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Connecticut Sun shines through the clouds

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UNCASVILLE, Conn. - Fans are rooting for the Connecticut Sun, after the trail-blazing team overcame a rocky start and made it to the Eastern Conference finals of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA).

So too is the Mohegan Indian Tribe, the first Native owner of a major league sports team, which now considers its controversial acquisition to be successful beyond expectations.

The remaining question at the end of the Sun's first season is what it can do for Indian country. Will it encourage the strong women's basketball programs on western reservations, already storied in prize-wining documentaries? Will it help them draw attention from the coaches and scouts for the leading college teams, which feed into the WNBA? Will it ultimately give female athletes from the rez a chance at professional play, perhaps even on the Sun?

These questions should go on the agenda as the Sun management prepares to plan a full-scale promotion for its second season nest spring. Some of the decisions about possible outreach to Indian country will have to go to the Mohegan council itself. "That's something for the tribe to decide," said Mitchell Etess, senior vice president of marketing for the Mohegan Sun, the tribe's immensely profitable casino resort.

The team's performance during its 18-16 regular season and its two-game sweep of the Eastern Conference semi-finals cleared up any lingering doubts about its future. In spite of demoralizing losses and low attendance at mid-season, the team pulled together dramatically at the end, winning five straight heart-stopping games. Even in the more ragged moments of its final losses to the powerful Detroit Shock, Sun players gave impressive shows of heart.

The fans responded with a surge in attendance. The average gate soared from 5,150 per home game before the All-Star break in late July to 7,011 afterward, ending the regular season with a near sell-out of the 9,341-capacity Mohegan Sun Arena. The average for the season was 6,044, just above the make-or-break mark of 6,000 set by team planners.

Attendance at the first playoff home game, a premiere for the Sun Arena, was a low 4,166, but the date, Aug. 28, was also the first day of school for much of the Sun's core fan base, teenage girls and their families.

Published figures put the Sun's financial loss for the first three months at $1.1 million. Final figures for the season have not yet been released, but Etess told Indian Country Today the loss would probably run a little bit over the interim. Tribe leaders and team management didn't seem fazed by the start-up cost, however.

Etess said they "were very happy" with the first season. Mohegan Tribal Chairman Mark F. Brown called it "amazing."

The team is paying an immeasurable reward in goodwill in a state that fervently supports the University of Connecticut's four-time national champion women's basketball team. Two stars from the 1995 UConn team, the first national champion winner, now play on the Sun, Rebecca Lobo, then the UConn co-captain, and Nykesha Sales, then a freshman and now the Sun's top scorer.

(At some points in the season, the Sun might actually have suffered from the comparison, because Connecticut fans aren't used to losing games.)

By the end of the season, the controversy over the team's proximity to a casino emerged as a non-issue. The Mohegan Sun Arena's main doors open on a mall that runs between the two gaming floors, which are barred to the Sun's under-21 fans.

Although the overlap with the betting crowd may have been much smaller than predicted, Mohegan Sun managers said that Sun fans had increased traffic at the restaurants ringing the mall, including the basketball-themed Michael Jordan's.

The impact of the team on Indian country recruiting remains to be seen, although at the least it drew attention to some of the barriers that keep some reservation athletes invisible to college scouts. As Scott Hawk, assistant coach of the Sun, told ICT most college scouting takes place at the large summer tournaments that could be too expensive for reservation teams to attend. And the WNBA recruits almost exclusively from college programs.

Detroit Shock coach Bill Laimbeer also emphasized that good high school prospects also needed to play on an Amateur Athletic Union team. "If you're a good player on a team that sucks, you're not going to get noticed," he said. "You have to play with other good players on an AAU team. Also you get to play nine months a year instead of three."

Laimbeer, a towering near seven-footer with matching self-esteem, stressed the importance of tournament play, regardless of the cost. "You've got to do fund-raising," he said. "It costs around $3,000 for state tournaments, for uniforms and travel costs and so forth, and $12,000 for a national tournament."

The round of Indian basketball tournaments such as South Dakota's Lakota Nation Invitational in Rapid City and Dakota Oyate tournament in Huron and the annual Navajo high school tournament in Phoenix are still unknown territory for the large eastern college programs. But the Mohegan Tribe's involvement with the Sun and the WNBA is beginning to get the word out.