Aces personify what Vegas demands, and that’s winning

Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports
The Sporting Tribune's Steve Carp writes the back-to-back WNBA champions are a reflection of what Vegas is and wants in its teams.

LAS VEGAS — Every team that wins a championship promises it will do it again. There’ll be another celebration. Another parade. Another set of speeches.

More often than not, it doesn’t come to pass. Your roster changes. You have injuries. The other teams get better and you find yourself being challenged and unable to respond.

The Las Vegas Aces were no different. They won the 2022 WNBA championship and the mantra at the parade was “We’re going back-to-back” come 2023.

Everyone cheered. 

Then came the task of actually doing it. The roster was bolstered. The coach was given a million-dollar contract. The team had a new workspace, a practice facility that was the envy of the league with every amenity a player could ask for.

So what happened? The Aces had challenges on and off the court. They weren’t the only “Super team” in the WNBA. And when the best player in the league got snubbed for regular season MVP honors, she said her peace, then went out and proved to the world that she was indeed the best player.

Wednesday night, severely shorthanded playing without two starters in front of a hostile sellout crowd 2,500 miles away from the comfort of home, down 12 points in the second quarter, A’ja Wilson and the Aces — sounds like a cool name for a band, doesn’t it? — circled the wagons, came all the way back, then held off a final challenge from the New York Liberty to win 70-69 and keep their promise to be the first WNBA team to win consecutive titles since 2002 when the Los Angeles Sparks successfully defended their crown.

In doing so, they cemented their legacy as one of the league’s greatest teams. This was a franchise that was born in Salt Lake City, moved and struggled in San Antonio, moved again, this time to the Strip in 2018 and had a metamorphosis. New ownership eventually led to Mark Davis obtaining the team from the MGM Grand and taking it where everyone hoped it would get to.

Davis, who also owns the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders, believes in  the product that is women’s professional basketball in this country. He’s not afraid to spend money in order to win. He deserves a lion’s share of the credit for the Aces being the success story they are. Without his financial commitment and hiring the right people to do their jobs and getting them do those jobs, no way does this happen.

But there’s another part to this success story. We know Las Vegas has always been a basketball town and that when UNLV does well, the vibe around town is decidedly different. You can win a Stanley Cup as the Golden Knights did back in June and create a euphoria which comes with being championship timber. But there’s a special connection between the community and the hardwood.

You go to the Aces games at Michelob Ultra Arena and it reflects the kaleidoscope of the community. Black and white. Old and young. Straight and gay. All joined by a common denominator — a love of hoops and of winning.

We are a diverse city and we take pride in it. We’re all inclusive and the Aces have reflected that. Look in the stands and you’ll see 9-year-old girls with their dads sitting next to a couple of African-American senior citizens who are next to a gay or lesbian couple. Everyone hoping the opponent at the free-throw line misses so they can all get free pizza. 

You look at the makeup of their management and you have strong, powerful women in virtually every position. It can be president Nikki Fargas or general manager Natalie Williams, or chief business development officer Jennifer Azzi or head coach Becky Hammon and it sends a message to young girls. And that message is maybe you won’t be talented enough to be the next A’ja Wilson or Jackie Young but you could still work in pro sports and be part of something special.

The Aces led the WNBA in attendance and obviously, winning has a lot to do with that. This town doesn’t tolerate losers for long and had they been, say, the Indiana Fever, you couldn’t give tickets away to come watch them. 

But they are really good, extremely entertaining and it is a fun experience to see them at home where tickets are affordable and you can take your family to watch them play. The energy inside MUA is crazy most nights and when you’re winning championships and acquiring rings, everyone wants to be part of that.

How good? They went 34-6 in the regular season. They lost one game total in the postseason (Game 3 in the Finals) in going 8-1. They did it while being shorthanded for a good portion of the year when Candace Parker had surgery on her broken foot in June and managed to win Wednesday without Chelsea Gray and Kiah Stokes, both of who were on crutches and in protective boots on their feet (Gray’s left foot, Stokes on her right) after they were hurt in Game 3.

So there’ll be another parade to attend, perhaps on Monday as the details were still being worked out. There’ll be a run on WNBA Championship gear. The loyal fan base will flock to the celebration. The victory cigars will be lit and there’ll be the usual speeches, though we’ll see if any of the players get wasted enough to match William Karlsson’s epic performance of the Knights’ celebration. There’ll be a banner ceremony next May and there’ll probably be a few new faces on the roster. But the core of the team will be intact and the watchword will be “Three-peat.”

Only one team in the 27-year history of the WNBA has pulled off a Three-peat. That was the Houston Comets, who actually won the title four consecutive times from 1997 to 2000. Can the Aces join them and win three straight? It certainly won’t be easy. But I’m not sure we should bet against them. Especially if A’ja Wilson is on the floor.