Commentary

'Huge disapppointment' for Mystics

Despite having the best odds to win No. 1 pick, Washington winds up fourth

Originally Published: September 27, 2012
By Graham Hays | espnW

BRISTOL, Conn. -- There have been funerals more upbeat than the room where representatives of the Washington Mystics gathered after Wednesday's draft lottery.

Then again, there have been funerals with more reason for optimism about a comeback.

On a day when the Phoenix Mercury won the right to draft perhaps the biggest difference maker in the history of women's college basketball, the Mystics lost big and lost painfully. It's a feeling with which they are familiar.

[+] EnlargeCorey Gaines and Sheila Johnson
Dov Friedmann/Getty ImagesEven Phoenix coach Corey Gaines felt bad for Sheila Johnson and the Mystics when it was revealed they got the fourth pick.

Fresh from the studio where she had to watch in person and on camera as her team was eliminated from contention with the first envelope, Mystics president and managing partner Sheila Johnson couldn't yet confront the future, couldn't talk about how her team will rebuild when the cornerstone they counted on as a foundation turned out to be no more substantial than the four of clubs in a house of cards.

"This is something I'm going to have to sleep on," Johnson said. "I can't answer those questions. It's been a huge disappointment. I'm very happy for the others. It's going to make them stronger. And I'm just going to have to get with my partners to see how we move forward."

There is one player in the draft class, Brittney Griner, who is already redefining the physical boundaries of the sport in a way Wilt Chamberlain once did in men's basketball. Add Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins to Griner and there are three players in the class who are franchise-defining stars, players who will arrive in the WNBA with not just skills to succeed from the outset but the established name recognition and star power to put people in seats.

The odds were always against the Mystics when it came to the No. 1 pick -- they had the best chance, but the odds were still better that one of the other teams would get the pick. But this lottery had a safety net for the safety net. Miss out on Griner and the Mystics could still land either what amounts to a hometown hero in Delle Donne or a player in Diggins who already has more Twitter followers than Candace Parker and Maya Moore put together.

The odds against missing out on the top three altogether, on the other hand, might not have been infinitesimal, but they were close enough. Instead of a little luck, the Mystics got a lot of nothing.

Even the guy whose team won seemed almost pained by the whole thing.

"My first emotion, I must be honest, when they pulled the first card out, I felt bad for the Mystics," Mercury coach Corey Gaines said. "I was talking to Sheila Johnson before, and I said [to myself], 'If they get the first pick, good for them. Good for the franchise, good for the league.' That was my first emotion."

How things changed in a matter of hours. Spending the afternoon on the ESPN campus, Johnson hardly seemed to be taking anything for granted. Her nervousness was unmistakeable, even if she couched it as excitement. She said she brought no good luck charms, just her faith that fortune would smile on a franchise it seemed to previously hold in contempt.

"This is literally a game-changer if it works out," Johnson said a few hours before the lottery. "We're ready for it. It's something that we need. We've been going through some very frustrating times and moments -- it's been a couple of tough years. We're ready for a change. I'm ready to rebuild, I'm ready to give my fans the best possible experience, I am ready to put the best product on the floor. We're going to look for the best coaching talent we can. But what is getting ready to happen in these next few hours will then determine how we move forward."

At a time when the Mystics have never been worse, winning just 11 total games the past two seasons, the sports scene in Washington has never been more crowded. The Redskins have Robert Griffin III. The Nationals have Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and postseason baseball. The Wizards, while far from fixed, have the potential of former No. 1 overall pick John Wall. Throw in a competitive D.C. United and Alex Ovechkin's Capitals, if the NHL ever settles its labor mess, and fans have a lot of options for their time and money. Not every team plays at the same time as the Mystics, but finite resources are finite resources. Fans -- and advertisers -- have to make choices.

"It's really competitive," Johnson said before the lottery. "If you look at the town of D.C., it's tiny. You've got the Nationals, that are just doing great right now. And they were struggling for a while. You've got the NBA team, you've got the WNBA team, you've got soccer. Those are a lot of teams in one little tiny area going after the same kind of advertising dollars that we need to keep us financially afloat."

She cited sponsorship deals with Kay Jewelers and Inova Health Systems as proof of progress over the past two seasons, but there was only regression for the product on the court matched by dwindling crowds.

Asked if she viewed parting ways with general manager Angela Taylor and coach Julie Plank following the 2010 season -- a season in which the Mystics finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference and seemed to have a competitive core in place -- as one of unnamed mistakes from which she said the team could learn, Johnson said she couldn't discuss the matter and cited ongoing "human resource issues."

A team spokesperson cut off any further questions on the subject, and said they wouldn't talk about the past. Nevermind that many of their fans believe it's exactly that past history that landed them in the lottery in the first place.

The future, it seemed, would stand in as the answer for everything.

The Mystics need a new coach and general manager after they did not retain Trudi Lacey, who filled both roles the past two seasons. But Johnson reaffirmed Wednesday that she doesn't yet know if the positions will again be a package deal or split between two people. Much of the plan, it appeared, depended on the outcome of the lottery.

"I need someone in there that is going to challenge, that's going to understand -- who really understands the sport of basketball, especially on the women's side, who's going to be inspiration, who's going to mobilize and is going to architectureally put together the strongest team possible," Johnson said before the lottery. "But until you can get those game-changers in there, I can't even begin to talk to coach, assistant coach, whatever we're going to do GM. I can't even begin to answer those questions."

So much was riding on those envelopes. With Griner, or even Delle Donne or Diggins, the Mystics had hope and hype to sell to fans, sponsors, even potential coaches. They had at least some of the credibility squandered these past two seasons. Without one of those three players, they have only the same message Johnson has been giving to fans who express their frustration to her. That she shares their sentiments but needs their support.

"The only thing I can ask of you is have faith in myself as an owner," Johnson said before the lottery. "Have faith in this franchise and just have patience. Just wait. Things will turn around. If they don't, then we talk about it, but I have faith. I'm very optimistic."

It's a lot less reassuring than a 6-foot-8 center who can dunk.

Johnson said she woke up Wednesday morning around 4 a.m. and couldn't go back to sleep. It was a day that began with reason for optimism, a sense that an entire franchise's momentum could reverse course with one envelope. It ended with Mystics chief operating officer Greg Bibb telling people in the team's traveling party that the sun would still come up in the morning.

As she prepared to leave, was the executive in charge still optimistic about the long-term future of the franchise she runs?

"I can't even answer that question right now," Johnson said. "I'm trying to absorb the disappointment right now."

A franchise's future was put on hold Wednesday night, all the more painful because its present does not seem to be a particularly pleasant place.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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