There was no civic pep rally for Dawn Staley when she arrived in Charlotte a few weeks ago. The growing legion of fans that cares passionately about women's basketball wasn't circling the date of her debut with the WNBA's Sting. The league and the TV networks apparently didn't, maybe couldn't, do anything about Charlotte's league-low two appearances on national television this season. But my goodness, Dawn Staley can run a basketball team and manage a game.

After the VIP luncheons, and ceremonies honoring pioneering women, and proclamations from the mayor of the nation's capital, they actually had to play a basketball game at MCI Center last night.

Given all the hype, it was quite a feat that the debut of Chamique Holdsclaw didn't disappoint anybody. The crowd was large, the volume was pumped up, and Holdsclaw's 18-point, six-rebound performance was better than solid. Also, there is every reason to be encouraged that the Mystics will be a good team sooner rather than later because Holdsclaw, Nikki McCray, Shalonda Enis, Andrea Nagy and Murriel Page are all fine players. This isn't last year's 3-27 outfit, not by a long shot.

But the best player on the MCI Center court last night was Staley, all 5 feet 6 of her. It was partly the 23 points on 10-for-15 shooting, partly the three three-pointers, partly the seven assists to only one turnover, and partly the efficient savvy with which she controls a game, her team and her opponent. It's the way she knows how to attack one time, while deciding to lay back the next time. Holdsclaw will come by that stuff, the stuff that makes a great pro player, in time. But Staley has it now. How she slipped to become the ninth player taken in the draft is anybody's guess.

Christy Winters, an assistant coach at the University of Maryland and a woman who had to play against Staley in college, began saying months ago that while Holdsclaw would immediately start to live up to her billing, Staley would be the real deal from the moment she put on a WNBA uniform. "When I was a junior at Maryland, she was a freshman at Virginia," Winter said. "She had a rep coming in. Right away she came in and dominated. And she's been great ever since. I guess the questions about her concerned her knees. There certainly couldn't be any issues about her ability; I guess it was her durability."

Her knees are just fine, Staley says. So is her game, so is her sense of humor. Late in the game, when Staley told referee Michael Henderson she was angry at herself for missing two free throws, a fan sitting courtside yelled, "Hey Staley, stop flirting with the ref!" Staley shot the patron a mischievous grin and said, "I'd flirt with you if you were the ref."

Staley embodies one of the primary differences between men and women in sports. There's no way that men in any professional sport would be as accommodating, as complimentary, and as genuinely pleased for a rookie's pre-career billing as the women in the WNBA are for Holdsclaw. "I just don't see the need for resentment when somebody's won three NCAA championships and a national player of the year award," Staley said of Holdsclaw. "She's deserving of all the accolades and I can't think of many players -- there might not be any -- who could have handled all this as well as she has. . . . That team is going to be good. It takes some time to adjust to each other, especially when you have two superstars like Nikki [McCray] and Chamique. But they've got the same schooling, they've had the same coaching; they'll be really good."

They also should have been in better position to win the season opener. Now, any coach ought to have a honeymoon period before columnists start taking shots. But since Nancy Darsch has gone on record saying she doesn't read the newspapers, I won't have to beg her pardon.

It was still a tight game, 73-67 in favor of Charlotte with 4 minutes 50 seconds left, when McCray and Enis went to the scorer's table to check back into the game. By the time they actually got onto the floor, with 3:07 to play, Charlotte had run off six more points to make it 79-67, game over. That's 1:43 of waiting at the table. Darsch said afterward she perhaps should have used a timeout. Amen.

Also, McCray had been on the bench for 4:40 in that second-half stretch, which is way too long a rest for a great player in a tight game. Holdsclaw, who can create a shot whenever she wants, sat on the bench from 12:42 until the 7:47 mark. A five-minute sit for The Franchise on a night where she hit seven of her first 11 shots? In those final 12 minutes -- I'd call that Crunch Time -- the Mystics played without McCray or Holdsclaw from 12:42 to 3:07. That's nearly 9 1/2 minutes of not playing with your two best players. Way, way, way too long. But hey, it's Game 1 of a 32-game season, right? Coaches need tune-ups, too.

And as long as I've got a head of steam here, what's the deal with the attendance figures? The attendance was announced as a sellout, 20,674 fans, when it wasn't. It just wasn't. Stevie Wonder could have seen the vacant blue seats at MCI Center. There's no need to embellish. It was a wonderful crowd of 17,000 or so. What's the point of padding the figures? It's insulting. Would it have dampened the enthusiasm to have simply given an accurate count?

Of course not. The enthusiasm for this team is still growing, and with good reason, given the team that has been assembled. You think people in high places aren't dialing into the Mystics? Andrea Nagy (pronounced Naj), who is Hungarian, was invited to a luncheon this week and sat at the main table with Vice President and Mrs. Gore, Tony Curtis and the president of Hungary, Arpad Goncz. A couple of weeks ago in Sacramento, Chris Webber said, "I need to find an XXXL Chamique jersey because I'm going to come and sit at courtside to watch her play." Steve Francis, Chris Whitney, Jahidi White, Jeff McInnis and Randell Jackson were among those sitting in floor seats last night.

They saw in Enis a 6-1 woman who can score inside and out, in Nagy a point guard who can dish it (12 assists), in McCray a guard who can slash or spot up with equal comfort, in Page a woman who can come off the bench and score inside, and in Holdsclaw an all-court wizard. There's enough here to bring people back again and again and again. And if every seat isn't sold, the few who didn't make it are the ones missing out.