May 23, 2022
‘That’s my friend’: Hines-Allen, Mystics welcome back Emma Meesseman
It was a subdued afternoon on the court for the Mystics but a heartfelt one off of it
WASHINGTON – As forward Emma Meesseman and the Chicago Sky warmed up in the Entertainment and Sports Arena on Sunday afternoon, a reporter asked Washington Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault what it was like to have Meesseman back in the building. Meesseman is in her first WNBA season with Chicago after being a franchise cornerstone for the Mystics from 2013-20.
“Terrible!” Thibault said, in a nod to Meesseman’s talent.
Indeed, the outcome didn’t favor the Mystics, who fell to the visiting Sky 82-73. Two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker had a triple-double with 16 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists, and six Sky players scored in double figures. Meesseman was one of those six, contributing 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting along with four rebounds, two steals and a block.
“[Emma] did exactly what we needed her to do,” Chicago wing Kahleah Copper told The Next postgame.
Sunday’s game was the first time Meesseman had ever played against the Mystics, and it came in an arena that Meesseman said feels “still like home.” Thibault drafted her in 2013 as a 19-year-old from Belgium, and she developed into one of the best players in the WNBA under his tenure. She was an All-Star in 2015 and the WNBA Finals MVP in 2019, and she averaged 11.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.0 steals in 202 games in a Mystics uniform. She is also the franchise’s all-time leader in win shares (23.6) and blocks (193) and ranks in the top six in nearly every other statistical category.
But this offseason, after missing the 2021 WNBA season due to national team commitments, Meesseman felt ready for a new challenge and signed with Chicago. She had previously played for Sky head coach and general manager James Wade and with guards Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley overseas in Russia, and her former Belgium teammate Ann Wauters is a Sky assistant coach, so she felt comfortable making the leap.
“She was the first player that I ever scouted,” Wade told reporters pregame, reminiscing about when he went to Lille, France, to see a 19-year-old Meesseman play. “… I’ve liked her for a long time … I just [didn’t] make the decisions.”
“It’s been an effortless transition, I think, from our standpoint,” he added. “… We love having her in Chicago.”
While she was in talks to join the Sky, Meesseman returned to Washington and the Entertainment and Sports Arena in February, playing for Belgium in the FIBA Women’s World Cup Qualifying Tournament. As the Belgian Cats’ star and veteran leader, Meesseman had stellar performances against Puerto Rico and the United States, averaging 17.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists, and her homecoming brought plenty of fanfare. Fans enthusiastically cheered her even against the United States, and two Belgian-American dual citizens even drove from Pennsylvania to see their favorite player.
In contrast, the reaction to Meesseman’s return on Sunday seemed understated for a player who means so much to the Mystics franchise. Yet it was also fitting for a player who has never wanted to be the center of attention and regularly deflects questions about her standout individual performances. (After the February game against Puerto Rico, for example, she said, “It was a basketball game. I don’t know. I always try to do my best.”)
The first moment that could’ve made Meesseman the center of attention was when the starting lineups were introduced. But the public address announcer breezed through the visiting team’s lineup — a typical practice across the WNBA — and fans had little time to react to Meesseman’s name.
After the first quarter, the Mystics played a tribute video for Meesseman, similar to tributes they had done in 2021 for former Mystics Kristi Toliver and Aerial Powers. But when the crowd, prompted by the PA announcer, rose to its feet to applaud Meesseman, Wade was still giving instructions in the Sky huddle. Meesseman heard her name called and the fans cheering, but she didn’t get to watch the video or wave to the crowd, which surely would’ve amplified the moment.
Meesseman’s play was similarly understated. She didn’t come in looking for revenge over her former team, and she said she was happy that the Mystics were 5-1 entering Sunday’s game. Instead, she did what she has done exceptionally well throughout her WNBA career: blend with her teammates and quietly make an impact.
She hit her first shot, a fadeaway, less than two minutes into the game but didn’t make another field goal until 8:44 remained in the third quarter. In the meantime, she blocked a layup attempt by Delle Donne and stole two of the Mystics’ post entry passes, one to Delle Donne and another to point guard Natasha Cloud on an inversion.
Soon after her third-quarter layup, Meesseman attacked the glass, getting an offensive rebound and putback. She nearly corralled another offensive rebound on the next Sky possession and got a smile and high-five from Cloud — her teammate for four seasons in Washington — after the ball was ruled out of bounds.
“She doesn’t ever get sped up,” Cloud told The Next pregame. “She doesn’t ever get pushed around [or] bullied. She stays at her pace. It’s smooth. It’s finesse. Her game is beautiful.”
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“She lifts others up because she knows when to attack, when to pass, when to free other people up,” Delle Donne added postgame. Delle Donne played with Meesseman in 2017 and 2019 and against her from 2013-16, when Delle Donne was with the Sky.
Delle Donne drew the primary defensive assignment on Meesseman, but Shakira Austin and Elizabeth Williams also took a turn, giving Meesseman a variety of looks. Williams, who is in her first season with Washington after six seasons in Atlanta, was playing against Meesseman for the 14th time in her career, third-most of any Mystics player behind Delle Donne (16) and Alysha Clark (15).
“She’s tough because she’s like sneaky a little bit,” Williams said about guarding Meesseman. “She’s unpredictable. So she’s not super easy to scout, so you can’t kind of cheat a certain way with her.”
Although Thibault said postgame that the Mystics contained Meesseman fairly well, they looked disconnected and out of sorts at times, which further dampened the environment for Meesseman’s homecoming. They shot just 38% from the field while allowing Chicago to shoot 54%, and their ball movement sputtered in the second half, when they registered just seven of their 21 assists. That, combined with a pivotal fadeaway by Meesseman with under 40 seconds remaining, was enough to tilt the game in Chicago’s favor.
While there may not have been much hype for Meesseman during the one hour and 52 minutes of game time, her return to DC was poignant and meaningful behind the scenes. It was a quick trip for the Sky, who arrived in DC Saturday night and planned to fly back right after the game, but Meesseman still reunited with six former teammates and many Mystics staff members.
During warmups, Meesseman embraced Thibault, associate head coach Eric Thibault and forward Tianna Hawkins, who was her teammate for five seasons. Hawkins and Meesseman then walked with their arms around each other’s waists to get basketballs from a rack near midcourt.
Meesseman also shared a late dinner on Saturday with forward Myisha Hines-Allen, one of her closest friends on the team, at Mariscos 1133, a Latin American seafood restaurant in downtown DC. (Cloud was supposed to join them but was exhausted from the Mystics’ recent travel schedule.) On Sunday, Meesseman and Hines-Allen playfully argued about Hines-Allen’s taste in restaurants, with Meesseman telling reporters that she was “surprised it was actually good. She has improved her taste.”
Hines-Allen even played in a pair of Meesseman’s shoes — “magic shoes,” Meesseman said postgame. Meesseman had signed them and written, “You got it!” in silver marker, echoing what Hines-Allen has told Meesseman in the past. Hines-Allen, a 2020 All-WNBA selection, has had an uneven start to the season, shooting just 37% from the field and going scoreless on Sunday in 11 minutes.
But perhaps the most touching moment came as the teams exited the court after the game. Hines-Allen gave Meesseman a long hug at center court, and as they walked in the direction of the Sky locker room, guard Ariel Atkins joined them. The trio was part of the 2019 WNBA championship and lived together in the WNBA bubble in 2020. Meesseman draped an arm around each of them, and they stopped and talked briefly. Then Meesseman cupped Hines-Allen’s face in her hands, giving her a pep talk that reiterated the message on the shoes.
“Emma’s a great player,” Atkins said postgame. “… But I miss Emma as a person, more than anything. That’s my friend.”
Roughly 20 minutes later, while being interviewed in the Mystics’ locker room, Hines-Allen asked reporters, “You about to go ask Emma some questions?” Told yes, she responded, “Let me go with y’all!” The result was about seven minutes of banter and obvious affection between them as Hines-Allen led a postgame “interview” outside the visitors’ locker room.
“On a scale of one to 10,” Hines-Allen asked, “how much do you miss Myisha?”
“Twelve,” Meesseman said.
Those tender moments, more than any on-court ceremony, demonstrate how much Meesseman means to the Mystics. A new fan in the stands on Sunday might have missed that a Mystics legend was in the building, but for anyone who heard Mike Thibault and his players talk, that was impossible.
“She was one of our draft picks [my] first year here,” Thibault said pregame. “… We made some trades, traded away people, because we saw the future in her, and she became exactly what we pictured. I mean, we saw the full-bloomed Emma in 2019. …
“So I feel like Chicago is gaining, reaping the reward of Emma fully developed. And that’s … one of the best players in the world.”
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 and FanSided.