Give me a W
The WNBA was established in 1996 to play its first season in 1997, and a year later the Mystics franchise was established in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. In 1999 Orlando was awarded a team, introducing the Miracle to the league.
In 2000, Stanley made the transition to the WNBA as an assistant coach on Michael Cooper‘s staff with the Los Angeles Sparks. The following year she moved back to the East Coast to serve as an assistant coach on the Mystics staff under head coach Tom Maher.
Both the Mystics and Miracle struggled in their first handful of years. The Miracle never finished a season with a winning record and appeared in the postseason only in 2000. The Mystics went 39-87 through the 2001 season, at which point Stanley took over as head coach. In 2002 she led the Mystics to their first winning season, finishing 17-15 with three more postseason wins before being knocked out in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Two crucial sales
In 2002, the business model of the WNBA was reworked in a move that would prove crucial in the development of this story. While the NBA had previously owned all WNBA teams affiliated with NBA counterparts, that model was altered so that the NBA owners assumed financial responsibility of their affiliated WNBA teams. That also introduced the opportunity for teams to be located in cities without NBA teams. When Orlando Magic owner Rich DeVos subsequently gave up control of the Miracle, the time was right for Connecticut to add a WNBA team.
The Mohegan Tribe purchased the Miracle and moved the franchise up to Uncasville, bringing on Chris Sienko, who had previously worked his way up to general manager with the New England Blizzard of the ABL. Sienko and the Sun executives ended their head coaching search by bringing in Thibault as the team’s first head coach in Connecticut.
After a rough 2003 season, the Mystics parted ways with Stanley and continued to cycle through head coaches while never getting past the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The team that stopped them in their two tries? Thibault’s Sun squad.
The Sun were deep, featuring a roster of Nykesha Sales, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Katie Douglas, and standout rookie Lindsay Whalen, who helped guide them past the Mystics in the first round en route to the 2004 Finals. They would fall to the Seattle Storm led by head coach Anne Donovan. A Hall of Famer and Olympic gold medalist, Donovan came up under Stanley at Old Dominion in the late 1970s and will come up again later.
The Sun made another run to the Finals in 2005, finishing the regular season 26-8 (still the franchise’s best mark) and eventually falling to the Sacramento Monarchs in four games.
In 2005, the Mystics traded their scoring and rebounding leader, as Chamique Holdsclaw was sent to Los Angeles as the franchise refreshed under new ownership in Lincoln Holdings LLC, headed by Sheila Johnson and Ted Leonsis. The Mystics continued to struggle to win, particularly in the postseason, but they stayed afloat as one of the league’s leaders in attendance.
The Sun stayed red-hot in 2006, featuring a literal starting lineup of All Stars; all five starters were selected as All Stars that year, Thibault was Coach of the Year, and the team finished 26-8 again. They seemed poised for another run at the Finals, but the season ended in disappointment. After sweeping the Mystics again, the Sun fell to the Indiana Fever in the Eastern Conference Finals, ending an era for the Connecticut franchise.
Back at Bowling Green, Curt Miller and assistant coach Brandi Poole had coached their team to the top of the Mid-American Conference (MAC), winning consecutive regular season and conference tournament titles. After first-round exits in the 2005 and 2006 NCAA Tournaments, they made an unprecedented run to the Sweet Sixteen in 2007, ousting No. 2-seeded Vanderbilt on the way.
On the Atlantic coast, two key players were making moves in the NCAA Tournament. In the 2006 NCAA Tournament, freshman Kristi Toliver helped lead the Maryland Terrapins back to the Final Four for the first time in nearly two decades, while LaToya Sanders helped get the North Carolina Tar Heels there in back-to-back years. The two met in the National Semifinals that year, where the Terps were too much, beating UNC 81-70 on the way to an unforgettable championship win over Duke.