On Oct. 11, 2019, the Washington Mystics woke up as champions. Maybe a little hung over and certainly a bit exhausted after going the full five games in the WNBA Finals, but they started the day as the new champs of the league and had visions of the city’s next parade — and possibly more banners hanging from the rafters at Entertainment and Sports Arena.
It has been almost two years. So much has happened that Coach Mike Thibault chuckles when he’s asked about that day.
“I clearly remember,” Thibault said in a recent interview. “It was our one day of celebration.”
In the fall of 2019, there was no forecast of a pandemic. The words “novel” and “coronavirus” were familiar to epidemiologists but foreign to the rest of us. No one knew then, as nearly half of the Mystics’ roster prepared to board transatlantic flights to continue their playing careers, that the world was about to change. Covid-19 would affect all aspects of life, including sports. And few franchises have felt that string as acutely as this one.
“The pandemic started it, but I’ve experienced nothing like this in 50-plus years of coaching,” Thibault said, reflecting on the past two seasons. “This has been the hardest season I’ve ever had.”
The spread of the virus shattered the Mystics’ coronation. Given the unique nature of the WNBA, in which many players must immediately go overseas after the season ends to increase their income, the team postponed its parade until the spring of 2020. That parade, however, never happened. Before the start of the 2020 season, players and coaches gathered at team owner Sheila Johnson’s Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Va., for a ring ceremony. Everyone was socially distanced and wore masks. It was a nice substitute but not the same as having a party rolling down the streets of the District.
Then the coronavirus directly affected the franchise’s steps toward what was supposed to be a bright future and a wide-open window for winning more championships. The WNBA played its 2020 season inside a bubble in Bradenton, Fla. Instead of preparing to repeat, Washington looked nothing like the championship team it had been months before.
Tina Charles, the 2012 league MVP and the Mystics’ big acquisition that offseason, opted out of the season because she has asthma. Natasha Cloud sat out to focus on raising awareness for social justice. LaToya Sanders prioritized the health of her family. Elena Delle Donne requested a waiver for medical concerns. With 40 percent of the team’s salary being paid to players who were not suiting up, the Mystics were left with no cap space and no options to replace Aerial Powers when a hamstring injury ended her season just six games into the bubble.
The hits kept coming: Phoenix Mercury guard Shey Peddy, whom the Mystics had cut earlier in the season, made the game-winning shot to oust Washington from the first round of the playoffs.
The pain piled up: Alysha Clark, the team’s next big offseason pickup, hasn’t played this season because of a foot injury. On Aug. 22, Delle Donne, the two-time MVP and face of the franchise, returned to the court after missing nearly two years, but just 2½ games later, she aggravated her back and has been sidelined. Myisha Hines-Allen, Leilani Mitchell and Charles have experienced injuries, and the Mystics have missed 91 games due to injury.
Also, the burden of year-round basketball caught up in other ways: Emma Meesseman, the 2019 Finals MVP, was one of the first Mystics players to leave after the series to play in Russia. She returned stateside to carry the weight as the team’s No. 1 option in the bubble. But this season, as a free agent, she opted not to return because she needed rest.
The daily puzzle of figuring out a rotation — the Mystics have been forced to dress just six or seven players for some games this season — can wear on a coach.
“Literally every day, we all look at each other and [say]: ‘Okay, who can practice today? Who’s in and who’s out?’ ” Thibault said. “It’s just no fun when every day you have key players injured. It’s just not fun.”
Yet this team, which never got its parade and which had all of its momentum sapped by a pandemic, sits on the doorstep of the 2021 playoffs.
The Mystics, with their 12-18 record that shows the scars of the season, can clinch at least the eighth spot Friday with a win over the New York Liberty. Delle Donne’s status may remain in doubt, but imagine a healthy Mystics roster in the playoffs. Any opponent facing Washington in a one-game playoff series wouldn’t want that problem.
Washington’s championship window hasn’t slammed shut, but with problems looming this offseason — with Charles, Meesseman and Hines-Allen set to be free agents and Thibault accepting the grim reality of the salary cap — time is not on their side. The Mystics didn’t know it then, but the window that seemed to be widening Oct. 11, 2019, was already beginning its slow and inevitable closure. Still, Thibault can look over these past two years and see life lessons, if not as many victories as he expected.
“It’s not going to be a perfect world. You get dealt a bad hand; crap happens,” Thibault said. “It’s how you handle it. You learn a lot about yourself and others when you go through tough times.”