Thursday July 25th
Las Vegas is unlike any other city in the world. Headlined by the four mile “Strip” of resorts, casinos, restaurants and attractions, the city offers the most complete package of entertainment (and vices) available anywhere. It is a singularly unique experience.
Despite not caring much for gambling or the “clubbing” scene that dominates the nightlife, I’ve come to really enjoy Las Vegas. The influx of diverse, immersive entertainment options and world class food over the last ten years has redefined the city.
For decades, Las Vegas has been synonymous with entertainment and over the last few years the city has taken strides to build up their professional sports offerings. In 2017, Vegas became the home of the NHL expansion Golden Knights franchise. In 2020, they’ll welcome the NFL to town as the Oakland raiders relocate to Nevada.
For the interests of this post, the most notable addition to the Las Vegas sports scene was that of a WNBA franchise. In 2018, the San Antonio Stars left Texas to become the Las Vegas Aces. The move has been a success. The Aces immediately were welcomed by a eager fanbase, and their ownership group (MGM Resorts International) has poured resources into the team.
Upon arrival in Vegas on Thursday night, I was immediately struck by the amount of excitement in the dry desert air and the impressive promotional push seen all over the south end of the strip. It was going to be a big weekend.
Friday July 26th
After picking up my credential (and fantastic media gift), it was off to the media brunch which marks the unofficial start to All-Star weekend.
I enjoy attending WNBA All-Star because its the year’s best opportunity to cover and celebrate the finest athletes in women’s basketball. However, the other highlight of All-Star weekend is meeting people from around the country who brilliantly cover and promote the league. It’s inspiring to be around the quickly growing contingent of media doing their part to advance the WNBA forward. I had a great time getting to know SB Nation’s Matt Ellentuck, the LA Times’ Brady Klopfer, The Athletic’s Erica L. Ayala, Winsidr’s Aryeh Schwartz and countless others. We all enjoyed bacon and breakfast potatoes before Friday’s festivities officially kicked off.
In the past, Friday consisted of an open to the public practice where each team would spend 45 minutes running drills and goofing off on the floor. It was intimate and fun but also more of a look behind the curtain rather than an outwardly entertaining event. This year, the team practices and subsequent media availability were not open to the public, but instead a precursor to a new-and-improved All-Star Friday experience that included a Three-Point contest and a Skills Challenge.
This is a big step for both those in attendance for the weekend and also for those watching around the country as it provided a second televised event. Hooray for visibility!
The brand new Skill Challenge is identical to the one you may known from the NBA’s All-Star Saturday. Two players race against each other as they dribble, pass and shoot. The winner advances in a tournament-style bracket until there is only one champion. The league wisely included some of the league’s biggest players. Watching the likes of Brittney Griner, Jonquel Jones and Elizabeth Williams go up against the speedy guards was extremely entertaining. The Minnesota Lynx fielded both Odyssey Sims and Napheesa Collier in the competition. They both were defeated in the first round. When it was all said and done the Chicago Sky’s Diamond DeShields took home the trophy. DeShields was a treat to cover all weekend. She’s staked her claim on the future of the league and has a personality that is perfect for All-Star.
For many years, the WNBA All-Star Three-Point Contest has been held during halftime of Saturday’s main event. This year the contest was pushed to Friday and paired with the Skills Challenge. The classic shooting competition that we all know and love needs no tweaking. Five racks of five balls. One “money ball” rack. Sixty seconds on the clock to make as many as you can. Allie Quigley of the Sky had won the previous two years and failed to defend her title. Las Vegas’ Kayla McBride and Connecticut’s Shekinna Stricklen squared off in the finals with Stricklen eventually being crowned champion.
On the NBA side of things, the assembled media gets together to play pickup basketball at some of the major league events like All-Star or The Finals. I wanted to bring that same tradition to the WNBA and booked gym time at a Boys and Girls club on the south side of town. It gave us another opportunity to socialize and hangout with new friends while also running off the highly indulgent meals consumed on the strip. It’s fun to write about basketball. It’s more fun to play basketball.
After the pickup game, it was time to hit the Mandalay Bay All-Star Beach Party featuring Snoop Dogg, Iggy Azalea and DJ Liz Cambage. This was another “new” addition to the festivities this year. An officially sponsored league nightlife event that expanded the scope and variety of the weekend. “The Beach” is a pool/concert venue area at Mandalay Bay and was well-suited for the party. I arrived fashionably late due to playing pickup yet still caught Snoop Dogg’s set. You can check out my twitter account to see more of my specific thoughts on the show- it was (unintentionally) hilarious. In a nutshell: Snoop DJ’d for 45 minutes, only played three of his own songs, was joined by a mascot dog named “Dirty Dogg” and a man operating an 18” marionette puppet. Oh yeah, Snoop also wore a Breanna Stewart jersey for his entire set. Very cool.
Saturday July 27th
Before Saturday’s scheduled events I checked out the WNBA All-Star Fan Fest which was held in a large conference room space in Mandalay Bay. This was yet another impressive aspect of the weekend that totally topped past attempts at a similar experience. The room was filled with interactive basketball games, photo opportunities, meet & greet opportunities with former WNBA players, brand activations, merchandise and more.
A half hour before tip-off the media gathered for a press conference featuring new WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert. This was Englebert’s first official remarks after starting the job two weeks ago. She was polished and professional as expected and also used her time to kick off a new initiative/partnership with USA Basketball. Announced by Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Dawn Staley and Carol Callan, the program will see 12 WNBA players being paid to stay stateside in the offseason to train and promote with USA Basketball.
After the press conference, it was time for the main event. First, player introductions were handled in a distinctly-Vegas fashion as Cirque Du Solei performers welcomed the players to the floor. Next, we were treated to a stirring, dramatic rendition of the Star Spangled Banner performed by Tony-winning actress Kristin Chenoweth. Then Kobe Bryant took his court side seat a mere six feet in front of me. Finally it was game time.
Most all-star games take a familiar form. They emphasize fast pace, little-to-no defense and style over substance. These tenants are all in place for the WNBA’s All-Star game but with an even larger dose of fun. Players like Cambage and Griner are perfectly suited for this event. Big players with even bigger personalities, taking every opportunity to do things on the court that they wouldn’t dare try in a regular season game. Every All-Star game is fun, but the party atmosphere created by the venue and the Las Vegas crowd seemed to inject an even greater level of joy into this year’s tilt.
Minnesota’s three All-Star players—Sims, Collier and Sylvia Fowles—all came off the bench for Team Wilson. Fowles and Sims scored 12 and 10 points respectively. Meanwhile Collier took her medicine as the lone rookie in the game and played less than any other player with only 8 minutes.
The Indiana Fever’s Erica Wheeler scored a game-high 25 points for team Wilson and took home MVP honors. It was an emotional scene post game as Wheeler accepted the trophy and broke into tears. Wheeler is a journeyed player who went un-drafted and was cut from multiple teams before making her first all-star team this summer. Her swagger and energy gave the game a boost and her seven made threes gave her team the win.
Las Vegas’ All-Star weekend set a new bar for the league’s mid-season festivities. While the city is uniquely positioned to be a perfect location for this type of event, there are many aspects of this year’s All-Star that can and should be replicated in the future. It was great to see a city so invested in promoting and celebrating the WNBA. Las Vegas made one thing clear: this is how you do All-Star.