The players have helped make it fun with play for the Sun

Mohegan – And so the 16th summer of Sun basketball began Sunday, home against Las Vegas. Funny how that worked out. Imagine: Two teams owned by casino entities and who play on casino properties, but whose geographical homes couldn’t offer more contrasting rhythms.

Las Vegas, NV: Twenty-four hour gluttony. Sin City. What happens there stays there.

Uncasville, CT: Nothing ever happens there.

And that’s really been the bête noire of the Sun franchise. Free agents don’t want to come to our corner of the world because comparatively, Uncasville isn’t a pimple on the fanny of Washington, New York, Los Angeles and now (gulp) Vegas.

But a funny thing’s happening on the way to perpetuating the yarn. The current group of Sun players actually like it here. They want to be here. They accept the drill is to chill in Uncasville. And that’s OK, especially if surrounded by teammates who make their own fun.

“In coming here, you become interested in different things,” Sun leader Jasmine Thomas was saying the other day. “I played in DC and Atlanta. But you come here and you realize things like, ‘gee, it’s kind of nice being outside.’ We become regulars at some places. Like The Shack (in East Lyme). Yes, they’re fans. They know us from the Sun. But then they start to treat us like family. They check on us in the offseason. Include us in holiday chain messages. That’s important. It makes you feel like it’s home.”

Maybe that’s Connecticut’s cachet after all. Bigger cities have (many) more options, but their expanse handcuffs their ability to feel like home.

“I do more blogging and crafts now. Things I’ve always wanted to do but didn’t feel like I had the time for in other cities,” Thomas said. “In Connecticut, I get to be with my girls more. We get to have experiences off the court I might not have had with other teams.”

This just in: Young professionals with some money in their pocket need their social time more than a lung. WNBA players aren’t paid anywhere near their male counterparts, but they needn’t worry about housing costs, car payments or electric bills. Not a bad gig. Hence, young professional women’s basketball players, with time and money to spend, have often pooh-poohed Connecticut as a destination. It’s boring.

“This league is very social. Very tight knit,” Sun coach Curt Miller said. “So when opponents are in town, the host players like to spend time with them.

“The hardest thing about Connecticut is late night eating establishments. A lot of the social activities that WNBA players are about revolve around food and socializing. After games, outside of the casinos, there aren’t a lot of places here open late or into the early morning compared to the major cities. That’s the toughest thing about our location. They want to entertain.”

So they entertain themselves now.

“We find a way to make things fun,” Thomas said. “We had a boat trip planned the other day. It got postponed because of weather so we went to the Celtics/Cavs game instead. Plenty of players would fight me on this, but I don’t think there’s a team in the league that has as much fun as we do on and off the court. And when things get tough and there’s friction sometimes — we’re human, we’re family — we keep it within ourselves. There’s no gossip. We move on. There’s something more important here. It’s about being part of something bigger.”

Good irony there. Part of something bigger in the land of something smaller.

Alyssa Thomas, who likes to cook, often does so during team get-togethers on off-days or after games. She said the closeness fans see on the bench during games spills into other areas of their lives. Turns out Miller’s thirst in “changing the culture” here extended well beyond what used to be a toxic locker room. The culture is the narrative.

“It’s gradually turning. We still haven’t turned the corner, but this offseason, even though we didn’t end up with any free agents that would have been a coup, they took our phone calls,” Miller said. “A big part of that is the players. Players want to play with good players. They see a group that has a lot of fun with each other.

“It’s been a point of emphasis since I got here. Try to create a small market that is more of a desirable place. A lot of this culture is that eight of our 12 players have played in this league less than three years. Other people in the league are taking note that this is a group that has a lot of fun with each other. Great chemistry. People others would enjoy playing with. The players have changed the perception of us across the league.”

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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