In their quest for another WNBA title, the Washington Mystics have a milestone to celebrate and a team Hall of Fame to launch.
In May, the Mystics will begin their 25th season. When the WNBA began play in 1997, there was no shortage of doubters. Professional women’s basketball had failed before, and even with strong backing from the NBA, the new league suffered growing pains, including the folding of six teams.
“I think for my first 10 to 12 years in the league. I was constantly asked, ‘Is the league going to survive?,’” said Mystics general manager and head coach Mike Thibault. “People forget what it was like … When we reached the league’s 25th anniversary a year ago, we were way ahead of where the NBA was at the same time.”
Thibault was an assistant coach and scout in the NBA for almost two decades. Now he’s about to begin his 10th season in Washington. When he arrived in 2013, he talked of creating a winning culture going forward and the importance of recognizing the past and people who helped establish the Mystics.
On June 19, the 25th anniversary of the Mystics’ first home game, the team will hold a halftime induction ceremony for its first Hall of Fame class, which will include Vicky Bullett, who also starred at the University of Maryland; Chamique Holdsclaw, first overall pick in the 1999 WNBA Draft, and Murriel Page, a 1998 first-round draft choice who played with the Mystics for eight years.
“They kind of epitomize the early excitement of this organization,” said Thibault. “You might say they were like the founding players of Mystics fan following and traditions. They, along with many other players, made sacrifices to help the WNBA grow.”
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As the Mystics turn 25, they will begin their fourth season in their own home, the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Congress Heights. For game preparation, they use the same practice facilities, film rooms and training equipment as the NBA Wizards.
Thibault has delivered on his promise of winning with seven playoff appearances in nine seasons, along with two WNBA Finals trips, including a championship in 2019.
Thibault recalled the feeling when the last minute of that championship season ticked down.
“I was looking into the stands at fans who had been season ticket holders from the start, and people that worked in the organization from the start,” said Thibault. “They literally had tears streaming down their cheeks, watching us win a championship that a lot of them maybe thought was never going to happen.”
Thibault believes the Mystics have what it takes to make a run at another championship. Tianna Hawkins is returning to the team. and he is excited about Japanese National Team star Rui Machida, but most encouraging for the Mystics is the return of Elena Delle Donne to the court.
One of the 25 greatest players in WNBA history, back problems and the pandemic have limited Delle Donne to three games since the 2019 season.
“She’s making great progress, and she will tell you this is the best she’s felt in years, which is a great sign for us,” said Thibault. “She says she plans on being able to start training camp on time and start the season on time, and as a coach those are the words I want to hear.”
Without Delle Donne for almost of all of last season, the Mystics missed the playoffs for only the second time in Thibault’s nine seasons in Washington. On the bright side, the Mystics’ struggles and poor record put them in the draft lottery, and they will have the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA Draft.
“The rookie walking into our team isn’t expected to be a franchise savior, like a lot of other top picks are in the draft,” said Thibault. “In fact probably whoever we draft won’t be in our top six or seven players, which is a good problem to have.”
For the 25th anniversary season, the Mystics unveiled a special logo that the team said “leans into the physical, iconic imagery associated with basketball, and the freeness of the logo simulates the mystical movement of a basketball in play.” The logo will appear on the Mystics’ court, and on the players’ on-court warm-ups.
“It’s going to be a special year. Fans will see a team that will compete for a championship,” said Thibault. “What a great time it will be to celebrate your 25th anniversary by playing in the finals again.”