Commentary

Mystics brass baffles fans

Despite coming off of team's best season, Mystics coaching carousel continues

Originally Published: November 3, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Maybe Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe" should accompany Washington Mystics fans through what appears to be their perpetual voyage of the damned.

Just as Bill Murray woke up again and again to the same song in "Groundhog Day," the Mystics' faithful must wonder how many more times they have to hear about a new coach/new direction for a franchise that never seems to run out of ways to pull the rug out from under them.

[+] EnlargeShelia Johnson
AP Photo/Cliff OwenOwner Sheila Johnson said Trudi Lacey got the Mystics' coaching job after both Angela Taylor and Julie Plank turned it down.

Although there's the fiendishly-clever twist this time of doing it after the Mystics had their most successful season ever.

Well, sort of. Washington did win its first Eastern Conference regular-season title, but this is clearly no time for maintaining stability. In a teleconference Monday announcing new coach/general manager Trudi Lacey, who has moved between the WNBA and various college jobs, we reporters were told that things weren't rosy with Mystics.

"Even though we were successful on the floor, you have to understand we weren't successful on the business side," Mystics president and managing partner Sheila Johnson said. "And we just have to make these changes in order to keep the franchise alive."

Whoa! You can be sure that wasn't on the Donna Orender-approved talking points memo one might assume the WNBA sent to Johnson. The league generally doesn't acknowledge anything being at -- or even near -- the end of its rope until it's already a done deal.

So we are left to presume either the Mystics really are a salary cut or two away from disbanding or … Johnson was engaging in a bit of hyperbole. If it's the latter, which wouldn't be surprising considering some of the absurdities of the rest of the teleconference, this is Johnson going off script again, to the WNBA's dismay.

You know the old advice about when you're irritated, count to 10 to cool down? Well, after participating in this teleconference Monday afternoon, I took several hours to try to cool down. I wanted to charbroil the franchise again, something many of us WNBA observers have done over the 13 often-tortured years of its existence.

And even after talking to various people in and around the WNBA, I don't feel any more charitable toward the Mystics' decision-making. If I were a Mystics season-ticket holder writing checks to support this circus, I'd have to take a deep breath and remind myself that my financial investment was for the good of the players. They are the talented high-wire performers, and whatever's happening with the clown show below is not their fault.

Can Lacey continue the forward progress of the past two seasons under GM Angela Taylor and coach Julie Plank? Who knows? That's basically what Johnson said.

Yes, she did praise Lacey as "an amazing woman" with a "wealth of experience," which is a standard way of saying she has had a lot of jobs.

But when asked if the Mystics will continue to win under Lacey, Johnson said, "With anybody, I don't care who you bring in, even if we had Michael Jordan as the coach, everything's a crap shoot. You're going to try the best you can. I know she has the ability to do it.

"I even checked with my ex-husband, who owned the Bobcats. I called him and I said, 'What do you think?' He just raved about her."

OK, let's truly savor this answer. The Mystics were 16-18 and 22-12 the past two years, making the playoffs both times, and would appear able to maintain their nucleus of players (including a healthy Alana Beard) … but now it's a roll of the dice whether they'll continue their success? And apparently, Michael Jordan, who has never coached, is the new standard for coaching excellence.

Is it good practice for a team executive to bring up a conversation with an ex-spouse as verification of an employee? Actually, what makes this particular spouse utterly hilarious to cite as a glowing reference for Lacey is that in the same teleconference, Johnson twice mentioned how poorly supported the Sting franchise was by her husband's Bobcats when they came to Charlotte after the Hornets left for New Orleans. Lacey was coach of the Sting for most of that time, going 37-55 in the regular season.

Trudi Lacey runs her own business in life coaching and organizational development, or at least her web site in that regard is still up and talks about teaching personal leadership, self-awareness and authenticity. Maybe now, along with being coach and GM, Lacey can tutor the Mystics' brass on these skills.

"When the Charlotte Bobcats started up, they then took the Sting," Johnson said, which incidentally was how she explained twice referring to the Sting, one of the WNBA's eight original teams, as an expansion franchise.

"Because they were [a] new NBA team, they didn't have the tools to even want to carry [the Sting] forward. They were holding onto it so they could get rid of it. What it means is Trudi had no support whatsoever. However, she did the best with what she could do."

So Robert Johnson -- now the former boss of the Bobcats, as Jordan owns them -- recently gave Lacey a rave review. But when he oversaw the franchise she coached from 2003-05, he provided her "no support whatsoever." Thus, according to his ex-wife, Robert Johnson is apparently part of the reason Lacey got this Mystics job now … but also a primary reason Lacey had a losing record with the Sting, who folded after the 2006 season.

Before going into more details of a teleconference that was to logic what a gunny sack is to fashion, let's recap the last couple of months for the Mystics. They were a team that didn't have the most talent in the conference -- Beard missed this season after ankle surgery -- but finished first in the highly competitive East.

Considering this is a franchise that's infamous for its coaching carousel -- 10 in 11 seasons before Taylor and Plank came aboard in 2009 -- longtime Mystics fans were walking on air entering the playoffs.

Were the fans disappointed by the Mystics' first-round exit to Atlanta? Sure, but they understood how good the Dream were, the degree to which Washington had overachieved and how strong the foundation appeared for the future -- finally.

Was everything perfect with the Mystics? Is it ever with any franchise? Not all the Mystics players were hugely enthusiastic supporters of Plank, who had spent nearly a quarter-century as an assistant at the pro and college level before becoming a head coach in Washington. She had some growing pains on the job. At times, she could come across as overly controlling and insecure, and pro players tend to be annoyed by those things more than at the college level.

But Plank had the team on the correct track. She cared about everyone involved, and she was likely to improve flaws as she spent more time on the job. Plank had done a lot right, and the fan base mostly seemed supportive of her.

It was as if the intrepid Mystics faithful had been clinging to life preservers and staying afloat all this time, and now at last, the actual ship had arrived for them to get on.

Perhaps they should have known it was too good to last. The news came at the start of October that Taylor, who as best I can tell is universally respected and liked, would not be returning as GM. The details were sketchy. The Mystics' statement then was that Taylor's contract had expired and they were not able to reach an agreement on a new deal. Taylor said it wasn't an issue of money.

[+] EnlargeTrudi Lacey
Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty ImagesHaving Trudi Lacey take over as the Mystics' GM and coach is a move owner Sheila Johnson said was a decision "about business."

Then the wait began. Fans were upset because they had confidence in Taylor, and many of them sent e-mails to Mystics management expressing concern. And I kept hearing from those fans that the Mystics weren't responding to them.

This is not to say the Mystics should have shared with fans any of the details of their negotiations or their specific plans for Taylor's replacement. But the organization did need to reply to the e-mails and send out a mass e-mail to all season-ticket holders, asking for their support and patience and reassuring them that they understood and sympathized with their anxiousness.

Instead when asked about the fans' anger over lack of communication for a month, Johnson said, "It's not appropriate to sit up there and let our fans know every little move we're making. That is not good business. The fans, I hope at this point, are going to trust enough and trust in me, in our decision.

"We are doing the best we can to make the Mystics a solid and viable franchise. If we go into nit-picking and 'They should let us know every little move [they] make,' that's not appropriate, and it's not good business."

Wow, nothing beats the lethal combination of condescending and out-of-touch. Lacey runs her own business in life coaching and organizational development, or at least her web site in that regard is still up and talks about teaching personal leadership, self-awareness and authenticity. Maybe now, along with being coach and GM, Lacey can tutor the Mystics' brass on these skills.

Here's what is actually not good for business: failing to use basic communication courtesy with the fans who are spending their money to keep your franchise going. We're not even asking the Mystics to abide by the old staple, "the customer is always right." We're saying the customer is worth a return e-mail.

Further, since when did choosing a general manager (and as it turned out, a new head coach) become a nit-picky move?

Now, onto that subject, Johnson's explanation -- she told us she would make it "idiot-proof" for us -- was that Taylor was offered a deal she didn't want. Then Plank was offered the job of coach and GM, and she took a month of back-and-forth wrestling to decide she didn't want it. Then Lacey was elevated from director of basketball operations, which was kind of just a different name for assistant coach last season.

In other words, according to Johnson, if Taylor had taken the offer, the Mystics would have kept her and Plank in their same roles. But when Taylor left, it suddenly became an urgent franchise need/philosophy to combine the jobs to save money. Then the Mystics apparently allowed Plank -- again, according to Johnson -- to string them along for a month about whether she would accept the dual role, and ultimately she didn't.

"I really wanted to see if we could get to some sort of resolution on this, because I really did not want to lose her," Johnson said of Plank. "But I just couldn't move the needle with her. After 10 migraines, I decided I better move forward. I just couldn't hold out any longer."

I would guess some of the Mystics fans I've heard from have had 10 migraines while reading this story.

Look, perhaps things will work out with Lacey. And certainly Johnson can say and do whatever she wants as the head of the franchise.

But you can't blame Mystics fans -- those who've been loyal to this franchise through thick and thin (a lot of thin) -- if they are so tired of the same merry-go-round and if they want to wake up and have it not be "Groundhog Day" again.

Unfortunately, the alarm clock did flip to 6:00 a.m. Cher is singing. The Mystics have head coach No. 12.

For Washington fans, let's hope this "day" somehow goes better. Of course, the last "day" seemed like it was going better. And it still ended.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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