A'ja Wilson and Kelsey Plum are the real deal for the WNBA's Aces in hoops hotbed of Las Vegas
The Las Vegas Aces are hoping to hit the jackpot with Plum and Wilson -- No. 1 picks in the last two WNBA Drafts
LAS VEGAS -– The NBA's Las Vegas Summer League was scheduled to start in a couple hours at the Thomas & Mack Center on the UNLV campus: First-round picks and recently-minted millionaires would get their first taste at the NBA games, team executives would schmooze in the stands as they watched games that amounted to nothing more than exhibitions, and fans would glimpse players who, just maybe, could change the trajectory of their favorite franchise in the years to come.
Three miles to the southwest, on the edge of the Las Vegas Strip that's nearest the airport, a different type of basketball practice was wrapping up.
When they moved from San Antonio last offseason, the WNBA's Las Vegas Aces became the first professional basketball team to call Las Vegas home, and only the second major professional sports team in town, after the NHL's Vegas Golden Knights. The team has enjoyed what Vegas has to offer – a top-notch venue at Mandalay Bay Events Center, team residences at The Signature at MGM Grand (and the accompanying pool), comped tickets to Vegas shows – and the city has responded to the buzz around a team that has the two most recent No. 1 picks in the WNBA Draft: combo guard Kelsey Plum, the top pick of the 2017 draft, and power forward A'ja Wilson, the top pick of the 2018 draft. The Aces have drawn nearly 6,000 fans per home game.
During the NBA's Summer League, though, there was an interesting dynamic at play between the Aces and the NBA players who temporarily were posting up in Vegas: A mutual admiration and respect that may be unique in an American sports landscape that's often divided on gender lines.
The night before, Chris Paul had brought his family to the Aces' game. Wilson told me she was pumped to head over to some Summer League games later in the day so she could hang out with some NBA friends: the Los Angeles Clippers' Sindarius Thornwell, a college friend from South Carolina, and the Los Angeles Lakers' Josh Hart, who she got to know when both were at the John R. Wooden Award ceremonies.
Plum was excited to see two old friends from when she played at Washington: DeJounte Murray and Markelle Fultz. DeAndre Ayton, days after he'd been selected by the Phoenix Suns with the No. 1 pick, had just told reporters he was starstruck and "freaking out" when he got to meet Phoenix Mercury legend Diana Taurasi: "She's the Michael Jordan of the WNBA."
It was a microcosm of the dream of what this league was intended to become when it was founded more than 20 years ago: A league where female athletes could taste some of the fame and fortune of their male counterparts, and a league that creates female role models for younger basketball players.
"It was Diana Taurasi who made me fall in love with basketball," Plum said as a few teammates lingered after practice and put up shots.
When Plum was growing up in Southern California, she idolized Taurasi. Plum was a member of the UConn Huskie Pup Club for young fans. She had a beanie baby of Taurasi and signed posters of UConn stars. She had VHS tapes of UConn's title games, and she watched them over and over.
Wilson? Sure, she loved WNBA players when she was growing up outside of Columbia, South Carolina. She had a Candace Parker jersey and watched highlights of Lisa Leslie – but none of them were her basketball idol. Wilson can remember the exact moment she fell in love with basketball, which coincided with the exact moment she fell in love with her basketball idol.
It was March 29, 2009. North Carolina was playing Oklahoma in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. Wilson watched the Tar Heels win that day, but it was a sophomore Sooner, soon to become the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, who stole Wilson's heart.
"I just fell in love with Blake Griffin," she said. "It just captured me, him as a player. He was so explosive in everything that he did. And he loved the game. You could just see it in his face."
Wilson's father had played professional in Sweden for a decade, but Wilson had never fallen in love with basketball until that moment. She asked her father to put a hoop in their driveway. She rocketed up recruiting rankings and attended her home state's school of South Carolina. Her junior year, her team won the national title and she was the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, but on this morning in Vegas, she wasn't reminiscing about that – she was reminiscing about meeting her hero. It was when her team took a road trip to Los Angeles. They were staying across the street from the Clippers' practice facility. Wilson and her teammates waited near the facility for more than an hour to catch a glimpse of her hero. When Griffin drove out of the facility after practice, he stopped his car, got out and took a picture with Wilson.
"I didn't want him to see I was crying, so I had to take my teammates shades," Wilson said. And when Vegas selected Wilson with the No. 1 overall pick in April, a WNBA rep handed Wilson an iPad. On it was loaded a congratulatory message from Griffin.
It's as if the WNBA has grown up to become a sister league to the NBA. And to WNBA stars like Wilson and Plum, the cross-pollination of these leagues isn't just vital to the WNBA's current success – it's a vital reason they are here in the first place.
"The NBA supports the WNBA so much, and that's what you need in this league – that's what it's going to take for us to grow," Wilson said.
You're probably not surprised that the NBA stars shine much brighter than the WNBA stars. They're the ones with the $100 million contracts while a No. 1 WNBA pick like Wilson makes a shade over $50,000 and feels compelled to speak up about pay inequality. But you might be surprised that, in certain markets and among certain people, the women sometimes outshine the men. Like when Plum's Washington team made the Final Four in 2016, and the city of Seattle fell in love with them.
"After that, I used to walk in Seattle with Markelle," Plum said. "Markelle is so unassuming. We'd walk together, and people would stop me and then ask him to take a picture. And I'm laughing: 'Do you know who this is?' This was right before he was picked No. 1. He used to get so mad, too!"
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