Elena Delle Donne said it so casually. The Washington Mystics’ franchise cornerstone was winding down some thoughts on her history with the organization, standing alone on the team’s pristine practice courts after the regular season finale. Up next for her and the Mystics was a trip to Seattle for the first two games of a best-of-three WNBA playoff series.
Mystics celebrate 25th anniversary with hopes for a 2022 title
“I don’t plan to play anywhere else,” she said.
In an era when superstars regularly change teams, some may roll their eyes at her statement. But the two-time league MVP raves about the environment in D.C., where she can compete for titles while being treated with the same respect as her male counterparts. That’s what Delle Donne hoped for when she was traded from Chicago after the 2016 season to join an organization that had just two winning seasons in the previous 10 years. She signed a four-year extension before the 2020 season, one year after leading the Mystics to their first WNBA title.
“I saw the investment that our ownership group was going to make to this team,” Delle Donne said. “Knowing that [the Entertainment and Sports Arena] was going to be built, knowing that they were willing to invest in a strength coach, we’d be having a chef, all those things. When you see that and you see the commitment to putting into your players, the success will also come, and you just kind of have to get the right people in and get the belief shifted.
“So for me, I saw this organization wanted to be great. They wanted to win because they were already investing in the team without even having much success.”
The Mystics celebrated their 25-year anniversary this season by earning the No. 5 seed in the playoffs, in which they will face No. 4 Seattle in the opening round Thursday. It is the eighth postseason berth in 10 years under Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault.
There were dark times before Thibault arrived. The team had gone through four coaches in six seasons, and that doesn’t include a pair of interim coaches. Thibault often tells the story of visiting as the coach of the Connecticut Sun to play inside what is now Capital One Arena in 2012. The building was empty. The Mystics were in the midst of a 5-29 season, which followed a 6-28 campaign in 2011. Things were bleak.
Less than 12 months later, Thibault was introduced as coach and general manager. That was the day the Mystics started to emerge from the darkness.
“I like challenges. I like building stuff,” Thibault said. “When I met with [owners Ted Leonsis and Sheila Johnson], they were at a point like, ‘Do we really want to keep doing this at all?’ And I was at the point: ‘How badly do you want it to be good because I need to know that you’re all in if I take this job? … Do I have the power to come in and, if it means blow everything up, blow it up, whatever that is?’ They said, ‘Go for it.’ ”
The acquisitions of Thibault, the winningest coach in WNBA history, and Delle Donne were the two biggest moves that led to the 2019 championship and the sustained success that has followed. But ownership had to make drastic changes first. Johnson joined the ownership group — Lincoln Holdings — led by Leonsis that purchased the controlling stake of the franchise in 2005 from Abe Pollin. The organization joined the league in 1998 and had just one winning season in those first eight years. Johnson is believed to be the first African American woman owner-partner in American pro sports. Lincoln Holdings eventually merged into Monumental Sports and Entertainment in 2010.
Johnson admits to extreme frustration during those early years. The co-founder of the BET cable channel, she says she is an uber-competitive person who has become one of the wealthiest Black women in the country.
“Whatever I take on, I’m going to take it on at 100 percent,” said Johnson, who has also developed the Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg. “People can say whatever they want to say. Yes, maybe I was the first. I see that as a badge of courage and an honor.
“And what it’s doing is bringing other ownership, people of color into the sports arena. And we’ve just never really had the opportunity. It’s not that we can’t do it, we have to be given the opportunity.”
Investment was the pathway to success. That included everything from working with the city to build a new arena that cost nearly $70 million, to hiring additional staff specific to the Mystics, to Leonsis and Monumental partner Laurene Powell Jobs chipping in on the league’s $75 million capital raise. It also included handing the keys over to Thibault, who changed the roster and the culture and brought in the superstar in Delle Donne to compete for a title.
Part of that culture change included a familial atmosphere throughout the organization. The new home includes the practice facilities for the Washington Wizards, and there’s a feeling of equality between the two teams. Players interact with each other regularly, and Bradley Beal, who signed a $251 million supermax contract this summer, can often be seen watching the Mystics practice.
“From the top down, Ted Leonsis and the ownership group has really instilled a value on people and treating people well, expecting results, but treating them really well,” said Marianne Stanley, the Mystics’ coach during the 2002 and 2003 seasons who later returned as an assistant before leaving to coach the Indiana Fever. “I can tell you that that’s not the case everywhere. And I can tell you that with Monumental and the ownership group that led the change, it’s been integral to everything.”
Natasha Cloud, the longest-tenured Mystic at seven seasons, remembers going to games when she was a freshman at Maryland in 2010-11. The team was so bad Cloud and her friends would come to watch the opposing team.
Thibault’s cultural shift started with the acquisitions of Ivory Latta and Kia Vaughn. Then core pieces of the title team started to arrive in Emma Meesseman (2013); Tianna Hawkins (2014); Cloud and LaToya Sanders (2015); and Delle Donne, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Kristi Toliver (2017). Aerial Powers and Ariel Atkins arrived for the first Finals appearance in 2018 before they won it all in 2019.
Delle Donne won her second MVP in 2019 as she became the first player in WNBA history to shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line.
Cloud marvels at the changes and says players are allowed to simply focus on basketball instead of worrying about a lack of resources.
“The management before just kind of ran it into the ground,” Cloud said. “It’s been a crazy ass ride. I’ve seen it from the beginning stages of, like, this is what our vision is to now that vision being complete and us just trying to win championships. And when all you have to worry about is showing up to work every day, being your best and fighting for a championship, it makes a world of difference that you don’t have to worry about outside [stuff]. …
“You compare things that other teams don’t have, that we have — they put their money where their mouth is.”
Leonsis calls the makeover Mystics 2.0 from the time they moved into the new building in 2018. The team missed the playoffs just once since then and is one of the league’s models of consistency. But he knows there’s still plenty of work to be done. Twenty-five years of existence is particularly young compared with teams in other major sports. Leonsis said mistakes made with his other sports franchises allowed the Mystics to be confident in hiring Thibault and getting out of the way.
“There’s a scenario that says the Mystics are 1 to 2 percent of our overall revenues,” Leonsis said. “We certainly put a lot more than 1 to 2 percent of our time, commitment, passion, ownership attention on it. Sheila has kept us mission-based, and it was a long rebuild. But now we have one of the most important WNBA teams, and I think we’re one of the most engaged ownership groups. …
“Rome wasn’t built in a day, but every day they were laying a brick.”