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Mystakes No More; Mystics Are Champs

As the clock ran down at the end of last week’s fifth and deciding game of the WNBA Finals, the one that brought a championship to the Washington Mystics for the first time in the 22-year history of the franchise, I got well, a little misty.

With a couple of exceptions, I don’t know any of the players. I didn’t go to any games this year, and I haven’t been to a Mystics game in at least five years.

But, for those two-decades plus, the Washington Mystics have been as much a part of my summers as hot dogs, hamburgers and fireworks on the Fourth of July.

However, while the aforementioned are almost always guaranteed to provide joy, watching and rooting for the Mystics has, until last Thursday, been a bittersweet proposition.

Take that inaugural 1998 season, for instance. The Mystics, who joined the WNBA as an expansion team in the league’s second season, won their home opener before a record crowd of nearly 21,000.

Two months later, that first season ended with a 105-69 home loss to Charlotte, one of 27 setbacks in a 30-game schedule.

Things were hardly that magical as that first night for a long time. Oh, the Mystics would get close to success here and there, but there was mostly losing and mediocrity.

That, and turmoil. They managed to convince the great Pat Summitt to come in and serve as a de facto general manager while keeping her day job as coach at Tennessee. It was one of the late Summitt’s few setbacks in her dazzling career.

Over the seasons, players came and went. So did the coaches, five in the franchise’s first six seasons. And the crowds, which had been the envy of the league, eventually dwindled.

In the process, the Mystics earned the nickname Mystakes and became irrelevant, which is the worst thing to be in a status-conscious city like Washington.

But the team’s fortunes took a decided turn following the 2012 season when they hired Mike Thibeault, to be coach and general manager.

Thibeault, who had served similar roles with the Connecticut Sun, after being an assistant in the NBA, brought a low-key, no-nonsense approach. He put his head down and set about building a winner.

The Mystics showed some slow improvement in Thibeault’s first four years, before he rolled the dice and traded a package of promising young players and draft picks to Chicago for talented forward Elena Delle Donne.

The 6-foot-5 Delle Donne brought star power and a graceful game. Adding her to Belgian forward Emma Messeman, the MVP of the Finals, was an important step. Then Thibeault brought in former Maryland star Kristi Toliver before last season and the Mystics took off.

They were swept in the league finals last season, but used that hurt, and the energy from a new, smaller arena to compile the best record in the WNBA this season, culminating in Thursday’s win over Thibeault’s old team, the Sun for the title.

It will be another nine months before I can, but I will get to a Mystics game next summer. I have to see that banner.

And that’s how I see it for this week. You can reach us via email with your questions and 

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.