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Mohegan team contends for championship

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UNCASVILLE, CONN. - In a feat of business management as well as on-court
play, the Connecticut Sun has made it to the National championship round of
the Women's National Basketball Association less than two years after the
Mohegan Indian Tribe bought the team franchise and moved it to the Mohegan
Sun arena.

The Sun is the only WNBA team not affiliated with an NBA counterpart as
well as the only major league team in any sport owned by an Indian tribe.

It took the Eastern Conference title Oct. 3 in two straight games with a
nail-biting 60 - 57 home court victory over the New York Liberty.

The championship best two-of-three series started Oct. 8 on the Mohegan
tribal reservation against the Seattle Storm, which won the western
conference title Oct. 6. In its first four years as the Orlando Miracle,
the team now known as the Sun made it to the first play-off round only
once.

The 20 months at Uncasville have transformed the team not only into
national championship contenders but also into an emotional focus for the
Mohegan tribe. Two busloads of tribal members and staff trekked to Madison
Square Garden in New York for the first game against the Liberty. "We made
enough noise to be heard all the way back home," said an employee at the
tribal office, who apologized for a voice still hoarse from all the
yelling.

Although the team is still a year or two from turning a profit, its
executives are basking in its intangible benefits. It furthers the Mohegan
Sun marketing plan of bringing a new class of visitors to the 9,400-seat
arena and the casino complex next door. And an incalculable quantity of
political goodwill is bound to result from the unprecedented feat of
bringing Connecticut within reach of a third national basketball
championship in one year. (Both the men's and women's teams at the state
University of Connecticut are current NCAA national champions.)

The success of the team has long since submerged initial criticisms about
its proximity not only to a tribal casino but to one of the largest and
most profitable gaming establishments in the world. (Although a columnist
for the Hartford Courant, the paper of the state capital, persisted
recently in calling it a "casino-owned" team, the Mohegan tribe owns it
directly and insists that the arena is separate from the casino. Its main
entrance through the upscale mall area is physically apart from, but within
sight of, the gaming floor.)

In its hectic first year, the Sun made it to the second round of the
playoffs, a surprise that it credited to late season good luck and a surge
of team spirit. Its success this year looks more like a tribute to skilled
coaching and business acumen. The team front office, led by Chief Executive
Officer Mitchell Etess, President Paul Munick and General Manager Chris
Sienko, invested in rebuilding the starting team. They played into a strong
suit of head coach Mike Thibault, known not only for his game expertise but
also for his background in scouting talent. As head of scouting for the
Chicago Bulls from 1982 to 1986, he was part of the effort to hire Michael
Jordan.

One key to this season, said team media relations manager Bill Tavares, was
a strategy in the pre-season draft that landed rookie star Lindsay Whelan.
The Sun made several trades to obtain the fourth pick in the draft.
Although Coach Thibault had hopes for Diane Taurasi, the UConn star senior
and eventual WNBA Rookie of the Year, she was immediately grabbed by the
Phoenix Mercury. But Thibault also had his eye on Whelan.

The rookie guard repaid his judgment in spectacular fashion. On top of her
strong scoring during the regular season, Whelan pulled the Sun through a
make-or-break first round game with the Washington Mystics by setting a
franchise record of 15 consecutive free-throw points.

Another statistic shows Thibault's emphasis on disciplined team play. The
Sun is a league leader in assists. Nothing provokes an outburst from the
unprepossessing coach than a display of hot-dogging from one of the team's
stars.

The Sun might be on average the shortest team in the league. Thibault is
possibly the shortest coach in professional basketball. In a memorable
vignette from last year's playoffs, he stood with his head tilted far back
to discuss a point with the towering Detroit Shock Coach Bill Laimbeer,
famous in his playing career as one of the Detroit Piston's "Bad Boys."
Whelan herself is 5 foot 9 inches. And one of the Sun's key playmakers, the
popular Debbie Black, is only 5 foot 3 inches.

As the Sun plays for the championship, it will be an inspiration not only
to Indian country but also to basketball fans everywhere of medium height.