The Washington Mystics are going to the playoffs for the third time in team history despite their seventh coaching change in seven years, despite integrating three new starters and despite the loss of the player who for five seasons has been the focal point of the franchise.
It's an impressive feat on the surface, and even more so when one considers the postseason malaise that seems to afflict the region -- three playoff trips in the past five years matches the Capitals for most of any team in the Washington area. And the Mystics (17-17), who host the Connecticut Sun (18-16) tomorrow in the first game of the best-of-three Eastern Conference semifinals, are not about to let the accomplishment go unrewarded.
Team President Susan O'Malley said this week Michael Adams, the first-year coach, will return next season.
"We're in the playoffs. Michael is coming back next year," said O'Malley. "The players have real affection and want to play for Michael. They want him to be successful."
Adams is one big reason for the Mystics' success. Another is Pat Summitt, whose rather vague title of "player personnel consultant" only hints at the effect she has had on a team that has improved eight games over last year's 9-25 mark.
Since seeking the sage advice of Summitt, the University of Tennessee women's coach regarded as the grande dame of women's basketball, Washington has earned playoff bids in two of the last three seasons, posted the franchise's only winning record (17-15 in 2002) and built a roster that this year proved it could win without relying on three-time all-star Chamique Holdsclaw.
"I give Pat full credit for the team's entire success on the court," O'Malley said. "She's picked almost all of the team's players and we don't make a personnel move without her."
Summitt's hand-picked roster and Adams's work on the sidelines were a major reason the team won seven of its final 10 games -- including a five-game winning streak down the stretch -- while Holdsclaw sat out with an undisclosed medical condition.
The team's sudden success seemed to surprise everyone except the players in the locker room.
"The players realized that if this team was going to have some success, they were going to have to rely a little bit more on each other to get it done," Adams said, referring to how the team regrouped in Holdsclaw's absence.
"Two weeks ago, I thought they were dead in the water," said Houston Comets Coach Van Chancellor. "There's no question that Washington has improved its personnel. Anything Pat Summitt touches seems to turn to gold."
Summitt had a hand in drafting guards Stacey Dales-Schuman and rookie Alana Beard, acquired center Chasity Melvin and traded for guard Tamicha Jackson.
"Beard was a no-brainer," Summitt said, referring to the guard who was expected to be the draft's first or second choice. Beard hasn't disappointed anyone, averaging 13.1 points and stepping up to play an even larger role in Holdsclaw's absence. Mystics assistant coach Linda Hargrove, who coached Jackson when both were with the WNBA's now defunct Portland Fire, "knew she was a good player," Summitt said. "Everybody joins in to help make these decisions."
In the beginning some questioned Summitt's moves.
Heading into the 2002 WNBA draft, former Mystics coach Marianne Stanley doubted whether Dales-Schuman was a lethal enough scorer for the WNBA, according to Summitt. But Summitt was keen on the 6-footer, who had led Oklahoma to the NCAA finals.
"After the finals I broke down all of [Dales-Schuman's] playoff games on videotape," said Summitt, 52. "You watch her over and over and you see her great instincts and what a skilled player she is. She's not the best scorer, but she makes a lot of things happen on the floor. Marianne saw that too on the tapes."
In her three seasons with Washington, Dales-Schuman has become one of the team's most versatile athletes, playing guard and forward, shooting three-pointers and finding open shooters. She is the team's fourth-leading scorer this season with 8.2 points a game.
O'Malley first wanted Summitt to coach the Mystics. When Summitt declined, O'Malley talked her into running the club. To sell Summitt on the idea O'Malley hunted down NBA Commissioner David Stern, who was in Switzerland at the time, and asked him to call Summitt on Washington's behalf.
Tennessee allowed Summitt to take the job with the understanding that her role with the Mystics would be a limited one. But O'Malley says that Summitt, who has a year left on her contract, is the club's general manager in every way save for the title.
The former coach of the U.S. team that won gold in the 1984 Olympics watches videotape of games and offers advice to players. She got the team to give players personality tests, which measure such things as competitive drive and work ethic. When Stanley resigned a year ago, Summitt interviewed the coaching candidates. Adams won the job, and has paid dividends.
"In the beginning, I had to learn the players," Adams said. "I had to figure out what they could do and learn who to play in my rotation. And in the beginning, when looking at what we had, it was about building around Chamique Holdsclaw."
Normally, a coach who ushers his team into the playoffs in his first year could expect to return, but no Mystics coach has lasted two full seasons. In addition, there were media reports that Adams had a feud with Holdslaw and would likely come out on the short end of a power struggle.O'Malley dismissed the report.
"Nobody on the team has any problems with Michael," O'Malley said. "He's had a phenomenal year."