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    Thursday, May 23, 2024

    Hype for Clark’s visit already a victory for Sun, CT fans

    Mohegan — And so the chaos of Circus Maximus comes Tuesday to Neon Uncasville, the Connecticut Sun’s season opener a mere postscript to Queen Caitlin of Clark, whose first regular-season WNBA game commands some courtside seats in excess of $900 on StubHub.

    It’s only everything we’ve ever wanted here in Connecticut, which, while not the birthplace of women’s basketball, has certainly been the game’s Broadway. College and pro. We have espoused, promoted, loved, nurtured and showcased the game, almost begging the rest of the country to awaken and see what we see. Feel what we feel.

    It is for those reasons that we still get a little proprietary around here, maybe even feeling a little resentful now that women’s hoops really no longer needs us. We’re like parents: We feed, love, cultivate, educate … and then they leave the nest and we see them again maybe at Christmas.

    So then Tuesday, we celebrate Christmas. They’re all coming back home, back to Mohegan Sun Arena, the WNBA’s erstwhile home office, back when it was all a wink and a nod to Barbara Mandrell, who sang about being country when country wasn’t cool. We were the WNBA when the ‘W’ wasn’t cool.

    Permit your humble narrator here to edify the many pundits, scribes and blatherers and their months of experience with our game. The Sun, Mohegan Tribe and fans here in this corner of the world provided this league immeasurable help back in the days when Queen Caitlin wasn’t yet a twinkle in her parents’ eyes.

    Hence, we call upon Mitchell Etess, the man who brought the WNBA here, for a history lesson. Etess, who badgered the late, great David Stern to get a team here, is a Mohegan Sun original. Etess went from senior vice president of marketing to president and CEO of the casino to president and CEO of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority/Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment.

    All the while, he wasn’t merely the basketball team’s CEO, but its biggest fan. He’d stand in the tunnel that leads to courtside opposite the visiting bench and offer referees his unsolicited musings — sometimes in spasms, always with exclamation points. One night, a ref was so annoyed that he asked a security guard who the loud guy in the suit was over there. The security guard, knowing Etess ran the whole show, replied, “I’ve never seen that guy before in my life.”

    “We were the first non-NBA franchise to own a WNBA team and the first franchise to actually make money,” Etess was saying one day last week over lunch. “So when someone was thinking about ownership, we could talk to them and explain it. We set the model that, yes, you can be independent and yes, you can make money. We do have some infrastructure here, but it really wasn't necessarily basketball infrastructure.

    “There was a time when nobody wanted to have the All-Star game. So we had it. There was a time nobody wanted to have the draft. We said, ‘We'll be glad to have the draft for you with 3,000 screaming people.’ I think we were really instrumental to the development that you’ve seen in the ‘W.’ I know there are people who appreciate it. But there’s also people that are new and probably have no idea.”

    But they really should, if you agree that they teach history in school for good reason. The Sun franchise was WNBA’s Uber — always there for a quick pick-me-up. Sometimes that’s forgotten amid the hype of $900 courtside seats.

    Which brings us to current events. Queen Caitlin is here. Some have called her the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) already. Others, perhaps those of us with more historical acumen who saw Miller, Parker, Catchings, Taurasi, Stewart and Moore, pump the brakes on the hype mobile. And so what say you, Mr. Etess?

    “She's really good player. Is she going to be the best player in the history of women's basketball? I don't know. The jury's still kind of out,” he said. “She sure can shoot, she sure is a good player and she sure has sparked a lot of interest. And to that extent, it's unbelievable.

    “For whatever reason, the timing was right. She has managed to capture the imagination of America and the world probably to some extent. It's great that she has led the way for people to see this is really something special and that people should watch.

    “She’s brought the sport visibility it clearly wasn't getting before. I turned on WFAN one day recently and they’re talking about the women’s NCAA tournament. Do you know what I did as a major sponsor back then of WFAN to get them interested in the WNBA — and not super successfully? It’s incredible now that it's kind of getting that kind of acceptance.”

    It should be a celebratory night for the Sun franchise. The world will watch and even if unwittingly, will see the byproduct of the Sun’s 21-year effort. And heck, maybe they’ll even get to see that Alyssa Thomas is actually the best player on the floor. This, too, would be the Clark Effect, raising awareness for this wonderful game so that players like Thomas get noticed globally.

    “I think the league still wants a thriving franchise here,” Mitchell Etess said. “We still put people in the building.”

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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