June 20, 2023 

The how and why behind Washington Mystics’ Dawg of the Night award

‘It's a teammate who saw something in you that night’

WASHINGTON — After a win over the Phoenix Mercury on Friday, several Washington Mystics players gathered in the locker room around guard Li Meng. Teammate Natasha Cloud looked into the camera and barked, and Li attempted to copy her. “Woo woo!” Li said, using her normal pitch rather than a lower one.

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“Bigger dog,” forward Myisha Hines-Allen coached her. Then, after another attempt: “Use here, from your stomach.”

On her next try, Li produced a bark that sounded like Cloud’s, and she beamed as her teammates roared their approval.

The barking lesson was necessary because Li had just won the Mystics’ Dawg of the Night award. In her first career start, she scored a career-high 14 points on 4-for-9 3-point shooting and added two rebounds in 27 minutes.

The award is new this season under first-year head coach Eric Thibault, and Thibault said its creation was a group effort. He, associate head coach LaToya Sanders and a few players had discussed giving a hard hat to a player who’d been particularly impactful, and Thibault and a few others eventually named it Dawg of the Night.

“You know, if you listen to [Cloud] long enough, you start talking about who’s got that dawg in ‘em,” Thibault told reporters this week, “so [it] went there inevitably.”

The Dawg of the Night rewards a player who contributes to winning, regardless of whether they play a lot of minutes or stuff the stat sheet. It can go to a player who hits a game-changing shot — as was the case with star forward Elena Delle Donne against the Chicago Sky on May 26 — but it can also recognize effort plays such as setting good screens and sprinting downcourt in transition. The prize is a white plastic hard hat that has the words “TEAM FIRST,” “COMMITTED” and “GROWTH” on its brim in black font. Each winner also gets to put a small sticker of a dog pawprint on the hat.

“It’s a hard hat — who’s going to work, who’s clocking in, you know what I mean?” Cloud explained after the season opener on May 19. “But you put some dog paws on it because you a dawg.”

Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud holds her hand at head level and points one finger down, making the well-known "count it" gesture.
Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud (9) makes the “count it” gesture during a game against the New York Liberty at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on May 19, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

The hat, which is only awarded after wins, stays in the most recent winner’s locker when the team is at home and gets packed for road trips. The most recent winner selects the next Dawg of the Night.

Forward Tianna Hawkins, the only player who has won the award twice, explained her thought process for choosing a winner. “I’m looking for all of it … not just everything that shows up on the stat sheet, but just the person that makes the most impact on the game,” she told The Next. “… It doesn’t matter if they score a lot, but if they [were] in a game, you know they brought their energy, they brought some toughness, and they were the reason why we won.”

More than half the roster has claimed the award this season: In addition to Hawkins’ two wins, guard Ariel Atkins, Cloud, Delle Donne, Li and guard Brittney Sykes have each won once. Hawkins is the only player to have won it as a reserve, and only Cloud and Delle Donne led the team in scoring on their winning nights.

DateOpponentDawg of the Night
May 19New York LibertyTianna Hawkins
May 26Chicago SkyElena Delle Donne
June 2Dallas WingsAriel Atkins
June 9Seattle StormTianna Hawkins
June 11Seattle StormNatasha Cloud
June 16Phoenix MercuryLi Meng
June 18Chicago SkyBrittney Sykes

While statistics aren’t the primary driver of the award, the winners have still produced on the court. In their winning games, they are averaging 15.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 24.8 minutes per game and shooting 55.8% from the field.

Hawkins won the inaugural award after the Mystics decisively beat the New York Liberty to start the season. The coaching staff chose her for, as Thibault said in the locker room, having “a phenomenal training camp and running their ass up and down the floor” in the opener. Hawkins barely had time to react as her teammates tackled her and made barking noises, and then Hines-Allen raised a closed water bottle in Hawkins’ direction, faking a water bath.

“It feels good to know that the little things that I try to focus on to make an impact on the team [are] noticed,” Hawkins said. “… And the key is always making an impact to get a win.”

“Tianna seems to get it like every other game,” Delle Donne told reporters before tip-off on Friday. “But she’s one of those people that does all the little things. … She affects the game in so many ways by running the floor every single time to give herself up so someone else is open. So that’s what the hard hat’s about. And I think the more we can play that way, we’ll be more successful.”

Atkins’ win on June 2 came after she broke out of a shooting slump, scoring 16 points and adding eight rebounds, three assists and three steals. But for Delle Donne, who picked her, the decisive plays were a fight for a loose ball that sent Atkins crashing to the floor so hard that she “almost broke her hip” and making seven straight free throws in the final minute of an eventual one-point victory.

“It definitely feels good because it’s not about what you scored or any of the big accolades,” Atkins told The Next. “It’s a teammate who saw something in you that night that they appreciated, and so it’s different when it comes from a teammate.”

The Mystics had to be flexible with their new tradition, though, when Atkins accidentally left the hard hat at home for a three-game road trip. Atkins, who rarely forgets things, said of her lapse, “That’s something that’s new in my life.”

Enter the “hard cup,” which Atkins flipped upside down on her head as a makeshift hat after a win over the Seattle Storm on June 9. She awarded the cup to Hawkins because “she came in the game and changed it,” contributing nine points and four rebounds off the bench.

Two days later, after another win over Seattle, Hawkins gave the cup to Cloud, who exploded for 19 points with four 3-pointers, plus five assists and four rebounds. But the transfer showed the downsides of the cup compared with the hat. Both players took their hands off the cup as they hugged, and it slipped off Cloud’s head. “Y’all know I got a little egg head,” Cloud said as she picked the cup off the floor.

Some Mystics considered keeping the cup if the team went 3-0 on the trip — “Maybe we’ll drink something out [of] the cup,” Thibault joked — but the cup was retired after a loss at Indiana on June 13. The hat returned during the Mystics’ most recent homestand, going to Li on Friday and then to Sykes after a win over the Chicago Sky on Sunday.

Sykes won Dawg of the Night in her first game wearing goggles after getting poked in the eye on Friday. Entering Sunday, she was confident that the goggles would help her see the basket better, and she played like it, getting a steal on the game’s opening possession and finishing with 16 points, six rebounds, four assists and three steals. Her playmaking opened up the floor and kept the ball moving, both of which were difference-makers for a Mystics offense that has struggled this season.

“She is fearless,” Delle Donne said postgame. “She doesn’t care if she gets hit, knocked around. That’s the way she plays the game, just with so much intensity.”

Sykes received the hard hat after what Delle Donne said was “about a 20-minute speech” from Li. With her goggles still perched on top of her white headband, Sykes started to put the hat on, but Cloud raced over and pulled the goggles down to cover Sykes’ eyes. The look was complete: “You look like a minion!” someone shouted, referencing the yellow creatures from the animated movie “Despicable Me.”

The Dawg of the Night award gives the Mystics something extra to celebrate after every win and allows them to spotlight someone who might otherwise go under the radar. Each celebration has been different, but the unfiltered joy in each one reflects and amplifies the team’s culture, which the Mystics worked to rebuild last year after a trying 2021 season. The foundations of that culture include fostering a family environment, being professional and helping each other be better.

“They’re good,” Hawkins said of the celebrations. “That’s the culture here. We take pride and celebrate each other’s success because we know that, if someone is winning, then we’re winning. And that’s just a thing that we’d like to keep going here. There’s no selfishness here. It’s all about being selfless.”

“I think it’s dope,” center/forward Shakira Austin added, “for the team to just be able to celebrate each other.”

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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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