When Nikki McCray-Penson met Abe Pollin in 1998 after she became the first player assigned to the District’s WNBA expansion team, the shooting guard looked at the late owner’s 1978 Washington Bullets championship ring and vowed to bring the city its first title in 20 years.

“That’s my goal,” McCray-Penson, who left the rival American Basketball League after winning MVP honors and leading the Columbus Quest to the crown in 1997, said at her introductory news conference. “I know it’s going to be tough. … But if you work for it, it can happen.”

The Washington Mystics went 3-27 and were outscored by an average of 15.4 points in their inaugural season. Twenty-one years later, the franchise is the favorite to finally win its first title after a record-breaking regular season, and McCray-Penson, who is about to enter her third season as coach of the Old Dominion University women, couldn’t be happier for her former team and its fan base.

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“It is time,” McCray-Penson, 47, said in a phone interview Wednesday, hours after the Mystics defeated the Las Vegas Aces in Game 1 of their best-of-five semifinal series. “To get a player like Elena Delle Donne, someone that you can put pieces around, it’s been really special to see, and I’m happy for the organization. D.C. always had the greatest fans, and it’s a place that will always hold a special place in my heart.”

The 1998 WNBA season was a rude awakening for McCray-Penson, who was a star at Tennessee and won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics before arriving in D.C.

“When you’re used to winning, you don’t realize everyone has different backgrounds and comes from different systems, some accustomed to winning and some not,” she said. “You have to have people around you who understand what that looks like to win on a daily basis. But we worked hard and laid the foundation, and although the wins didn’t add up, the fans enjoyed the product on the floor. The fans were invested in our team.”

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McCray-Penson, who averaged a team-best 17.7 points that first season, was a fan favorite. The Mystics led the WNBA in attendance in each of their first two seasons, averaging more than 15,000 at what was then known as MCI Center.

“The support that we had from the city, the fans that came out every night to watch us play, was awesome,” said center Murriel Page, who averaged 8.3 points and 6.9 rebounds as a rookie in 1998 after becoming the first player drafted by the Mystics. “As a player, you just wanted to make it to the playoffs for them, win a championship, because they were so devoted to us.”

The Mystics selected Tennessee star Chamique Holdsclaw with the No. 1 pick of the 1999 draft. Despite a 14-18 regular season record, the team qualified for the playoffs for the first time the following year, only to be swept by the New York Liberty in a best-of-three first-round series. Washington traded McCray-Penson to the Indiana Fever after the 2001 season. Page was dealt to the Los Angeles Sparks in March 2006. Both endured far more losses than wins in Washington.

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“We did a lot in the community, but unfortunately, in my time there, we didn’t win a championship,” said Page, now an assistant coach at Central Michigan.

McCray-Penson and Page still keep in touch with Mystics assistant coach Marianne Stanley, who was the head coach when the team advanced to the conference finals for the first time in 2002, and follow the team from afar. McCray-Penson is even considering bringing her team to D.C. for a game should the Mystics advance to the WNBA Finals for a second straight year.

Before being hired by ODU, where she led the Monarchs to a 13-win improvement last season, McCray-Penson spent nine years as an assistant at South Carolina. Led by forward A’ja Wilson, the No. 1 pick by Las Vegas in last year’s WNBA draft, the Gamecocks won the national title in 2017. While McCray-Penson would like to see her former player perform well against Washington, she said she’s “definitely rooting for the Mystics” to advance.

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Page, 44, is confident that Washington’s regular season success, including a franchise-record 26 wins, will continue in the postseason.

“I think having Emma [Meesseman] back, that was a missing piece,” she said of the Mystics forward, who didn’t play for Washington last year while competing for the Belgian national team and scored a game-high 27 points in Tuesday’s win. “The players have just really improved. Natasha Cloud is having an amazing season; she’s taken her game to another level. They have a good mix of experience and young, eager players that want to be part of something great.”

Page is still in contact with a few Mystics fans who have been following the team since its inauspicious first year.

“I know the city is loving it,” Page said. “Seeing that D.C. fans are finally being rewarded and that they built a great team there, it’s really good to see.”

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