As Washington Mystics fans, we are basking in championship glory, perhaps for two years before it’s time to go for the repeat. That’s because of the current coronavirus pandemic. So this gives us ample opportunity to revisit pivotal moments that made their championship run possible.
Elena Delle Donne is the Mystics’ franchise player. Emma Meesseman beat a ton of odds to be the longest-tenured Mystics player and will be one of the most sought-out players on both sides of the Atlantic. But none of that is possible if the Mystics didn’t hire Mike Thibault to be their General Manager and Head Coach in December 2012.
The hire was considered a home run move given his successful 10-year run with the Connecticut Sun where his teams when a combined 206-134 in the regular season. From Day One of his hiring until Elena Delle Donne was traded to the team four years later, I considered Thibault to be the Mystics’ franchise player because no one on the team warranted it.
But it’s also important to note that the Mystics didn’t just hire Thibault while he was actively working on Connecticut’s offseason plans. It’s very rare to see a contending team’s head coach change jobs for a team that just finished 5-29 in the previous regular season.
At the time, the Mystics were a laughing stock franchise and quite possibly on the brink of collapse. Even Thibault and then-assistant coach Marianne Stanley noted how low things were in interviews during the 2019 Finals.
For reasons beyond his control, Thibault was fired by the Sun in November 2012 after a successful regular season but disappointing playoff finish to the eventual champion Indiana Fever. The Mystics didn’t hire him until Dec. 18, 2012, but they contacted him soon after the Sun let him go.
Then-Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld was among the first to make the connection, in part because Thibault was once an assistant coach for the Milwaukee Bucks while Grunfeld was their General Manager in the early 2000s.
Of all the hires and drafts the Mystics made in the 2010s, Thibault’s hiring stands out the most, by far. He isn’t just the head coach who brought a championship to D.C. Thibault is the most important figure to change the Mystics around from a laughing stock to one of the model franchises in the WNBA today.
But what if the Connecticut Sun decided to keep him beyond the 2012 WNBA season? How would the Mystics continue their search for a new general manager or head coach? Or would they at all?
Let’s take a look at this hypothetical ... (and dramatic!) scenario as we return to those dark times.
Leonsis sets an internal deadline for the Mystics to find new GM and Head Coach by Jan. 1. They don’t find anyone willing to take the job.
The Mystics, coming off their worst two-year stretch in franchise history with just 11 combined wins in 2011-12, come off more bad news, namely the 2013 WNBA Draft Lottery results. Instead of getting Baylor center Brittney Griner, Delaware forward Elena Delle Donne or Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins with a Top-3 pick, the Mystics have the fourth selection. This news came days after they fired former General Manager and Head Coach Trudi Lacey.
The top prospects after the “Big Three” or “Three to See” for the 2013 draft included California guard Layshia Clarendon, Ohio State guard Tayler Hill and Maryland forward Tianna Hawkins, none of whom were expected to be a big splash for ticket sales.
Before the lottery, the Mystics got some notable names to interview, including former Detroit Shock head coach Bill Laimbeer and former Atlanta Dream head coach Marynell Meadors. Both appeared to be interested to coach the team once they knew where Washington would pick. Washington had an over 93 percent chance of getting a Top-3 pick, so that would help the team get a franchise player for the future.
After all, if Washington got the first pick, they’re picking Griner! If they picked second, they couldn’t go wrong by selecting Diggins because of her massive social media presence. And they couldn’t go wrong by selecting Delle Donne third, though she was at a midmajor program in the CAA.
But the Mystics, who already suffered bad draft lottery luck in 2002 in the Sue Bird/Swin Cash sweepstakes, 2004 in the Diana Taurasi sweepstakes and 2009 in the Angel McCoughtry sweepstakes, suffered another bad break once again.
Once Washington ended up fourth in the draft lottery on Sept. 26, 2012, Laimbeer and Meadors withdrew their names from consideration immediately.
From this point, Monumental Sports & Entertainment majority owner Ted Leonsis and Mystics Managing Partner Sheila Johnson are in shock. They just don’t know whom to look for. At this time, Leonsis, who takes a more active role as the team’s owner, set a Jan. 1, 2013 target to hire a new General Manager and Head Coach.
First, they reached out to Julie Plank, their head coach from 2009-10 to see if she would take the combined GM and Head Coach role. But Plank told them to “buzz off,” in more curt terms.
Since Thibault was never fired and would just be planning on how to get his Sun team to win the 2013 WNBA title during this whole time, Leonsis began to reach out to some WNBA assistants. No inquiry was successful. And then in mid-December 2012 he reached out to Christy Winters-Scott, their long-time color analyst to see if she would be interested.
Winters-Scott, a college and high school coach in her own right, refused. In fact, she was angry. She “unleashed the fury” on Ted in a “Bob Knight-esque” rant, telling him that he “screwed up the team” in blunt terms and that “no one in the WNBA wanted to work with him,” citing the 2010 front office changes when Plank and then-General Manager Angela Taylor were let go, the crappy performance afterward and the apparent lack of transparency between management and the fans.
A stunned and resigned Ted then asked, “Christy, I understand. And I apologize that the Mystics have ended up in this situation. At the end of the day, they are my responsibility and I didn’t meet it. Going forward, what should I do in the best interest of the women’s game?”
After calming down, Christy said, “Ted, If I were you, I’d sell the Mystics. Maybe you’ll get another WNBA team one day. Maybe that new team will be a top performer. But everyone — the players, the fans, and you — need a clean break. This situation isn’t going to work out.”
“Thank you for your honesty,” Ted replied. And with that, Washington’s search for a new General Manager and Head Coach came to an end.
Good bye Washington Mystics. Hello Golden State Grizzlies.
In early January 2013, Leonsis and Johnson called WNBA President Laurel Richie about their intent to sell the Mystics by the end of the month or they will fold the team. A stunned Richie berated Leonsis and Johnson because the Mystics had no front office since Lacey was fired. That threatened to hamper league free agency, including Washington’s assuming a successful sale could be done before February.
As news broke on Monumental Sports’ intent to sell the Mystics, WNBA fans were a bit worried about the possible folding of the team, even if they didn’t like the ownership. But fortunately, there was a buyer.
In mid-January, Joe Lacob and Peter Guber, the chief owners of the Golden State Warriors NBA team, reached out to Leonsis and Johnson and made an offer to buy them. Monumental accepted the offer.
The WNBA quietly pushed the free agency period from Februaty back to March 1, in anticipation of the Mystics’ sale.
On Feb. 1, 2013 in Oakland, Ca., Lacob, Guber and Richie formally announced that the Mystics were sold and moving to the Bay Area and play home games at the Oracle Arena. They will now be known as the Golden State Grizzlies with a color scheme matching the Warriors’. Yes, the new team name has the same name as an NBA franchise in Memphis, but the Grizzly Bear is the state animal of California. So this is a fitting name.
Though Lacob is better known as the Warriors owner today, he is not a women’s basketball newbie. He was a major investor in the American Basketball League (ABL), a short-lived women’s professional basketball league from 1996-98 and owned the San Jose Lasers franchise.
Guber and Lacob also introduced their new General Manager and Head Coach, and made a splash. Seattle Storm head coach Brian Agler was also headed to the Bay, just two years removed from a championship in the Emerald City. He was also the head coach of the Columbus Quest ABL team that won two titles before that league folded.
Mystics fans were shocked yet not surprised with the relocation. While some fans wished them well, others felt like ownership gave up on them when things were hitting rock bottom.
Either way, Mystics fans, dejected after brutal 2011 and 2012 seasons, a bad 2013 draft lottery result, and really, 15 years of mostly mediocre-at-best performances, just felt relieved that this nightmare was over. Various people in and around the WNBA felt bad for Washington fans, but they were also pleased that Monumental Sports didn’t own or operate the Mystics anymore.
What happens at the 2013 WNBA Draft?
As expected, the Phoenix Mercury draft Griner at No. 1. The Chicago Sky draft Delle Donne at No. 2. Then the Tulsa Shock draft Skylar Diggins at No. 3.
So what about the Grizzlies? At No. 4, Agler made the call to the WNBA that Golden State will select Layshia Clarendon, a guard from the University of California, Berkeley.
How do the Grizzlies do after that?
I love writing about “What If?” scenarios, but this topic is ultimately a different story of its own.
That said, I just wanted to focus on what happens to the Mystics if Thibault wasn’t fired by Connecticut. In short, after February 2013 in this scenario, the Mystics are effectively no more.
That said, I’ll let you all give your thoughts on what would happen in the comments as Brian Agler begins a youth movement in the Bay.
It’s very interesting to see how different history can be if a team decides to make or not make a decision. Of all the moves the Washington Mystics have made over the years, none of them would have been possible if Thibault wasn’t available.
In my opinion, if the Mystics didn’t hire Thibault or make some other home run hire for their vacant General Manager and Head Coach position, I just don’t think the Mystics would be in Washington today.
Either way, this is one “What If” I’m glad NEVER happened. And if you excuse me, it’s time to watch Game 5 of the 2019 WNBA Finals again on my DVR!