The moment was significant not only because it helped stave off a brief fourth-quarter run by the Sun and sealed what became a 95-86 win in the first game of the best-of-five championship series, a series in which the Mystics didn’t win a game a year ago. But it also reminded of the connective tissue between this Southeast Washington neighborhood, where the Mystics’ new Entertainment and Sports Arena was planted earlier this year, and the game of basketball that has been one of the few things celebrated on this side of the Anacostia River but has been feared to be fraying.
For just up MLK Boulevard from this new gym, toward Interstate 295, is a little street named Sumner. For over a generation, it has been home to the most recent of our city’s iconic summer basketball destinations, the outdoor court named after the Barry Farm housing project that backs it. The summer league that plays there is officially known as the Goodman League. Years ago, it came to supplant the Urban Coalition League as the place where D.C. street legends balled with and against D.C. pro legends and others, eliciting the same “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowds for every shake-and-bake, off-balance, ice-cold shot as those that serenaded Atkins on Sunday.
But the same development that the Mystics’ new gym is a part of here is threatening not just the organic basketball at Barry Farm but the very culture of the game in this city, which has come to define it as much as go-go music and mumbo sauce. Barry Farm residents started disappearing over the past few years with housing vouchers pushing them to move elsewhere and make room for gentrification. So the basketball court, where go-go music blared and fans heckled and hooted, can’t be far behind.
But the Mystics seem to have picked up as best they could what the Barry Farm court laid down. And it has appeared reciprocated.
“As you’ve all witnessed here, the atmosphere in the arena is terrific with the fans and how they’re on top of everybody, and it’s loud,” Mystics Coach-General Manager Mike Thibault said after Sunday’s game. “It’s given us a home-court advantage we’ve never had, certainly in my seven years in D.C.”
Until this year, the Mystics played downtown in the Wizards’ arena, drawing a crowd that was sparse inside the NBA-sized building. And when the team advanced to the Finals last season, it became nomadic because of planned renovations to the arena. It played at George Mason. And got swept.
This new arena seats just 4,200 and is all for the Mystics — save for the G League’s Capital City Go-Go, which plays here during the regular NBA season.
“The intimate setting is terrific,” Thibault said. “Our players feed off that.”
The energy was palpable. It helped fuel them Sunday to within two wins of bringing a championship not just to D.C. but to a little-thought-of part of the city. And they did so with style.
“And then to be able to walk in a building and know that we’re important to somebody, to ownership, to the rest of the organization,” Thibault said. “You see the Wizards’ players and staff here supporting us, and it makes a big difference. [The players] know that they’re cared about.”
And the players care about the neighborhood to which they have arrived. They know the perception. They don’t want to be part of what is seen as problematic — the displacement of longtime residents.
“It was big moving into this neighborhood,” point guard Natasha Cloud said after the first WNBA Finals game in this part of town. “I wanted us to be an ally to the community.”
Cloud was outspoken all season about the gun violence that has plagued this part of the city. She established a section of seats in the new arena for gun-violence survivors to use.
The team sponsored a back-to-school gift program.
“The biggest thing this year is listening [to people in the community],” Cloud said. “They breathe it every day. They get ignored.”
But what the Mystics did here Sunday, and seemed poised all season to finish, was as much for themselves as it was for their new ’hood.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post.