Washington Mystics players watch 2019 title game together, share social distancing stories

WNBA training camp, Netflix recommendations, and the 2018 and 2019 playoffs were all covered on the two-hour call

Sunday was slated to be the first day of WNBA training camp before the coronavirus pandemic paused the season indefinitely. Instead of gathering in person to prepare for the 2020 season, the Washington Mystics players met up virtually to relive their 2019 WNBA championship. NBC Sports Washington televised the entire five-game series, and guard Ariel Atkins and associate head coach Eric Thibault live-tweeted the first two wins. Then the Mystics livestreamed the players’ video call during Game 5, allowing fans to watch both the game on TV and the players’ commentary on Facebook Live.

2019 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne was the first player to join the livestream, which was hosted by Mystics play-by-play announcer Meghan McPeak. Natasha Cloud and Tianna Hawkins (and her son Emanuel) joined soon after, followed by Myisha Hines-Allen, LaToya Sanders, Kiara Leslie, and Ariel Atkins. The two Mystics who joined other teams this offseason, Kristi Toliver and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, were also on the call, with Toliver sporting a panda sweatshirt to match her nickname. “Tori, are you on the top of a bunk bed?” Delle Donne greeted Walker-Kimbrough with a laugh, noting how close Walker-Kimbrough’s head was to the ceiling. “I grew a couple inches,” the 5-foot-9 guard quipped.

Cloud and Toliver joked that their pregame tradition of throwing a basketball football-style might still happen when Los Angeles and Washington play one another. “I’ll just have to go real long,” Toliver said. “This year, you guys can add a kick-off,” Delle Donne suggested.

Several dogs made cameos throughout the night, including Delle Donne’s dog Wrigley, Sanders’s dog Joy, and Toliver’s dog, who at one point got close enough to the camera to cover over half of the picture. Sanders’s husband and Atkins’s dad said brief hellos, and McPeak’s broadcast partner, analyst Christy Winters-Scott, was active in the Facebook chat feature.

All of the players expressed disappointment that training camp was postponed, though Emanuel loudly disagreed. “I’m happy!” he exclaimed, presumably enjoying the extra time with Hawkins. “It’s just weird, especially having no timetable,” Delle Donne said. “… As an athlete, we’re all planners, and there’s goals we make and dates we’re getting ready for.” Delle Donne also shared her excitement about the team’s recent trade for former WNBA MVP Tina Charles and “the amount of mismatches we’re going to be able to cause” with her in the lineup.

Until the WNBA resumes, the players are trying all sorts of activities to stay busy. They are staying in shape as best they can, including by shooting baskets on an outdoor hoop (Atkins), running hills and biking (Hawkins), and working out with their significant others (Cloud). Leslie has been recording TikTok videos in her free time, and Hines-Allen has been painting. Aerial Powers has dominated opponents at video games; in fact, she missed watching Game 5 with her teammates because she was busy gaming. (The only other players to miss the video call were Belgians Emma Meesseman and Kim Mestdagh, both of whom were presumably asleep because of the time difference.)

Cloud has “watched all of Netflix already,” and she and Atkins both endorsed the drama “Queen of the South.” “The Last Dance,” the ESPN documentary about Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, was another hit. “I have been obsessed with Michael Jordan my whole life, so … I’m just in awe of the whole thing,” Delle Donne gushed. “Ozark,” on the other hand, drew mediocre reviews. “It’s an okay show,” Sanders said. “It ain’t great because nothing happens until the last two episodes.”

The players will have another show to add to their queues starting on Wednesday, when Delle Donne hosts the first episode of her new baking show live on Instagram. She admitted that she is a novice in the kitchen and solicited ideas for easy recipes she could create on the show. Sanders suggested a pecan pie coffee cake that she recently made, so if you watch, keep an eye out for that recipe.

Sanders was asked about another food item, milk, in the context of a recent Twitter feud between Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage and the Mystics’ official Twitter account. The feud dates back to the 2019 semifinals, when Cambage suggested that the Mystics “get in the weight room” after Sanders and other post players had trouble guarding her.

The tweets generated enough attention to get immortalized on a BreakingT shirt, but Sanders, who is not on social media, said they barely fazed her. She said someone had texted her—most likely her mom—about it, but “I’ve been living my best quarantine life.”

Of course, the players also had plenty to say about Game 5 itself during the two-hour call, including that watching the game made several of them nervous, in contrast to the calmness they felt when playing. “I think being there the year before and having the experience of being in the finals helped us a lot during this series because we didn’t feel those nerves that Connecticut might have felt,” Cloud said. “… As soon as the momentum shifted for us, you could see it on their faces.” Another player pointed out that Connecticut tried three different defenders on Meesseman in rapid succession, and none of them could stop her. But the Mystics players made it clear that they respected Connecticut—particularly Jonquel Jones, who had a tremendous series—and were glad that the Finals matched up the top two teams from the regular season.

The players did have a few thoughts on the officiating, but overall they seemed to be trying not to focus on it. “I have no comment,” Cloud said when McPeak asked her about it directly—a rare response from the point guard who is known for saying what’s on her mind. “I can’t watch this,” Toliver said after a dubious foul call on Delle Donne. “ I’m gonna get way too emotionally invested.” Toliver also revealed that she had been frustrated throughout the series with Sun forward Alyssa Thomas, who has a reputation for being extremely physical and hard-nosed, but the two “talked it out” in the offseason. “It’s all right … but that [extra-physical play]’s not gonna fly in the future,” Toliver said.

Toliver also relayed a funny story about guarding Shekinna Stricklen in Game 5. Nearly 80% of Stricklen’s shot attempts last season were 3-pointers, so Connecticut usually sent her to the same corner of the court to space the floor and hunt her shot. That put Toliver, as the defender, close to the fans on the sidelines—and able to see Delle Donne’s father Ernie among them, continually covering his eyes because he was so nervous. “He didn’t watch the game that day,” Toliver laughed.

As NBC Sports Washington showed Washington celebrating a championship, McPeak asked the players what it meant to them to deliver the franchise’s, and head coach Mike Thibault’s, first WNBA title. “[Thibault] has coached some unbelievable teams and some amazing players,” Delle Donne said, “so for us to be the team that did it, it’s like, ‘Damn, I guess we were pretty good then!’ And … to bring it back to DC, where there were fans all season long who were like, ‘This is the year, this is the year!’ [or] like, ‘I’ve been a season ticket holder since we started!’ to do it for them too was just so cool.”

Reliving it was cool, too, for viewers who tuned in from California, Mexico, and countless other locations around the country and the world. Although there were some technical difficulties—including Cloud’s video, which seemed to be constantly ahead or behind the rest of the group, never on time—the video call seemed to surmount social distancing and remind viewers of how tightly knit the 2019 Washington Mystics were. And even without having a voice in the conversation, the call left me feeling as if I’d caught up with old friends, the ones I haven’t seen in person since I reported on the Mystics’ championship celebration on October 11.

McPeak and the players ended the night by thanking frontline workers during the coronavirus crisis. In its press release announcing the call and on the call itself, the team encouraged viewers to donate to the “Feeding the Frontlines” fund that the Mystics’ ownership group created to provide meals to first responders and healthcare workers.

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