additional backcourt help comes from 13-year veteran Dominique Canty, the former Alabama all-American; Natasha Lacy, and first-round draft pick Natalie Novosel, who was on the last two Notre Dame NCAA runnersup.
“So far players have embraced what we want to do,” Lacey said. “They’re very coachable. Great group to work with. We have veterans and veteran leadership. We’re very excited and optimistic about the season.” That was on media day. Two weeks later, however, the season didn’t exactly get off to an upbeat start as the Mystics dropped their home opener, 69-57 to the Chicago Sky.
Lacey bemoaned another one that got away because of self-inflicted turnovers, though she said most of the miscues are correctable after viewing the game on tape. Washington, however, has little time to figure things out. Following Saturday night’s cross-conference matchup at home against Tulsa, the schedule, even with a fair share of home games, is brutal straight to the Olympic break.
But failure, like in the inaugural season, will have a superior reward if the Mystics miss the playoffs and then get anything but the No. 4 pick in next April’s draft. A year from now, a high pick could result in either Baylor sensation Brittney Griner joining Bears quarterback alum Robert Griffin III, the sensational rookie pick of the NFL Redskins, in the local sports scene; or Elena Delle Donne from nearby Delaware who’s notable fan is Vice President Biden, the former U.S. Senator and Blue Hens alum; or Novosel’s former Notre Dame teammate sensation Skylar Diggins.