Mystics Leadership Promises Changes

By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A week after the Washington Mystics traded their second-leading scorer as part of a rebuilding effort, President and Managing Partner Sheila Johnson said yesterday that the deal was the first move in a new era of accountability for the team.

Johnson, who expressed her commitment to the Mystics, also was blunt about her frustration with Washington's lack of success on the court.

"The Mystics have been operating for too long without a long-term plan," Johnson said during a conference call with reporters. "In the three years that I have been an owner and a general partner our thinking has been far too shortsighted and our player-personnel decisions are far too needs-based. That all ends today."

The Mystics are 59-67 since Johnson took control of the team in 2005 when Lincoln Holdings became the majority ownership group. In its 11-year history, Washington is 70 games under .500 (142-212), including 10-16 this year.

"Our issue has not been lack of effort. It has been lack of talent," Johnson said. "This is pro basketball -- good coaching and gutty performances can only take a team so far. The Mystics need athletes and we need scorers and we need a roster of young ladies whose collective physical skills make other teams in the league dread the thought of playing us."

Despite their losing record, the Mystics are just two games out of the fourth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. Washington will have eight games remaining when the WNBA resumes its regular season after the Beijing Olympics, and interim head coach Jessie Kenlaw's up-tempo style of play and motivational strategies had increased players' optimism.

So when the decision was made to trade veteran forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin -- easily Washington's most consistent player this year -- for an unproven rookie, a second-year player and a second-round draft pick in 2009, fans began to question management's commitment.

Johnson, who has had some success overhauling the Mystics' business operations (average attendance is up to 8,995 from 7,788 in 2007 and sponsorship revenue has increased 26 percent), said the trade fits into her plan to rebuild the basketball operations and make the team into a perennial WNBA championship contender.

She supported fourth-year General Manager Linda Hargrove. "She has done a wonderful job and she knows what our new mission is," Johnson said. "Just like everybody else, she's going to be held to a higher standard."

But as Johnson asks fans to "hang in there" during the rebuilding, she knows they're running out of patience. "All of this is incredibly frustrating," said longtime season ticket holder Monica Brown, 43, of Washington. "Every three or four years we're told we have the right players, then the bottom falls out."

She said she appreciates Johnson's effort to reach out to the fans. "I think it's good that Sheila is stepping up and letting us know she cares," Brown said. "Some of us have wondered: 'Is this just a novelty item to her? Does she really care about women's basketball and this team?' At least she cares."

During the conference call, Greg Bibb, the Mystics' chief operating officer, echoed Johnson's intention to establish accountability throughout the organization. But Bibb emphasized that this season and playoff race have not been sacrificed.

"Even though this trade looks great for us from a future perspective," Bibb said, newly acquired rookie forward Tasha Humphrey and swing player Shay Murphy "fit Coach Kenlaw's up-tempo style of play. We feel very good about where we're going as a team this year."

Johnson and Bibb said that they will thoroughly evaluate the organization after the season, and that the team's performance over its remaining eight games beginning Aug. 29 will weigh heavily in all basketball decisions.

"There will be a lot of evaluation in the next month to come," Johnson said. "Everybody is on notice."

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