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    Thursday, June 20, 2024

    Sun remain a constant in an arena that continues to thrive

    Mohegan — It's a monument, really, to Mitchell Etess, the man mostly responsible for the smartest business decision the Mohegan Tribe ever made: building Mohegan Sun Arena.

    In the hallway outside the arena floor, there is The Wall. It would be eminently nondescript otherwise, merely a construct of cinder blocks painted white, were it not for the autographs of virtually every act that has played inside the arena. You name the band. The name is there. The Eagles. Buffett. Brad Paisley. Earth Wind & Fire. Van Halen. Eric Clapton.

    Fancy that. They played the Garden, Radio City ... and Uncasville.

    Mohegan Sun Arena has sustained, as they say in French, "laissez les bon temps roulez." Let the good times roll. And they've sure rolled. The place embodies the often abstract concept of "quality of life." Sure has enhanced ours.

    Most of us have seen concerts there. Great nights, all. We are blessed to have such an influential building such a short ride away in our corner of the world.

    Ah, but even the best concerts were like the mail carrier. They came and went. The building's most important occupant, the Connecticut Sun, play their 15th summer this summer. The Sun have been a constant. Nykesha Sales, Katie Douglas and Rebecca Lobo, original members of the Sun's 2003 team, will be back this week for the 15-year celebration game Thursday against Seattle.

    This, too, was Etess' idea. Bring a WNBA team to Connecticut. Seems a no-brainer now, what with the way UConn has turned women's basketball into a pastime. But then there was this: Even with Mohegan Sun's reputation, could Uncasville honestly compete with New York, Washington and Los Angeles in a professional sports league?

    C'mon. New York ... Washington ... Los Angeles ... Uncasville. As the old Imus In The Morning skit used to go, "which doesn't belong and why?"

    Indeed, Mohegan Sun officials estimated that the spot on which then-WNBA commissioner Val Ackerman and Mark Brown, then the chairman of the Mohegan Tribe, lofted the ceremonial jump ball was a parking lot near a factory building 10 years earlier. Certainly no place for 9,341 people to congregate with thunder sticks on a cloudy Saturday afternoon in May, 2003.

    That was the first home game. A loss to the Los Angeles Sparks, coached at the time by Michael Cooper, the only guy who could ever guard Larry Bird. What Cooper said that day still resonates:

    "This is more of a college atmosphere in the pros. It was great," Cooper said. "Arenas in this league are getting too big. There's no coziness anymore. Here, the people are loud and right on top of you. That's the way I used to like it. Families will come together in this atmosphere to watch them play."

    Families have. The Sun, whose attendance has lagged in recent years, still manage a core 6,000 fans. In the old days of coach Mike Thibault, the crowd swelled beyond 8,000. There were two trips to the WNBA Finals and many, many memorable nights winning games and booing Bill Laimbeer.

    Indeed, the Sun's 14 previously successful summer prompt the question: Would there be a WNBA right now without the support and steadfastness this franchise has provided? Maybe. Maybe not. The WNBA is nothing else if not beautifully stubborn, figuring out ways to survive and continue to call itself the longest continuing women's professional sports league in history.

    But there's no denying that the Sun's contribution has been noteworthy. All-Star games with full houses. Draft nights with buzz. Playoff games with quite the din. Never forget the first game of the 2004 finals when the ever quotable Sales walked into the locker room and yelled, "it was LIVE in there tonight."

    The Connecticut franchise hasn't merely found success in the league's smallest market. It has thrived. And while it still seeks that elusive championship, the future is brighter than it has been in years. Chiney Ogwumike, Jonquel Jones and Courtney Williams can play. They have the right coach in Curt Miller.

    Lots to appreciate this week here in year 15.

    Here's to 15 more.

    And 15 more after that.

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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