Day 3 of a high intensity training camp had just concluded for the Washington Mystics on Wednesday afternoon, but Ivory Latta still bubbled with energy. The diminutive point guard stuck around the Verizon Center auxiliary court posing for pictures with children who were there to watch practice. Then she demonstrated some dribbling techniques to the enthralled audience that included child actor Miles Brown from the hit sitcom “Blackish.”
Entering her 10th season in the WNBA, Latta’s enthusiasm remains a constant on an overhauled roster that Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault has shaped into a championship contender. Latta’s place in that equation is as a veteran reserve, a shift the two-time all-star has handled with professionalism, according to coaches and teammates, when other players may not have been as accepting.
That team-first attitude was what initially compelled Thibault to make signing Latta a priority when he arrived in December 2012 to rebuild a team that had won 11 games combined the previous two seasons.
“She brought an energy to our franchise that I thought was missing,” Thibault said. “With her personality, with her style of play, with her ability to create shots and make big threes. I thought this team was blah when I got here. There were some individual personalities, but there wasn’t a pizzazz to the team, and I think she brings that, both on and off the court.”
Latta arrived at this camp seeking to get back to full health following surgery last season to repair a torn lateral meniscus in her right knee. The procedure was similar to that Washington Wizards point guard John Wall underwent during the last NBA offseason.
She is also vying for minutes in a crowded backcourt that includes projected starting point guard Kristi Toliver as well as Natasha Cloud, a starter at the position the past two years. Latta has played some off-guard too, but the Mystics are deep there as well, with Tayler Hill and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, the No. 6 overall pick in this year’s draft from Maryland.
But as the longest-tenured Mystics player by far, Latta, 32, is valued as much if not more for her leadership as her shot-making.
“It speaks volumes for who Ivory is,” Cloud said. “I was a huge fan ever since she was at North Carolina. She’s had a couple injuries she’s pushed through. She’s a great leader. She’s vocal. She’s our energy. She’s our mind on the court as well. It says a lot about who she not only as a player but as a person.”
Latta’s contagiously hopeful temperament stems in part from a cancer scare that recalibrated her outlook. Before the 2014 season, Latta went for a routine doctor’s visit that revealed a lump in her left breast. The pain was so excruciating, Latta recalled, that she nearly fell off the examination table when her physician began pressing the affected area.
An ultrasound indicated the mass appeared benign, but Latta couldn’t be sure until a biopsy confirmed those results.
Latta went on to start 33 of 34 games that season, leading the Mystics in scoring at 12.8 points per game. It was the second season out of three in a row in which she was Washington’s top scorer.
The knee ailment limited Latta to 22 games last season, with two starts. Thibault instead turned to Cloud, who started 28 games as part of an injury-depleted roster. Injuries contributed significantly to the Mystics missing the playoffs for the first time since Thibault arrived with the mandate to turn the club into a winner again.
Latta is the last remaining player on the roster from Thibault’s inaugural season, and she has been especially helpful teaching newcomers terminology as they get acclimated during training camp. Washington has four rookies on the active training camp roster as well as prominent veterans who joined in the offseason, most notably Elena Delle Donne and Toliver.
“I was like a kid [the night before training camp]. I really couldn’t sleep. I’m just so excited because I prayed to God for 10 years, and I’m at 10 and just like, man, I’m actually going to another training camp,” said Latta, who is entering her 11th season in the WNBA.
“It’s like so surreal, but at the same time it’s like I’ve still got the same energy. I’ve still got the same passion. I’ve still got the same love for the game.”