Photo by Ben Standig for The Sports Capitol

Capitals fans invade Mystics game -- but will they return?

BY BEN STANDIG | JUNE 7, 2018

CAPITAL ONE ARENA – Elena Delle Donne sensed the pending pandemonium and wanted in.

The Washington Mystics’ leading scorer missed the previous four games with a recurrence of Lyme Disease that has plagued the perennial All-Star since 2008. Her last game came May 27 against the reigning WNBA champions Minnesota Lynx. The Lynx were back in Washington’s home building Friday. So were thousands of Washington Capitals fans in the stands not normally on hand for a Mystics home game.

They arrived hours before the Capitals and Golden Knights began playing Game 5 in Las Vegas for the privilege of watching the potential first Stanley Cup-clinching win in franchise history on the arena’s jumbotron. This town is awash in “Rock the Red” fever. Those fans came to watch joyous history.

By showing early — as much as 11 hours in advance of the 8 p.m. start — they caught the Mystics battling the Lynx yet again. They also witnessed Delle Donne’s return. The dynamic scoring threat wasn’t her MVP self. Nobody grasped that more than Delle Donne.

She had enough energy to help her team.

Having dealt with Lyme Disease since 2008, she’s experienced enough to know overexertion could lead to more problems.

She also wasn’t about to miss out.

“With this atmosphere, how could you not want to be part of this?” Delle Donne told The Sports Capitol. “I was really glad to just be able to suit up.”

The Mystics, like virtually the entire WNBA, often face two opponents each game: The other team and negative or at least indifferent perception of their product from the uncaring or ill informed. Thursday’s circumstances offered unique opportunities.

One tangible result showed on the scoreboard as the final seconds ticked off: Minnesota 88, Washington 80. The Mystics beat the Lynx in the same building 11 days prior, but couldn’t make enough plays in the final three minutes for the repeat victory.

Another outcome will show over time. The final box score for the game that tipped at 4 p.m. listed a crowd number of 8,587. Perhaps that’s the number of tickets sold before Monumental Sports, the organization that owns the Mystics, Capitals and Wizards, announced a change. All purchased tickets would be refunded so everyone wanting to watch Game 5 on the arena’s jumbotron could enter for free.

Well, not everyone, of course. The arena holds under 21,000 for basketball. More than triple that amount attempted to access tickets online Wednesday. Many Caps’ fans were forced to find alternative options including giant video screens outside Capital One Arena.

For the Mystics, this was different. Back in 1999, a crowd of 20,674 attended a WNBA game in the same building. Passions scaled back over the years as the franchise largely floundered until coach/general manager Mike Thibault arrived in 2013 and Delle Donne before the 2017 season.

The average game crowd is under 8,000. As the Mystics battled the Lynx into the fourth quarter, the crowd swelled to double the norm. The typical seating pattern means ample bodies in the lower bowl and scattered humans elsewhere. Thursday’s scene had sections near the court jammed and several in the upper deck filled as the game reached its tensest moments.

“The atmosphere was great. I’d like to have that every night,” Thibault said.

The start included a crowd a tick bigger than the norm. Washington responded with an early 10-point lead. The seats along the sidelines in the lower and middle tiers filled first. More arrived as the second half moved along.

“Awesome atmosphere,” said Delle Donne, who had eight points in 26 minutes. “It was a playoff atmosphere plus a little. It was great to be part of this.”

Fans watched a spirited Mystics team counter potential momentum-altering run to tie the score 77-77 on Kristi Toliver’s fast break layup. Minnesota, WNBA champions in four of the past seven seasons, then scored the next seven points and finished with an 11-3 run over the final 2:49.

Washington sank half of its field goal attempts, but Thibault noted Minnesota outscored his side 20-0 in second-chance points. “We can’t have that in a playoff-type game against a team like that. That hurt us.” The coach also embraced the big picture.

“I hope we made some new fans tonight,” Thibault said. “If you didn’t enjoy that game you probably not going to be a basketball fan anyway. I thought it was a great basketball game.”

It would be simple to say win more and the crowds will show. Washington reached the semifinal round of the WNBA playoffs last season. Minnesota swept them out 3-0. Loyal fans show. The presence of Delle Donne, a former league MVP and Olympian, generates additional headlines. The battle for mass acceptance remains. More sports fans than normal witnessed the Mystics take the league’s standard-bearer’s to the brink. That’s a good day even as the result came up short.

Thibault and several players were expected to remain for the Capitals viewing party. Monique Currie, a D.C. area native, left the locker room wearing an Alex Ovechkin jersey. Like many in the area, Currie hopped on the pulsating bandwagon. She’s a clear hockey novice as evidenced by her thinking the “C” on Ovechkin’s jersey stood for center and not captain. Like it matters. The 35-year-old was nine when the Washington Redskins won the 1992 Super Bowl, the last championship won by a local NFL, NHL, NBA or MLB team. She’s on board for a title, for her city and the possible widespread impact.

“I think it would be great for the organization, for the Capitals to get a championship,” Currie said. “It would bring great energy to all the other teams. They do it first and we want to follow suit. Hopefully with these fans that came in here today we got some new fans that want to come on out and support us. Hopefully it will be like a snowball effect.”

Notes: Delle Donne expanded on her current health situation to The Sports Capitol. “Just working through it right now. Trying to give whatever I can to the team at this point. It’s always hard shifting roles and really having to listen to my body, but I know if I go into overdrive I could end up not feeling well. Just trying to make the most of the most of my  minutes. … I’ve been through [Lyme Disease] before. I lived this for a while. I kind of know how far I can push and what I need to do to get back.” Washington next plays at Connecticut on Wednesday.

Ben Standig is a host, writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. This D.C. area native grew up rooting for all the local squads and dabbled in the professional media world after college before making a full shift to sports writing in 2005. Since, Ben has covered every team and big event in town for several outlets including the Associated Press, NBCWashington.com and Scout.com.

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