- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2008

When interim coach Jessie Kenlaw mapped out the areas in which the Washington Mystics needed to improve during the Olympic break, defense and tenacity topped her list.

As Washington embarked on a month of practice while the WNBA regular season paused for the Beijing Games, Kenlaw implemented a training camp strategy she found effective during her days as an assistant in Seattle.

“One of the officials from the Mystics works out with some of the guys that I play basketball with early mornings at the Ritz-Carlton,” former Maryland point guard Duane Simpkins recalled. “He said, ‘Hey, if some of you guys are interested in coming to get a workout, we could use some guys that could play.’ ”

Scrimmaging with men isn’t uncommon in women’s basketball, but it’s not a practice the Mystics used under former coach Tree Rollins.

Washington practiced with as many as four men during the month-long hiatus, which ends with Friday’s game against Chicago. A couple of male participants considered working out at the Verizon Center practice court as recreation. But for Simpkins and his friend Brian Bobo, 34, of Clinton, sparring with the Mystics offered them an opportunity to develop their careers as boys’ basketball coaches at two District high schools.

Simpkins, 34, of Bowie is the varsity coach at St. Albans School, and Bobo is the varsity coach at Georgetown Day School. Both double as school administrators - Simpkins as assistant admissions director and Bobo as assistant athletic director - and had the free time to practice with the Mystics since school was out of session.

“The fact that we’re both high school basketball coaches in the D.C. area, just getting a chance to run up and down the court is good for ourselves as well as our athletes,” said Bobo, a former guard at Catholic University. “The ability to get on the court and be a part of the execution of the plays they are doing has really opened up a lot of it for us. It allows us to add to what we’re doing.”

Added Simpkins: “In terms of nuances of the game, X’s and O’s wise, we’ve picked up a lot of stuff from watching them and competing against them. The coaches have been great, showing us different plays that we might try to implement in our own team.”

Simpkins and Bobo said their partnership with the Mystics will benefit their coaching in the future. The two have partnered in developing their own series of basketball camps, “Power Through Sports,” and by participating in Washington’s practices, they said they gained perspective on the women’s game.

They also hope the friendships they developed with the Mystics’ staff and players will lead to future collaborations.

“We’d love to get some of the marquee names, some of the women of the Mystics involved [with our camp],” Simpkins said. “It’s been good all the way around. We’re developing good relationships, and we picked up tactical things.”

The Mystics also have benefited from the partnership. Despite their 10-16 record, they are just two games out of the fourth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot.

But with the final eight games of the season coming in the next 17 days, Kenlaw considers improved defense key to the team’s playoff push.

“They are stronger, and they are quicker,” Kenlaw said. “Not to say that women can’t do it, but it challenges us to move a little faster and jump a little higher because they are quicker and stronger than we are. It challenges us to come out of our comfort zone and to take our defense to another level.”

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