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For the Mystics’ Brittney Sykes, tattoos tell a comeback story

Brittney Sykes has been a welcome addition to the Washington Mystics. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
6 min

Brittney Sykes has a tattoo on her shin of a long road headed toward a mountain with landmarks along her path. On the left is her high school. A Syracuse logo comes up on the right. The WNBA crest follows on the left before the Olympic rings back on the right. The road curls into a mountain that crowns on top of the scar still visible from one of two ACL surgeries from college.

It’s a manifestation piece for me,” Sykes explained.

The Washington Mystics guard, better known as “Slim,” has inked a collage of her life and mind-set across her body. She calls her skin a canvas and on it has painted the complicated picture that is her existence. The road represents Sykes’s journey. The mountain is the giant challenge that was the comeback from those two ACL tears.

Both legs are covered with tattoos along with much of her back — places that can be hidden to appease her mother. Sykes gets away with bible verses on her wrist. There was a time in college when she hid all of her tattoos from Regina Sykes. Mom didn’t play when it came to the tattoos — or a variety of things when Brittney was young. It wasn’t until her junior year of high school that Sykes could attend basketball tournaments on weekends if there were games Sunday. There was no missing church to play ball until a high school coach insisted that she needed to showcase her talents to get a free ride to college. That free ride turned into an appearance in the 2016 national championship game and a seven-year WNBA career. She has been named to the all-defensive teams the past three seasons.

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Regina just needed to understand, and that can be a challenge with her daughter. Sykes is the first to explain that she’s often misunderstood. She actually depicted that on her leg with a tattoo of the Joker. Sykes will dive deep into a synopsis of why the Batman villain is also misunderstood. Putting it more bluntly, Sykes also has a tattoo of the word “misunderstood.” She can come off gruff at times, but teammates quickly talk about how she lights up a room with her never-ending energy. She has to be critical as a leader, and there may be a few too many swear words. Sykes’s competitiveness is so visceral it that can be felt in the stands. But that passion isn’t always understood.

Especially competitive Slim … competitive Slim is an a--hole,” Sykes said with a laugh. “And I know that about myself, though. And I don’t apologize for it, but I can curve my language in a sense, to where they’re receptive.

Mystics guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough added: She’ll say something, but she’s also open to that open dialogue, seeing that person’s perspective. And that’s great.”

Sykes, one of the best defenders in the league, was the most significant offseason addition for the Mystics, the best defensive team in the league last season. She has actually been better than advertised. The biggest criticism of the Mystics’ offseason was they didn’t add enough shooting. Well, Sykes is shooting 50 percent from behind the arc and ranks second on the Mystics (1-2) behind Elena Delle Donne. She has led the league in steals the past two seasons and is currently ranked ninth (2.3).

“You know how active she is defensively,” Mystics Coach Eric Thibault said, “but until you see it up close every day and just how much she disrupts with hands and feet, it’s another level. I’m still trying to figure out ways to get her some opportunities to play in space offensively because I think she can make some plays for us.”

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All of this almost never happened. Sykes suffered the pair of ACL tears within 10 months at Syracuse, and those were some of the worst days of her life. Former Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman remembers the second tear, when she was running up the court and just stopped to lean against the basket. Sykes didn’t crumble to the floor, but both knew it had happened again.

“She really approached it with as much seriousness as I’ve ever seen a player approach [an injury],” Hillsman said. “I remember one time she was down the training room and she had a towel over her head and I pulled the towel off and she was crying. I asked what was wrong, and she goes, ‘It hurts.’”

Sykes said that second surgery changed her forever. She had a newfound appreciation for the game that continues to fuel her today. That’s why Sykes is a ball of energy on the floor, never seeming to take a play off. The time off the court forced her to learn the game in a different way and work on the mental part instead of just relying on her physical gifts.

“It saved my career in the sense of I just don’t take possessions off,” Sykes said. “I had to promise myself and God, if I get another chance at this [I won’t take it for granted].

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That’s why Sykes also has a tattoo of the word “resilient.” She knows the game was almost taken away. And she wouldn’t have fulfilled a promise to her grandfather, who passed away in 2016. He used to watch Sykes and her cousins play ball in the backyard while he cleaned fish. He is also memorialized in the form of a Swiss Army knife tattoo because he used to collect pocket knives. The tattoo is a copy of one he gave her.

“Slim is such a beautiful human being, and you can see it in spurts from afar,” Mystics guard Natasha Cloud said, “but you don’t really understand it until you’re in it. Who she is as a human being is by far one of the dopest souls I’ve met. Someone that takes it personal, like I do myself, of being energy and light to everyone.”