Alana Beard was the cornerstone of the franchise in six of her eight seasons in Washington. A four-time All-Star and one of the league's marquee players, her time with the Mystics came to an unfulfilling end last offseason when she left as a free agent and joined the Los Angeles Sparks.
Plagued by injuries, Beard missed nearly all of the 2010 and 2011 seasons, and she quietly began to wonder if her career was in jeopardy. With the Mystics rebuilding after last season's 6-28 mark and Beard's contract up, a fresh start seemed the obvious move for both parties.
Beard clearly has fared better than her former team. Now a starter in Los Angeles, Beard and the Sparks will face the Mystics at Verizon Center on Friday for the second and final time this season. The first, in Los Angeles on June 18, was a 101-70 win for the Sparks. L.A. (19-9) has the second-best record in the Western Conference behind the defending champion Minnesota Lynx, while Washington (5-22) has the worst record in the WNBA.
For Beard, the chance to revive her career with a team such as the Sparks has been the jump-start she needed.
"I'm playing with Candace Parker, Kristi Toliver, DeLisha Milton-Jones, Nneka Ogwumike, Ebony Hoffman, Jantel Lavender all of these players could be franchise players on other teams," Beard said.
"You come into practice here every day knowing you just have to do your part, and that's it. You don't have to do everything."
Beard is averaging 10.7 points and 3.4 assists this season after averaging 16.2 points and 2.9 assists during her days in Washington -- numbers which reflect playing in a talent-rich lineup. Although she's recovered from the Achilles and ankle injuries that sidelined her for her final two seasons with the Mystics, Beard concedes there's trepidation when she steps on the court.
"I was not attacking like I used to, so I had to develop other things more, like pulling up for my jump shot and shooting the three," Beard said. "Footwork has been one of the most important things for me. Gaining confidence that I may step on someone's foot, but that's OK. That's been my biggest struggle, too, just the mental part."
Beard, 30, acknowledges she's not where she wants to be, but she is making progress — physically and mentally — and ready to chase a championship.
When she steps on the court on Friday in Washington, wearing another uniform for the first time, it will be bittersweet for Beard, her former teammates and the fans she left behind.
"You can definitely tell that she's playing with a sense of hunger," said Mystics point guard Jasmine Thomas. "She started off slow when she was trying to feel her way with a new team, but now she's definitely stepped into a leadership role."
A rookie last season, Thomas had hoped to learn from Beard, a fellow Duke Blue Devil who she's always admired.
"She was a great leader here even when she wasn't playing," Thomas said. "You can learn so much just by watching her, having a conversation with her. Even though she sat out last season, she helped me out a lot."
Beard is one of many of the Mystics-Sparks connections. Sparks center Nicky Anosike spent last season in Washington and forward Marissa Coleman, who played at Maryland, spent three seasons in D.C. before being traded to L.A. Milton-Jones played in Washington from 2005 to 2007 before returning to the Sparks in a trade, and Mystics assistant Jennifer Gillom was the Sparks' coach from 2010-11.
"She worked really hard to come back," Mystics coach Trudi Lacey said of Beard. "We've always wished her well, hope her health stays good and that she can continue to play like she wants to play."
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