The WNBA Casino Gang Hits The Lottery

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Mitchell Etess, an old casino man, didn't bother to bring a good luck charm. He already knew the score.

"I know there's really nothing to do to affect the odds," the CEO of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority said Tuesday after the pingpong balls fell in his favor and the Connecticut Sun got the No. 1 pick in the 2014 WNBA draft. "I know the odds work out, but they don't always work out at any given point in time, which is the truth about our business and the truth about lottery balls.

"I knew 44 out of 100 times we were going to win, but I didn't really have any expectation if this was one of those 44 times."

So Etess, born into the Grossinger family of hoteliers and bred on games of chance, did what the rest of us would do as he sat there at NBA Entertainment in Secaucus, N.J., next to — of all wild cards — Bill Laimbeer, GM-coach of the New York Liberty.

Etess sweated it out.

He got nervous and when coach Anne Donovan saw Etess getting nervous on TV she got nervous. And just for good measure, Sun general manager Chris Sienko, over at NBA offices in Manhattan, brought along a slew of good luck charms.

No worries. No aggravation, not even from Mr. McNasty.

"Oh, no, I'll leave that aside," Etess said, laughing, when asked if Laimbeer had any pearls of competitive wisdom. "So he doesn't have grudges when we play next year."

The No. 4 pick went to the Liberty. No. 3 went to San Antonio. No. 2 went to Tulsa. And No. 1 went to the Sun, although after last year they should more appropriately have been called the Star-Crossed.

Earlier in the day, Etess also found out the proposed $1 billion Mohegan Sun complex in Revere, Mass., is back on track. He was one happy man.

"Two good things today for the company," said Etess, who was able to keep his mind on Revere and off the serendipity of a draft lottery for part of the day.

Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike, Baylor's Odyssey Sims, Maryland's Alyssa Thomas and Duke's Chelsea Gray stand to be dispersed among the first four teams, although there are two or three others such as UConn's Stefanie Dolson to seriously consider.

Ogwumike is considered the front-runner at this point for the top pick. There's no Maya Moore or Brittney Griner in this draft. Yet depending how the Sun decide to go in tandem with Tina Charles, the 6-foot-3 Ogwumike could form a hellacious 1-2 punch on the boards for years.

"The beautiful thing about this is we can go in a number of different directions," Donovan said. "We're still in the process of determining which direction. We are in the driver's seat to pick who we need.

"Last year, we never really fully replaced Asjha Jones, so we possibly go with a small forward to complement Tina. There are great point guards in the draft as well."

Added, Sienko, "I don't think there's a clear-cut No. 1."

The Sun were supposed to compete for the WNBA title last year. That's why Mike Thibault was fired. That's why Donovan was brought in. Thibault was always a winner, an excellent coach. The hard question was whether he could make the Sun a WNBA champion. A year later, good grief, here was the Sun with the worst record in the league at 10-24 and picking first.

Last season was off-the-charts disastrous. There were so many injuries that it seemed downright cruel to Donovan. The Sun were playing with seven and eight players at the end.

Yet to put the disaster all on injuries is a convenient black-and-white argument that doesn't hold all the answers going forward. There has been a swirl of discontent behind the scenes among some of the players, many who loved playing for Thibault. On the flip side it is even more stupid to pin a 10-24 record on the frowns when injuries were clearly the No. 1 problem. That's why carefully assessing the mental aspects of the roster will be as important as e physical health and playing abilities.

How badly was Jones banged up when she decided to sit out all last season and would she have gutted it out for Thibault? Will Asjha even return to the Sun? Kara Lawson, another Thibault devotee, seemed unhappier and unhappier as the season wore on and, while she had to deal with her dad's illness and her own injuries, you get the feeling Kara is heading for a door the Sun are holding open. Izzy Castro Marques, Kayla Pedersen, Tan White, Mistie Bass, Sandrine Gruda, Alba Torrens, Kalana Greene, Renee Montgomery, there are so many question marks about what direction the team will take. Sienko didn't want to get into the relative health of his players Tuesday.

Still, it all starts with Charles. She loved Thibault. And for months, with speculation over how unhappy she was with the Sun, there has been a lot of chatter wondering if she would tell the Sun she wants to be traded. Asked if he was confident Tina would want to be back, Sienko was resolute.

"I'm as confident as ever," Sienko said.

"I think it would take a blockbuster deal to even consider Tina," Donovan said. "Other than Tina I think we're open to other scenarios."

While Sienko said the team is devising draft scenarios with and without Jones, there is no doubt Ogwumike can be a powerhouse on the glass to help Charles. In that case, they're going to need help at guard. If the Sun decided to take, say, guard Odyssey Sims, averaging 30 points for Baylor and a proven champion, the team has to get more help inside.

Donovan is telling the truth. There are a number of directions the team can go. There are all sorts of possible trade combinations, some big, some small. Jones, Lawson, Gruda, Torrens, Greene and, yes, Montgomery could all be dealt. Everybody loves Renee, but Donovan doesn't love her turnovers and defensive lapses. And although Sienko said nobody has called yet about trading the No. 1 pick, that also opens the door to a slew of possibilities.

"I was sitting close enough to [WNBA president] Laurel Richie when she opened the envelopes I could see what was happening," Etess said. "I was able to peek a little bit. I was really happy when she opened the No. 2 envelope."

An old casino man knows better than to get thrown out by the pit bosses for card counting. And make no mistake this was one happy casino man. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission unanimously voted to allow Revere residents to vote on Mohegan Sun's proposal for a casino at Suffolk Downs. Revere voters in November gave 61 percent approval to an unspecified gambling venture at the track, which straddles the East Boston-Revere line, but East Boston voters rejected it.

"A lot of things, like injuries in the playoffs, have happened to us at the wrong time over the years," Etess said. "Finally the pingpong balls bounced our way. We got a great break. It was really important.

"And we put a lot of time and effort into Massachusetts. This whole Revere project came up at the last minute out of necessity. Again it was a right time, right place type of thing. Overall, for the company, it was a pretty good day."

A very good day.

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