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Over the past week, Washington Mystics players have made their feelings clear about the new arena in Congress Heights.
The 4,200-capacity Entertainment and Sports Arena holds a fraction of the fans their old home did; Capital One Arena has more than 20,000 seats. But Mystics players say this smaller venue will finally give them the home court advantage that other teams in their league have. Plus, they don’t have to share the space with an NBA or NHL team.
When the moment finally came on Saturday, June 1, during the team’s home opener, it exceeded several players’ expectations. Many of the fans also praised the move.
“It was amazing,” says forward Elena Delle Donne. “The energy that we had all through playoffs, I feel like we kinda picked back up where we left off. The fans were electric. They gave us so much energy, just gave us that extra boost. It was so much fun playing here. This is home already.”
The crowd on Saturday included Wizards star Bradley Beal, who sat in courtside seats with his partner, Kamiah Adams, former Capitals coach Barry Trotz, and Delle Donne’s father, Ernest, who at 6-foot-6 could barely fit into his seat.
“He’s too big. He should have to buy two seats,” Delle Donne jokes.
While the final box score shows that the game was officially a sell out, there were pockets of empty seats throughout the stadium. But the players didn’t seem to care.
“It’s so close and you really hear them, and it looks full too,” says forward Emma Meesseman, who leaves next week to play for the Belgium national team. “I think that’s a big difference. It’s probably a lot of fans in Capital One Arena, but still it didn’t look like it. If we play every play every game like this, it’s really, really going to be a home court advantage.”
“I’m kinda bummed that I have to leave soon,” she adds.
Fans also took the move from downtown D.C. to Congress Heights in stride.
Carolyn Bobb, a Wizards season ticket holder from Takoma Park, attended several Mystics games last year with her husband and 11-year-old son. She’s been to the new arena to watch the Capital City Go-Go, the Wizards’ G-League affiliate, and is heartened by the support she saw at the home opener.
“It’s loud,” she says. “There’s 3,000, 4,000 people. It was pretty emotional to see all these people … The vibe, the energy, you’re so close. They definitely have a home court advantage.”
Shanika Kelley agrees. This is her first year as a Mystics season ticket holder, and she got them partially because the new arena is closer to her home in Clinton. Her seats were directly behind where Beal was sitting.
“It’s loud,” Kelley says. “You can actually hear the swoosh.”
But some fans will need time to get adjusted to the smaller, more intimate atmosphere after the team spent two decades in the venue now known as Capital One.
Leon Dunbar of Waldorf has been a fan for most of those years. During the game, he kept looking up at the ceiling in search of a scoreboard that wasn’t there. He says the arena reminded him of a high school gym.
“It’s something I have to get used to,” he says. “During the playoffs [last season], they had to play at George Washington, George Mason. It took away the home court advantage … It feels like the women are always the ones getting ousted.”
But in this case, the players didn’t mind being moved. The nearly full stadium rocked from the moment the players were introduced until the fans gave the team a standing ovation during the closing seconds of the Mystics’ 96-75 victory over the Atlanta Dream.
“To come in and feel that energy and that atmosphere and to have a crowd that can affect foul shots. Just on the foul shots, I was like, ‘Holy Jesus, y’all are loud, y’all are in it.’ And that makes a wonderful difference,” says guard Natasha Cloud. “We don’t even need to create our own energy because our fans do that for us. So that definitely by far exceeded my expectations.”
Elizabeth Tuten contributed to this report.