February 12, 2022 

‘I felt home’: Emma Meesseman returns to DC with the Belgian Cats

Emma Meesseman's first two games in the Entertainment and Sports Arena since October 2019 were vintage performances

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Entertainment and Sports Arena in the nation’s capital is, in many ways, The House that Emma Meesseman Built.

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Meesseman led the Washington Mystics to their first WNBA championship in 2019, winning Finals MVP in that arena. She has played seven seasons for the Mystics since being drafted in 2013 at age 19, making her one of the longest-tenured players in franchise history. Now, at age 28, she is one of the franchise’s all-time greats, responsible for more wins (23.6) than any other player and also holding the record for total blocks (193). She ranks among the Mystics’ top six in nearly every other statistical category.

But until this week, Meesseman hadn’t played in Southeast DC since being named Finals MVP. She played in 2020 in the WNBA’s “bubble” in Bradenton, Florida, and missed the 2021 season due to Belgian national team commitments.

Her homecoming was worth the wait: Captaining the Belgian national team in the FIBA Women’s World Cup Qualifying Tournament, Meesseman led her team to a 98-65 win over Puerto Rico on Thursday and an 84-75 loss to the United States on Friday. Over the two games, she averaged 17.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks and had a double-double against the Americans.

“It is a great gym,” Meesseman told The Next on Thursday night. “… I felt home.”

Like a house getting a fresh coat of paint, a few aesthetics had changed from the usual setup for the Mystics, including new floor decals and video boards spanning three sides of the court that gave it a “boxed in” feeling. But the 2019 WNBA championship banner still hung from the rafters as a North Star of sorts, providing “not a bad motivation,” as Meesseman wrote on Instagram, as the Belgian Cats sought to qualify for the World Cup in September.

Meesseman was the first Belgian player to start shooting before both games, and she looked relaxed throughout her pregame preparations. After she warmed up her dribbling on Thursday, over an hour before tipoff, she casually picked up the ball and spun it on her finger. And when FIBA officials briefly interrupted her close-range shooting to verify the height of the rim, she seemed unfazed, chatting with a Belgian staff member and then picking up where she left off.

Meesseman progressed from shooting to lower-body exercises with a thin green resistance band and then to hand-eye coordination drills in which she dribbled a basketball with one hand while throwing and catching a tennis ball with the other.

As Meesseman warmed up on both nights, the arena music came on and fans began to trickle into the stands, bringing with them an array of Belgian flags. Two Belgian-American dual citizens, a couple who had driven two hours from their home in Pennsylvania and identified Meesseman as their favorite player, draped a large Belgian flag across four courtside seats next to them for Thursday’s game. A group of four or five Belgium fans sitting several rows behind the team’s bench waved miniature flags — some of them clutching one in each hand — and enthusiastically danced to the music. And on Friday, a woman in Meesseman’s No. 33 Mystics jersey sat courtside, drawing Meesseman’s attention, and an autograph, at halftime.

“I started seeing a lot of faces in the stands, and I was just happy to see them back,” Meesseman said on Friday, adding that she wasn’t expecting anyone to show up in her Mystics jersey given how much time had elapsed since she last played in ESA. “… There were a lot of Belgian people, too, so I was really happy.”

Meesseman earned plenty of cheers on Friday, on par with the most popular American players, when the public address announcer listed the teams’ full rosters. She heard the cheers and said they gave her “a little boost” before tipoff. The national anthems followed, and Meesseman swayed side to side and sang along with her teammates before being re-introduced as a starter.

The clash against the United States pitted Meesseman against Mystics head coach Mike Thibault, who is an assistant coach for Team USA, and Mystics and Team USA starting guard Ariel Atkins. As the starters for both teams exchanged high-fives just before tipoff, Meesseman patted Atkins on the back in acknowledgment.

From there, it was on: Meesseman missed her first shot in both games but soon found her groove, shooting a combined 14-for-25 (56%) from the field and 3-for-3 from 3-point range. Her first basket in each game was a fadeaway jump shot, a familiar sight for Mystics fans, but she never forced the issue, content to find open teammates if defenders swarmed her.

Meesseman surveys her options to drive, shoot or pass during a game against Puerto Rico on Feb. 10, 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

“I thought that Meesseman did a good job just seeing when we collapsed on her and passing it out,” Puerto Rico guard Arella Guirantes said on Thursday. “… She did a good job moving the ball. To me, she kind of played like a point forward on the floor tonight. And it … caused us havoc because we … [were] trying to find our defensive rotations and just our rhythm together. So she did what she had to do today.”

Center Kyara Linskens was a frequent beneficiary against Puerto Rico, finishing with 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting and working well with Meesseman in high-low action.

“I love playing with Emma,” Linskens said. “… She’s so smart on the court and I just feel like we play well inside out, like she’s the four, I’m the five, or I can be on the outside [and] pass to her. We read each other well, I think. I’m very happy about that.”

Against the United States, Meesseman drew Alyssa Thomas, a three-time WNBA All-Defensive Team selection, as her primary defender, but over half of the U.S. team took a turn on Meesseman — including several guards who found themselves switched onto the 6’4 forward. None of them could do much when Meesseman decided to attack, as Meesseman made seven of 11 shots and drove past Thomas from near the top of the key to the rim on at least two occasions.

“Emma’s always got your full attention,” said United States head coach Cheryl Reeve, who has schemed against Meesseman plenty as the head coach of the Minnesota Lynx. “… You’re hopeful just to make things difficult. You know she’s going to score. We just wanted to make it difficult, make her catches hard. … I thought we executed the game plan fairly well.”

“I mean, it’s Emma Meesseman,” Atkins said when she was asked how she handled being switched onto her former teammate. “… She’s really good. You just want to disrupt her as best as you can.” Atkins, also a three-time WNBA All-Defensive Team selection, tried to front Meesseman or, when playing behind her, get a hand on the ball before Meesseman could shoot.

But seemingly the only two forces that could disrupt Meesseman were the rim — one mid-range shot landed on the back iron and rested there for several seconds before falling off — and the officials, who waved off a fadeaway Meesseman made just after the halftime buzzer.

Beyond Meesseman’s points, she made an impact defensively with three steals and three blocks across the two games, including one against Puerto Rico where she stayed with a driving point guard, blocked the shot and brought the ball down to herself. Against the United States, she forced a missed layup and, eventually, a turnover on a two-on-one fast break featuring Thomas and 2021 WNBA All-Star Dearica Hamby.

Meesseman also led a young Belgian squad throughout the tournament with both her words and her body language. She is the second-oldest player on the team, a month younger than guard Hanne Mestdagh, and the Cats have brought in five new players and a new coach since the Tokyo Olympics. Through a translator, new Belgium head coach Valory Demory credited Meesseman for fostering unity among the players and inspiring them to play hard.

Meesseman listens intently as Belgian teammate Antonia Delaere talks during a game against Puerto Rico on Feb. 10, 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

Throughout the tournament, Meesseman frequently gestured to show her teammates where to cut on offense, and she talked to players such as 20-year-old center Ine Joris one-on-one during stoppages. She also cheered them on, shouting “Defense!” during a rare stint on the bench and ruffling 20-year-old guard Maxuella Lisowa Mbaka’s hair after Lisowa Mbaka made an excellent hustle play against Puerto Rico.

“She’s the most experienced player in our team, and for the young players, she’s like the mom. Like, ‘Everything’s going to be okay. Just chill. Don’t stress,’” Joris said. “And it’s amazing to play with her.”

When Meesseman checked out for the final time on Friday with two minutes left in the game, the crowd greeted her just as enthusiastically as it had nearly two hours prior, and one particularly loud fan shouted, “Emma!” over the cheers. Meesseman and Belgium will play their final game of the qualifying tournament on Sunday against Russia, but the game will take place in the Dominican Republic because of the Russian team’s visa challenges.

It’s unlikely that Meesseman will play in the Entertainment and Sports Arena again as a member of the home team, which Belgium officially was on Friday. Meesseman, a WNBA free agent, has been linked to the Chicago Sky, and Thibault told reporters last week that Meesseman had informed him that she wouldn’t re-sign with the Mystics.

Meesseman declined to discuss her WNBA situation during the tournament, citing her desire to focus on “this major goal” with the national team, but said she would have more to say next week. She did share a message, however, to the Mystics fans who have supported her across her seven seasons:

“They’re my heart. … They’re real friends. And I came here as a kid and they’ve seen me grow up, really, sometimes even more than my mom, I think. So I really hope that relationship will stay for the rest of my career and my life. And we have all these memories and maybe there’s going to be new memories, but I’m forever grateful.”

For Meesseman, the trip to Washington was special not only for the nostalgia or for the high stakes for Belgium, but also because it gave her a rare opportunity to blend her national team and WNBA experiences.

“A beautiful thing for me [is] it’s the first time seeing a [WNBA championship] banner that I can share with the national team,” Meesseman said on Thursday. “Because for all those seven years, it was like two different sides of my career, and now it kind of comes together. [The Cats] get to see where I lived, where basketball brought me. So we have a really young team, so I think it’s really nice that I can show them.”

“I think it’s a beautiful experience for all of us to play with Emma over here, especially in this gym where she won,” Joris added. “… She seems happy, yeah. Really happy. I think this is special to her … and she will enjoy every second she’s here.”

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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