Another powerful woman was introduced to Washington last night. Her dais was a basketball court, her opening statement a running jump shot that hit nothing but net, her reception consisting of all of the pomp and circumstance a crowd of 20,674 at MCI Center could muster despite the Washington Mystics' season-opening 83-73 loss to the Charlotte Sting.
Mystics forward Chamique Holdsclaw, the most acclaimed female college basketball player in history, opened her professional career last night with 18 points and six rebounds in a debut that Mystics and WNBA officials hope will be remembered more as a lift-off than a first step.
Mayor Anthony Williams tossed up the ceremonial first ball, after having declared yesterday "Washington Mystics Day" in the District. With a high school band playing at halftime, a lively Mystics theme song to the tune of Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff," and a nearly full house (a couple thousand fans did not show up even though the attendance was announced as a sellout), Holdsclaw's debut had everything but -- she would later insist -- the most important thing:
The victory to go along with it.
"Never," said Holdsclaw, when asked the last time she lost a season opener. Holdsclaw, the first overall pick in this spring's WNBA draft, won three straight NCAA titles at the University of Tennessee after winning four straight state championships at Christ the King High School in New York. "I can't get used to it. We just have to work harder."
Television cameras, reporters, curious fans and famous local athletes followed Holdsclaw's No. 23 jersey all over the MCI Center court before and during the game. Holdsclaw gave about a dozen interviews before tip-off, walking from one courtside camera to another for live shots while most of her teammates warmed up on the court.
"I can't even imagine the kind of pressure she must feel -- or could maybe feel if she let it sink in," Mystics Coach Nancy Darsch said. "In my observation, she's handled it very gracefully."
Wizards players Chris Whitney, Jahidi White, Jeff McInnis and Randell Jackson sat in front-row seats. Maryland's Steve Francis sat a few seats away. Francis called, according to a Mystics staff member, requesting tickets because he "wanted to see Chamique play."
Holdsclaw's family and friends took the train from New York for tonight's game, and even June Holdsclaw, Chamique's 62-year-old grandmother, drew a bevy of television cameras at her third-row seat next to Holdsclaw's attorney, Lon Babby.
The attention seemed smothering to just about everyone. Except for Holdsclaw herself.
"It's like a blessing," Holdsclaw said. "Not every player gets the opportunity to be interviewed, to be a spokesperson for the game. I enjoy it. It's exciting for my grandmother -- she enjoys seeing me on TV. I don't look at is as a job. It's part of basketball now."
The hype and excitement over her debut says as much about Holdsclaw's promise and talent, perhaps, as it does about the remarkable growth of women's professional basketball in recent years. In its first two seasons, the WNBA averaged about 10,000 fans per game. The great players who preceded Holdsclaw, from Ann Meyers to Nancy Lieberman-Cline to Cheryl Miller, never attained the celebrity Holdsclaw achieved as a mere junior in college.
With her gliding style of play, ease in front of cameras, poise in pressure situations and grace with fans, Holdsclaw is figured to be among the players -- if not the player -- the three-year-old WNBA will build its future around. It was Holdsclaw who hit a soft jump shot with just seconds left in the first half to give the Mystics their first tie of the game. It was Holdsclaw who backed up and dropped a three-pointer early in the second half, as the shot clock nearly expired, and followed that minutes later with another that gave Washington a fleeting two-point advantage.
All that was for naught, however, as an 18-4 run by Charlotte gave the Sting a 14-point lead with just under three minutes remaining, smothering the Mystics' hope of overcoming perhaps the top team in the Eastern Conference.
Holdsclaw took consolation in the fact that the Mystics -- the league's worst team last season with a 3-27 record -- played competitively. Before the game, Wizards owner Abe Pollin seemed positively gleeful about last night's prospects -- and the prospects for an entire season with Holdsclaw.
"I haven't had a number one draft pick in a long time," said Pollin. "Chamique has a fantastic reputation and fantastic ability. I'm very excited. Having been in the NBA longer than anybody -- for 35 years -- I never envisioned anything like this."
Holdsclaw brings substance to an organization that thrived last summer on the catchy concept of "Girl Power," a team theme coined by Mystics and Wizards President Susan O'Malley. In an area filled with successful and ambitious women, as well as progressive parents seeking positive athletic role models for their children, the Mystics found a niche. They were so successful drawing fans last year, O'Malley regretted wasting $30,000 on curtains to cover empty seats in MCI Center. There were rarely empty seats.
This summer, instead of Girl Power, the Mystics have a powerful girl with a catchy nickname -- "Meek." Her game, though, is anything but.
"This is one of the most powerful cities in the world," said season ticket holder Kim Bruno, 32, of Harper's Ferry, W. Va. "We should have the most powerful women's basketball player here. And that is her."
CAPTION: No. 23 -- Chamique Holdsclaw -- is No. 1 for this fan. Attendance was announced as a sellout.
CAPTION: The Mystics' No. 1 draft pick, Chamique Holdsclaw, rises to the occasion in her debut, scoring 18 points and grabbing six rebounds.