In an office in the basement of MCI Center, away from her players, away from the cameras, Mystics Coach Nancy Darsch sat in a chair and started to cry. It is said that one of the best things about coaching is that there's no heavy lifting, but the truth is, Darsch has been carrying a heavy heart since the death of her mother less than two weeks before the start of the WNBA season. Two weeks later, her brother, Jack, had open-heart surgery.

In her office, she tried to regain her composure but didn't completely succeed as she talked about how hard it has been to adjust to the loss of her mother at the same time that she was preparing to get a team of new, young players ready to play pro basketball.

"It's not like I'm going to quit," she said. "What choice do I have?"

Darsch, in her first season as Washington's coach after being fired by the New York Liberty last season, has maintained a stoic demeanor on the bench while watching the Mystics struggle to a 3-9 start.

"It certainly makes it difficult and pulls you in a lot of different ways," Darsch said. "I think for the most part I've blocked a lot of it out and really just gotten into the coaching thing."

Darsch's mother, Arlene, had liver cancer diagnosed in November 1998. Following abdominal surgery in April, doctors told her she had two months to live. Through it all, Arlene kept laughing, Darsch said.

"She [retained] her sense of humor right up until the last day that she could talk," Darsch said.

On May 31, Arlene died at age 78 at her home in Plymouth, Mass. Darsch had left Mystics training camp May 29 to join her brother at their mother's bedside. In her absence, the Mystics played two preseason games in preparation for the June 10 season opener. Darsch returned to the team June 6.

"The longer I stayed, the chance of me not coming back was bigger," Darsch said. "I had to leave [Plymouth]. I had to come back and get into a new routine and get away from that. There was nothing more to do down there."

Darsch was caught up in her coaching duties when Jack, a diabetic who already has had half of one leg amputated, successfully underwent open-heart surgery June 17.

When the team was losing in the beginning of the season, Darsch was quick to yell at or criticize players. As the season and her mother's death have set in, she has unwound a little.

"She's still been tight on us and has been hard on us," Mystics forward Shalonda Enis said. "When it happened, we called her and told her that we loved her and supported her, but since she's been back I don't think she's let it affect the team. She's yelled at us when we've needed it. We've had intense practices and games."

Away from the court, Darsch still gets teary-eyed when recalling a particularly meaningful memory of her mother. And she gets nervous when talking about Jack's recovery.

"I think it's too early to tell how all of this has affected her," said Mystics assistant coach Melissa McFerrin, who has spent the last nine years working with Darsch, as an assistant at Ohio State and then with the Liberty. "It happened in training camp and we've all been working 18-hour days since."

Said Darsch: "At the beginning of the season, it seemed like things were going so fast that I didn't get to watch the game a lot. I'm taking a little more time now. I'm watching the game more. I'm learning how to use our personnel more effectively. They need that more than the yelling at this point."

Darsch, 47, has promised herself she will wait until the Mystics' season ends in late August to fully sort out her feelings about her mother's death. Until then, she will continue to work to improve the play of her team and keep the painful memories at bay. "I have to focus on the coaching aspect now," Darsch said. "There are other people who have gone through the same thing I am. It just happens that I do my job in front of 17,000 people. But I feel for the people going through it, and they have to go on with their lives. You have to go on. That's what it's about. Everyone has to go through it, and it's my turn now."

MYSTICS PREVIEW

Data: vs. Detroit Shock.

Where: The Palace of Auburn Hills.

When: 1 p.m.

TV: WRC-4, WBAL-11.

Radio: WTEM-980.

Records: Washington 3-9, Detroit 5-7.

Injuries: Mystics F Heather Owen (shoulder) is on the injured list. Detroit reported no injuries.

CAPTION: `Nancy Darsch has no time to take timeout. "I've blocked a lot of it," new coach said of family struggles.