Mystics cap an emotional year-long journey with franchise’s first title

Because no one can choreograph the flood of raw emotions that come after winning a championship, the Washington Mystics and their fans celebrated like newbies Thursday night. No matter, this WNBA championship already looks good on them.

In a worthy series that went to a decisive fifth and final game, the Mystics defeated the Connecticut Sun, 89-78, to earn the franchise’s first title. Washington’s run, one that truly started a year ago when it was swept in the Finals by the Seattle Storm, continued through a historic regular season, an MVP campaign from Elena Delle Donne and now finally, the WNBA trophy. The Mystics’ trophy.

Emma Meesseman, the Finals MVP, was asked on the court in the confetti-strewn aftermath of the win what her mind-set was as she began to take over the game. She responded like a freshly crowned champion.

“That trophy,” she told an ESPN reporter.

That trophy was applauded by managing partner Sheila Johnson, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and the local NBA team’s two cornerstones, Bradley Beal and John Wall.

While the rest of the Washington Wizards players boarded a charter to New York City, Wall and Beal stayed behind to watch the city’s best basketball team reach the summit of excellence. A place the Wizards, as a franchise, haven’t seen since they were called the Bullets more than 40 years ago.

Ahead of the series, Beal had noted how close the Mystics were to earning yet another championship trophy for Ted Leonsis — his Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018 — and internalized the feeling of becoming the ringless stepchild.

“Well, I know the Wizards got to get rolling, man,” Beal declared last month. “Because the Mystics are about to bring in that hardware, and before you know it, that’s two for Ted on his teams, and he’s going to be looking at us with a few frowny faces.”

But Thursday night, there were no passive expressions of sibling jealousy. The pair of Wizards, supportive and dressed in red jerseys like Mystics superfans, expressed pure joy for their sisters of Monumental Basketball. Wall leaped out of his front-row baseline seat, screaming and nearly spilling over the white line when Natasha Cloud raced in for a layup to give Washington the 72-70 advantage with 6:26 remaining. Beal, his mouth agape, stood up and danced after Meesseman pulled yet another trick out of her bag of moves and scored inside to extend the Mystics’ lead to eight.

Together, Wall and Beal were invited past the yellow ropes because family were welcomed to take part in the on-court celebration.

That trophy was presented in a neighborhood the team had supported in the loudest way it knew how — by shutting up.

Ward 8, home for the new Entertainment and Sports Arena, is a commercial district flush with more corner liquor stores than grocery options and a neighborhood where 31 percent of the residents live beneath the poverty line, compared to 13.8 percent overall in the District of Columbia, according to DC Health Matters statistics. In June, Cloud grew disturbed after visiting a local elementary school and discovering that a stray bullet had canceled an event. She responded by staging a media blackout the next game, drawing attention to gun violence in the community.

Her teammates followed the example and, beyond PR lip service, the Mystics spent their inaugural season in Ward 8 as a good neighbor.

“Sometimes especially minority communities get forgot about,” Cloud said recently. “That’s my promise to this community in Southeast, that I won’t let them be forgotten.”

And that trophy was earned by perhaps the best collection of offensive players in WNBA history and the general manager-coach, Mike Thibault, who brought them here. No coach has won more games in league history, and, before Thursday night, Thibault’s supporters tried to tamp down the narrative that he needed a championship on his résumé. Some might still say Thibault didn’t need the validation . . .

“But it sure feels good though,” Thibault said after the win.

Delle Donne signed here to be near family. When injuries, and there have been plenty, threatened her prime, she gritted through a deep bruise, mobilized her left knee in a brace or strapped on a plastic face mask and played on. In Game 5, Delle Donne moved chunkily in the paint and did not possess the graceful rhythm of the league’s first 50-40-90 player, but she still scored 21 points on 8-of-16 shooting.

Kristi Toliver was another free agent who came here with a clear intention. She was an NCAA (2006 with Maryland) and WNBA (2016 with the Los Angeles Sparks) champion looking to build another contender from the ground up. In her, the Mystics found their fiery leader who, much like Delle Donne, played as the walking wounded in this series. Yet she sacrificed her body, particularly her neck, to take an offensive foul during the team’s comeback.

And then there’s Meesseman, selected in Thibault’s first draft. She juggled her commitment to her Belgium national team and the Mystics and sat out last year but became the missing piece in this title run. The team was down and nearly out before she took over in the third quarter on four consecutive plays that resulted in free throws or buckets. That team-high 22 points gave her a separate trophy she can place on her own mantel.

The Mystics will share that elusive silver trophy with their famous friends and faithful fans, but this one is all their own.

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