UNCASVILLE, Conn. - Local support showed strong for the Connecticut Sun, the first professional sports team owned by an Indian tribe, in its first game May 24. The question for many now is what impact it will have on Indian athletes.
The woman's basketball team lost its first game to the Los Angeles Sparks, but the Mohegan Tribe had good reason to be satisfied with its investment. The game sold out the state-of-the-art arena connected to the Mohegan Sun Casino. The spirit among the 9,341 fans and team family members echoed the state's enthusiasm for its national champion University of Connecticut woman's basketball team.
Alumnae of the UConn team, including Rebecca Lobo, the personable star of its 1995 undefeated season, play featured roles on the Sun, the only Woman's National Basketball Association team not owned by a companion NBA team. Their affiliation with the Mohegan Tribe is a public relations coup of the first order.
The Hartford Courant, the newspaper of the state capitol some 40 miles away, gave the game a first-page story, with two more sports stories inside. Although it duly but not entirely precisely noted that the arena was in a casino, the state as a whole seems to have gotten over that association. A number of college teams now play in the arena, which the Mohegans argue has separate entrances from the casino and so is not connected to the gambling. UConn woman's basketball coach Geno Auriemma, who ranks as one of the most respected figures in the state, attended the game.
It remains to be seen whether interest in the team will spread beyond Connecticut to Indian country, where interest in woman's basketball is also hot.
"Right now it's such a new thing, it's hard to say," assistant coach Scott Hawk told Indian Country Today. "[The Mohegans] only bought the team back in January.
"I would be surprised if American Indian kids or any kids would be aware of our ownership."
Hawk recently moved to southeast Connecticut from Omaha, Neb., and said he was aware of the "very strong" woman's basketball programs in Indian country. But these programs, he said, didn't factor into WNBA recruiting.
"Because the WNBA drafts college players and the players' ages have to be equivalent with college graduates, I'm not sure there's real impact," he said.
He also questioned whether coaches from the strongest national college teams fully scouted Indian players. He said that college scouts did the greatest part of their scouting at the large summer basketball tournaments, where up to 100 teams would compete.
Most college coaches, he said, would find it difficult to keep track of areas like Indian country that did not have large populations.
Whether Indian ownership of the Sun would heighten this awareness, both on the part of the players or the coaches, remains an open question, he said.
"We should have this conversation in two months or a year," he said. "It's early."