LAS VEGAS -- It's around noon at the end of a holiday weekend, and The Strip is packed with tourists on foot and in cars. Flashing on a loop on a marquee is the date of the Las Vegas Aces' next game. It might seem a small thing amid so much stimulus coming at you, but it's not.
Just like the sign "Aces merchandise sold here," and the Aces logo painted on a wall, and the large cardboard cutouts of Aces players -- all of which you run across walking through Mandalay Bay hotel and resort. This is the Aces' home -- they play at the Mandalay Bay Events Center -- and that's exactly what it feels like.
The complex and the team are owned by MGM Resorts International, which in late 2017 took over a WNBA franchise that was withering on the vine in San Antonio and replanted it in the desert. And, properly cared for, things can grow here. Now in their second season and with the opportunity to host the league's best at the WNBA All-Star Game on July 27, the Aces strive to be a model "new" franchise -- albeit one whose roots go back to the launch of the league in 1997.
"MGM allows us to be in the spotlight as much as we can be," Aces guard Kayla McBride said. "That carries so much further than people may know. It's who we're trying to be, but how MGM sees us as well. When you have an owner like that who backs you, it makes all the difference. It allows us to be confident in who we are."
McBride came over from San Antonio. On this day, she's joined for lunch by post players Tamera "Ty" Young and Carolyn Swords, whom coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer brought to Las Vegas last year as free agents for their veteran experience and personalities.
McBride, Young and Swords talk about how quickly this group jelled, but also how that bond was strengthened after the Aces' decision to not play a game last season at the Washington Mystics after a 24-hour-plus travel ordeal during which none of them got any sleep.
That resulted in a forfeit, and for a team that finished 14-20 and just out of the playoffs, that was costly. But it also was an unexpected exercise in team-building.
"We were going back and forth," McBride recalled, "but as a unit we came to the conclusion that we had to stand up for ourselves."
Added Swords: "And that requires honest discussion; you have to have trust that you can express yourself and not fear what the reaction is going to be. For us, it was an issue of our health. It was nice that we were on the same page."
That the Aces, who at that point had been playing together for just a few months, found themselves so united on a difficult issue stood out to Young, who's now in her 12th WNBA season.
"We got lucky with who this team is, for real," she said. "It's not always like this."
A new start in Vegas
The Aces began as the Utah Starzz, one of the original eight WNBA franchises 22 years ago. In 2003, the franchise moved to San Antonio and became the Silver Stars, later shortened to the Stars. It was owned there by Spurs Sports & Entertainment, and in 2011, it also hosted a WNBA All-Star Game. The franchise's competitive height was making the 2008 WNBA Finals, where it lost to the Detroit Shock, then coached by Laimbeer.
The Stars' last postseason appearance was in 2014, after which the franchise's most noted player, Becky Hammon, retired and moved into coaching with the Spurs. After three consecutive years with the league's worst record and an apparent loss of interest by SS&E, the Stars seemed to be dying. The move to Las Vegas revived them. McBride and other players felt bad for the WNBA fans left behind in San Antonio, but saw Vegas as a lifeline.
"The Spurs are a great organization, but it was always like the Spurs ... and then us," said McBride, the No. 3 draft pick out of Notre Dame in 2014 who was a rookie on the Stars' final playoff team. "The Spurs are who they are; they are champions. So living up to that hype, plus living up to the Becky Hammon and Sophia Young teams ... there was always something we were striving for that felt like we were just never enough.
"I loved San Antonio, and I was very comfortable there. Maybe I was too comfortable. I had to get uncomfortable again and realize what I was trying to do. Coming here, it was refreshing because we were able to create a new culture and identity."
"We got lucky with who this team is, for real. It's not always like this." Tamera Young, on team camaraderie and how quickly the Aces became united
Three consecutive No. 1 draft picks -- Washington's Kelsey Plum in 2017, South Carolina's A'ja Wilson in 2018 and Notre Dame's Jackie Young in 2019 -- have helped, as well as the May trade to acquire center Liz Cambage, who was the No. 2 pick in 2011.
Laimbeer acknowledges this past offseason felt rocky because of uncertainty. The Aces didn't know if draft-eligible junior stars Young and Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu would go pro until after their respective teams lost in the Final Four in April. Ionescu opted to stay; Young decided to leave. The Aces didn't know if the Cambage trade would happen.
"This was the most bizarre offseason for us," Laimbeer said. "Because we would talk and talk and talk about what our team might be like and have these scenarios. But we had no idea for sure what it would look like."
Now they have three No. 1 picks, a No. 2 and a No. 3 who range in age from 21 to 27.
"They're smart, they're not about themselves, they're driven to win," Laimbeer said. "They have to learn how to win together. They are five great players, and they have to figure out how to get it done with the rest of the team's help."
Veteran help for Aces
Tamera Young, 32, and Swords, who turns 30 in July, are the team's oldest players; guards Sugar Rodgers and Sydney Colson, new to the team this year, are both 29. They know what their roles are as veterans. Laimbeer counts on them as mentors.
Young has helped launch a franchise before; she was a first-round pick out of James Madison for the Atlanta Dream in 2008, their inaugural year. She was traded to the Chicago Sky during the 2009 season, and was with the Sky until being traded back to Atlanta during the 2017 season. Then she signed last year with Las Vegas, and is willing to do whatever she is asked.
"I had to make it myself in this league, coming from a mid-major school," Young said. "I always had to have that grit and that fight. I think it's one of the reasons I've been in the league this long. I went from being a scorer to a defensive player, from being a starter to coming off the bench. I had different roles that I always accepted."
Swords started her career in Chicago as a second-round draft pick out of Boston College in 2011. She was there three years, didn't play in the WNBA in 2014, then was with the New York Liberty in 2015-16 before being traded to the Seattle Storm in 2017. Swords, like Rodgers, played for Laimbeer with the Liberty and knew his coaching style.
"He does a great job of assigning roles and making every role feel vital to the team," Swords said. "And it's been exciting to see how loyal our fans already are here. They have their seats, their favorite players, they show up to all the events. They stood by us our first season when we were figuring out our identity, and that buy-in is huge for a team."
Building in the second year
Starting Thursday against Washington, the Aces will be home for six of their next seven games (and the other is in Los Angeles). Coming off an important win at Minnesota on Sunday, the Aces are 4-3 and could help themselves with a strong run over the next two weeks.
Last season, Wilson was the league's Rookie of the Year and led the Aces in scoring and rebounding. This year, she's adjusting to having another big presence inside with the 6-foot-8 Cambage, who is getting back to form after an Achilles injury kept her out of action since last September's World Cup.
The Aces are starting to see their 2019 identity coming together. They are tied with the Mystics in scoring average (84.4 points per game) and are the top rebounding team at 42.1 per game. The Aces also have the best defensive rating in the WNBA at 89.4, and lead the league in pace at 102.17.
McBride leads the team in scoring at 18.0 PPG, followed by Cambage (15.0), Wilson (13.4) and Plum (10.7). Wilson is the rebounding leader (8.0), and Jackie Young is tops in assists (3.4).
At this point, everyone in the WNBA is chasing 8-1 Connecticut; the Aces lost their first of three matchups this season with the Sun 80-74 on June 2. Las Vegas hopes to gain more ground in the league standings during this stretch of home games, and who knows where the Aces might be by the time the All-Star spotlight comes in late July.
"It's hard to win a lot of games in college, and then come to the pros and struggle," McBride said of the lean years in San Antonio. "But I think it's character-building.
"You have to enjoy the process and the journey of it. Because at the end of the day, I get to play basketball for a living. And it makes you really appreciate things like now, being in Vegas and being able to play with great players in a great community."