Aces celebrated WNBA championship after year of mostly highs, some lows

NEW YORK — Mark Davis stepped away from the party for a moment as Wednesday night turned to Thursday morning. The pause didn’t last long before Chelsea Gray’s mother arrived to drag him back to the festivities. Moments earlier, Coach Becky Hammon was doing the Tootsie Roll dance, and Kelsey Plum skipped back and forth with a barrel speaker on her shoulder, with gold bottles of Armand De Brignac champagne all around.

The Las Vegas Aces had just become the third team in WNBA history to win back-to-back championships with a 70-69 victory over the New York Liberty in Game 4 of the Finals, the first repeat champions since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001-02, and the celebration was in full swing. Adding insult to injury for their opponents, all of this took place on the Liberty’s home practice court inside a Barclays Center that was rocking for two games before fans exited with disappointment etched on their faces.

Davis bought the team before the 2021 season as it was coming off a Finals appearance in the coronavirus-affected bubble season the year before. At that point, the organization was just three years removed from three consecutive single-digit-victory seasons as the San Antonio Stars. Now it has won two titles and reached the Finals in three of four seasons.

“I’ve been around sports all my life. I know how hard it is to win a championship,” said Davis, who also owns the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders. “And then to repeat is even harder. What I did is I hired three strong women. And I got the hell out of the way.”

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The three women were President Nikki Fargas, General Manager Natalie Williams and Hammon. They have led the organization to a place among some of the most prolific teams in league history, with plenty of room to continue. The Aces, Sparks and 1997-2000 Houston Comets are the only back-to-back champions in the WNBA’s 27-year existence. A’ja Wilson became the third player in league history to be the No. 1 draft pick and be named defensive player of the year, MVP and Finals MVP, joining Candace Parker and Lauren Jackson with the distinction. Wilson also became the first player in Finals history with multiple 20-point, 15-rebound games. The statistical accomplishments go on and on.

“It’s historical, right?” forward Alysha Clark said with a smile.

With Wilson as the franchise cornerstone, the Aces will also bring back former No. 1 picks Plum and Jackie Young, who are both two-time all-stars; 2022 Finals MVP Gray, a five-time all-star; and sixth player of the year Clark. And they still may find a way to bring back Parker, who signed before the season and played just 18 games before suffering a fractured foot. They will enter the 2024 season as the favorite to win again, with a chance to join the Comets as the only teams to win at least three titles in a row. Wilson, Plum and Young are all under 30 years old and still have room to grow.

“This was created by a lot of really good people being excellent at their jobs every day,” Hammon said. “And we appreciate all the work that goes unseen and unsaid. And we are truly a team.”

The year wasn’t all smooth for the Aces. Hammon was suspended two games in May after former player Dearica Hamby accused the coach and team of pregnancy discrimination. The league found Hammon in violation of “respect in the workplace” policies. The team was also stripped of its 2025 first-round pick after being found in violation of rules detailing impermissible player benefits. Riquana Williams was barred from the team in July after she was arrested on felony domestic violence charges that have since been dropped. Parker last played in July, and both Gray and starting center Kiah Stokes were lost to foot injuries following Game 3 of the Finals.

That was the bad. Still, the additions of Parker and Clark earned the roster a “super team” label. The Aces began the season as the favorites, earned the No. 1 seed in the postseason and lost just one playoff game. The organization also opened a new practice facility adjacent to the Raiders’ buildings.

Overall, it was a good year in Vegas.

“This is what it’s all about,” Wilson said. “To have your name sketched in history right now with other teams, we never gave up. This is a moment that we need to celebrate. This is a moment that not a lot of people get a chance to do it. And for us to do it shorthanded is truly amazing. It just makes the win that much better. So at the end of the day, it’s huge.”

Statements were everywhere as the team celebrated after the game. Goggles were etched with “What’s won in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Wilson wore a shirt that read, “M’VPeriodt.” Even Gray and Stokes bounded around in their medical walking boots.

Davis made the rounds in his trademark all-white gear from head to toe, and he had one last message.

“We still got some more to do,” Davis said. “It’s not over. It’s only the beginning.”

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