February 4, 2024 

‘She’s in the front of everything’: Natasha Cloud’s departure from Washington reverberates on the court and in the community

The outspoken point guard was a fan favorite and one of the city’s longest-tenured athletes

When Washington, D.C., found out on Thursday that Mystics cornerstone Natasha Cloud was headed to the Phoenix Mercury in free agency, a mix of shock, horror and devastation poured out on social media.

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“Just fell to my knees,” someone commented on Instagram.

“I will never stop crying,” another wrote.

Some fans wrote that they were canceling their season tickets, and others called for general manager Mike Thibault, head coach Eric Thibault and owner Ted Leonsis to relinquish their jobs.

The person they largely didn’t blame was Cloud herself.

“DC will always love you,” one person commented.

Another wrote to her, “Go be great but please don’t forget about us.”

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Some of the franchise’s all-time greats have left before, including Emma Meesseman in 2022, Alana Beard in 2012 and Chamique Holdsclaw in 2005. But there is a particular gloom enveloping Cloud’s departure that even those icons might struggle to replicate.

Cloud became “Ms. D.C.” during her nine years in Washington, maturing from a steady point guard for the city’s team into the city’s moral compass, advocate and hype woman. Washington became her second home, its residents became her second family, and it was hard to imagine she’d ever trade the Washington “swamp” for the Arizona desert.

Washington Mystics rookie Natasha Cloud dribbles the ball with her right hand and has her eyes up assessing her options.
Washington Mystics rookie Natasha Cloud (15) handles the ball during a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

Cloud arrived in the District in 2015 as a second-round draft pick out of Saint Joseph’s, and until Thursday, she never left. In her eyes, Washington was the only team that believed in her on draft night, and she repaid that faith with loyalty. As of June 2023, she was the second-longest-tenured female athlete in the nation’s capital, trailing only Washington Spirit captain Tori Huster.

Cloud carved out a role with the Mystics nearly immediately, starting 22 of 34 games as a rookie. But she didn’t feel settled yet.

“All I was trying to do was just be a sponge … [but] I didn’t feel like I had like a grip on everything,” she said in 2021 about her first two seasons.

When the Mystics signed veteran point guard Kristi Toliver in 2017, Cloud worried her days might be numbered in Washington. Instead, she combined with Toliver, fellow new addition and former WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne, and Meesseman to produce some of the greatest seasons in franchise history. The Mystics made the WNBA semifinals for just the second time ever in 2017, made their first Finals appearance in 2018, and won a championship in 2019.

Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud smiles broadly as she hugs forward Elena Delle Donne near midcourt, and teammates Emma Meesseman and LaToya Sanders are also grinning as they wrap their arms around the duo.
Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud (center) hugs forward Elena Delle Donne (with back to camera) and forward Emma Meesseman (back) and forward/center LaToya Sanders (right) surround them after winning Game 5 of the WNBA Finals over the Connecticut Sun at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Their success helped rally the city behind the Mystics — and their fiery point guard. “When I came into D.C. in 2015, no one knew about the Mystics,” Cloud said in September 2023 on the “Sometimes I Hoop” podcast. “Now we can’t walk anywhere without being noticed.”

Cloud grew up in Washington, arriving at age 23 and departing three weeks before her 32nd birthday. The fans bore witness to her maturation, and her teammates helped her get there.

“I loved Tash from the start,” Delle Donne told reporters in June. “She was a little baby with some things we had to help her with, but she wanted to be better, and I saw how great she could be.”

“Delle saved my career,” Cloud said, sitting beside Delle Donne. “… You want to talk about a franchise player that really trusted in me and saw potential in me … and had the respect level to have a really hard conversation that I needed to hear. And it changed my career, and it changed my life.”

After the 2019 championship, Cloud was continually challenged in ways she never saw coming, but she always seemed to find a way to rise. The Mystics had hoped to build a dynasty, but the COVID-19 pandemic was the first sign that nothing would go to plan.

Cloud opted out of the 2020 season to focus on social justice, writing on Instagram that she felt “a responsibility to myself, to my community, and to my future children to fight for something that is much bigger than myself and the game of basketball.”

In 2021, she returned, without many of the stars from 2019, and led the Mystics through what Mike Thibault called the most injury-plagued season of his five-decade-long coaching career.

“She’s a really, really big part of this team,” forward Myisha Hines-Allen told The Next that season. “So it’s like a puzzle, and … she’s most of that puzzle.”

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She guided the Mystics through another injury-plagued season in 2023, which tested her leadership in new ways. She realized her teammates sometimes couldn’t respond to her passionate and vocal style when they were so worn down by everything happening around them. Other times, the combined energy of Cloud and guard Brittney Sykes wound their teammates up too much.

“I’ve been challenged as a leader more so than any other year,” Cloud said in August. “… I’ve been drained this last month. It has been very hard. … We’re in kind of a storm right now, but just trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Cloud found that light in the playoffs in both 2022 and 2023, producing superlative performances that nearly single-handedly extended the Mystics’ seasons. In fact, since 2018, Cloud has scored about six more points in playoff elimination games than she has in non-elimination games and in the regular season. And she arguably saved her best performance for her last game as a Mystic: a career-high 33 points, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals in a narrow playoff loss to the New York Liberty.

Cloud set a new standard in Washington: She is the franchise’s ironwoman, with over 7,500 minutes played in a Mystics jersey across the regular season and playoffs. In 278 games, she totaled 2,308 points, 1,390 assists, 878 rebounds and 265 steals, each of which rank in the top 10 in franchise history. She also holds the trifecta of Mystics assist records: career, single-season and single-game.

As indelible as Cloud’s legacy is on the court, a major reason why her departure leaves such a void is because of everything she did outside the gym, across Washington’s eight wards. That’s how she became part of the fabric of the city, not just a highlight of it.

By her own admission, Cloud became more involved in community service and activism when the Mystics moved to the Entertainment and Sports Arena (ESA) in 2019. ESA is located in Ward 8, which has the highest poverty rate of any ward in the city. “I wanted to get out in this community and make a difference,” Cloud said that year

The move also coincided with her growing up and getting more comfortable using her voice in every way she could.

In 2019, Cloud organized a media blackout after three bullets struck Hendley Elementary School, which is located near ESA and had welcomed the team for visits over the years.

“I’m not here for [empty] promises,” Cloud said, speaking with reporters before the blackout. “I want to give back to this community. D.C. is my second home. It’s a part of who I am, it’s helped me mature, it’s helped me grow. … It’s my turn to do my part.”

Cloud would lead other blackouts in the years to come, including on the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder in 2021 and the day of a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in 2022. 

Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud, wearing an orange shirt in support of ending gun violence, tilts her head up toward the ceiling and shouts as she walks onto the court during pregame introductions.
Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud, wearing an orange shirt in support of ending gun violence, shouts as she is introduced in the starting lineup before a game against the Indiana Fever at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., on July 19, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

She has also been a consistent advocate for gun violence prevention, partnering with Moms Demand Action and wearing orange warm-up shirts highlighting the cause for several seasons. She has spoken to local students about gun violence and plans to enter politics after her playing career ends.

In 2019, Cloud won the WNBA’s Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award, which she said at the time “surpasses every other award that I’ll ever win.” Four years later, she won the 2023 Voting Rights Award for her work to make ESA a polling location. She also paid special attention to children in the community, including by helping to build a playground at the Bright Beginnings Center in southeast Washington and holding a back-to-school event last season.

“She’ll talk to anybody,” Cindy Griffin, her coach at Saint Joseph’s, told The Next in 2020. “… It can be somebody in the highest government; it can be somebody that’s homeless on the street. She will be an advocate for anybody if she strongly feels that her beliefs back their beliefs.”

Related reading from 2021: New mural spotlights Natasha Cloud’s legacy

“She’s a voice for the people — a voice for the voiceless,” Mystics guard Ariel Atkins told The Next on Sunday, echoing how Cloud has described herself over the years. “And I think people really gravitate towards that and what she brings. And for her to be able to spend the first nine years of her career in such a prominent space is, it’s a huge thing.”

That work Cloud has done, both in the spotlight and out of it, has spurred her teammates to follow her lead. For example, Hines-Allen was inspired partly by Cloud when she came up with the idea for a march in June 2020 to honor victims of police brutality. A few months later, Cloud challenged her teammates to sit out a game in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake.

“She’s in the front of everything, basically,” Hines-Allen said in 2021. “So it’s just like, on the court, you’re gonna hear Tash, you’re gonna see Tash; off the court, if she’s passionate about it, you’re gonna hear from her … I feel like every year, she grows even more and even more, and it’s like, how is she able to do that?”

Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud closes her eyes as she hugs a fan who is wearing her jersey.
Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud (right) hugs a fan who is wearing her jersey before a game against the Indiana Fever at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on May 6, 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Cloud’s tireless efforts to connect with and better the city left people throughout Washington feeling a personal connection to her. She balanced the seriousness of the causes she champions with showing the fans her fun-loving side. She danced in timeouts and egged the crowd on in rare moments on the bench. And she seemed to be everywhere in the city, supporting other local teams and becoming a regular at various coffee shops. The night before her move to Phoenix was announced, she hosted an Instagram Live in which she answered all sorts of questions from fans and plugged a local café, Colada Shop.

Advocacy and community activism often weren’t easy for her. She had to learn how to be a changemaker, and there wasn’t a handbook for that. She had to learn to protect her mental health from online trolls and the many demands on her time, and she embraced mindfulness as a way to help calm the noise. But she always kept working at it because she knew it mattered.

Atkins said the Mystics will remain active in the community, even with the departure of their leader. Thanks in part to Cloud’s efforts, it’s now engrained in the team’s culture.

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On Thursday, Cloud posted her goodbyes on Instagram, addressing them to “The District.”

“You took a chance on a midmajor underdawg that no one believed in,” she wrote. “You allowed me to grow, to find myself as a person, a player, and an activist. Through the ups and downs your love for me never wavered nor did mine for you. I love y’all man & My family and I thank you from the bottom of our hearts for allowing this to be home for the last 9 years.

“They could never take away the legacy we built together. Y’all Will always be my family.”

When the Mystics open training camp on April 28, it will be obvious who’s missing. Cloud had one of the most consistent and powerful voices any athlete has had in Washington, so there is a quietness as she leaves. But her impact on and off the court will continue to reverberate, and she leaves behind an inspiration, and a challenge, for those who step up in her absence.

The Next’s Jackie Powell contributed reporting for this story.

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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