The Washington Mystics have spent the last year pining for a winning record.
In the locker room before games, they speak about it with reverence: "All we really want is to get over .500," guard Alana Beard has said. "That's our magic number."
During practices, Coach Michael Adams uses the benchmark for motivation: "What do you think Seattle or Los Angeles is doing right now?" Adams barked during a scrimmage, referring to two of the league's top teams. "You need to work for that winning record."
The Mystics have not surpassed .500 since they won the first game of the 2003 season. It's been 14 months. But now they are on the cusp of their goal. Three straight wins -- including one against the Storm on Wednesday -- has them at 8-8.
Tonight at 6 they play the Charlotte Sting at Charlotte Coliseum. With a win, the Mystics would solidify themselves as serious playoff contenders. A loss, though, would knock them right back where they have been for most of the past two seasons.
"It's big, because you kind of define yourself by what side you're on," guard Tamicha Jackson said. "If you've got a winning record, you feel awesome. If you're losing, you feel like a loser, too."
It's an identity issue the Mystics have battled all season. They've lost so consistently they sometimes wonder if they're capable of anything else.
Conscious of the Mystics' losing tradition -- a 75-138 franchise record -- Adams spent time early in the season trying to persuade his players to erase memories of the past. When guard Coco Miller mused about last season's 9-25 record before a recent game, Adams told her: "Don't even think about it. That doesn't help anyone."
"In order to build a winning mind-set, you have to erase the losing one," said Patrick Cohn, author of several books on sports psychology. "You have to start clean and build a new identity. And, of course, you have to win."
The Mystics have done that lately. Their modest win streak includes a 71-54 drubbing of the New York Liberty on Thursday, plus one over the Storm, perhaps the league's best team. The wins, though, seem to have impacted the Mystics' outlook even more than their record. After her team beat Seattle, Washington star Chamique Holdsclaw told her teammates, "When we go to New York, we should definitely win."
"We're starting to get that attitude, like 'We can beat anybody is this league,' " Adams said. "Now we've just got to work on getting a record that proves it."