Aces hit jackpot, win Vegas’ first major sports title

There will be a parade down the Las Vegas Strip Tuesday evening to honor the city’s WNBA champions.

A’ja Wilson couldn’t wait to get her hands on the WNBA championship trophy Sunday afternoon. And frankly, who was going to stop her?

The WNBA Most Valuable Player quickly grabbed the hardware after commissioner Cathy Engelbert handed it to Las Vegas Aces owner Mark Davis after the Aces defeated the Connecticut Sun, 78-71, to win the city’s first major professional sports league championship. For Wilson, who had come close to winning it all twice before, there would be no denying her and her teammates this time around.

There’s something ironic about the Aces winning the Finals on a court inside a casino. Like in Vegas, more people leave the casino at Mohegan Sun losers than winners.

But the house doesn’t always win. Despite Wilson having a quiet final 10 minutes, the Aces didn’t fold. They had Chelsea Gray, the Finals MVP, stepping up. There was Riquna Williams coming off the bench to deliver in a big way with 17 points, 11 of them in the fourth quarter.

Coach Becky Hammon didn’t play an extended bench all season, so when one of the few subs to get in delivers, it tells you how special this group is.

How special?

“I saw excellence and I wanted to be a part of it,” Hammon said afterward about why she wanted to coach this group of women.

Prior to Sunday, the last professional sports team to bring a title back to town were the Las Vegas Locomotives, who played in the ill-fated United Football League back in 2009 and 2010. Prior to that, there were the Las Vegas Dustdevils, an indoor soccer team which played at the MGM Grand Garden Arena and won the Continental Indoor Soccer League title in 1994. There were the Las Vegas Silver Streaks, who played in the gimmicky World Basketball League for players under 6-foot-5. They had several UNLV players from the 1987 Final Four team on the roster and won the title in 1988. The Triple-A Las Vegas Stars won two PCL baseball titles in 1986 and 1988 while playing at Cashman Field downtown.

But they weren’t major professional sports franchises and certainly didn’t play in a major professional sports league. The Aces are and while we wait and see if Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley makes good on his vision to deliver a Stanley Cup to the city and we wait to see if Davis’ other team — the Las Vegas Raiders — can win a game, much less another Super Bowl, there’s going to be a parade down the Las Vegas Strip Tuesday evening to honor the city’s WNBA champions.

You have to go back to 1990 the last time Las Vegas had a parade for a championship sports team when UNLV demolished Duke in the NCAA men’s basketball title game and they lined the Strip as well as Downtown to celebrate Jerry Tarkanian and his Runnin’ Rebels.

These days, we have 2.4 million people living here in Southern Nevada. How many will show up to the parade Tuesday evening? I have no idea. But I do know this franchise is going to have an impact on girls and young women in this city going forward.

They’ve watched these players succeed and some of them have met the Aces’ players at their schools, at clinics and at camps. They have role models to look up to and emulate. I can imagine during recess at school, girls choosing up sides for basketball and thinking they’re Jackie Young or Kelsey Plum or A’Ja Wilson. I can see girls asking their dads to put up a hoop and a backboard in the driveway and working on their basketball fundamentals in the hopes of one day being a WNBA player. Christmas is coming and I’m guessing we’ll see a lot of No. 22, No. 12 and No. 10 Aces jerseys under trees all over town.

I can picture young women in college or in the process of finishing up school wanting to help grow and market the game from a WNBA front office, be it here in Vegas or some other WNBA city. Or maybe in the league office itself.

And the Aces’ championship isn’t just about girls and women. Male athletes can learn a lot about teamwork, dedication, willingness to sacrifice individual talent for the good of the team. These are life lessons that can be applied to every area of our existence.

This is what winning does. It creates energy and enthusiasm. It fosters growth, both in the team’s support and that of the entire league. It empowers young girls and gives them something to strive for. It emboldens young women to achieve their own greatness.

And it helps unite cities.

In 13 days, Las Vegas is going to remember and mourn the fifth anniversary of the events of its darkest hour — the mass shooting of October 1, 2017 which saw 58 people killed and hundreds more injured at the hands of a lone deranged gunman. But before we pause and reflect on that horrible evening across from Mandalay Bay, we will celebrate with a parade on the southbound side of the Strip, starting at Caesars Palace and ending at Bellagio. Not exactly a trip down the Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan, but while it will be a short parade, it figures to be memorable as all parades tend to be.

That’s what sports does. It lifts us up. It brings us together. It makes us feel good about ourselves and our community. And only a select few cities get to experience that feeling every year. If you live here, you know how precious that feeling is because in sports, as in life, nothing is guaranteed.

What is guaranteed? The Aces are here and with Davis finishing up construction on a practice facility adjacent to the Raiders’ headquarters, the team’s not going anywhere. Hopefully their success will see an increase regular season attendance in 2023 after the team averaged a middle-of-the-pack 5,500 at home this year. We’ll see if Davis and team president Nikki Fargas can keep the band together.

But for now, Las Vegas can celebrate its champions.

The Raiders talk about “Commitment to Excellence.” It has been their mantra from their original days in Oakland. The Aces? They don’t have such mottos. But not only can they borrow it from their football brothers, they truly exemplify it.

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