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Carroll’s Column: Viva Las Vegas

Las Vegas Aces win 2023 WNBA Championship - Image Credit: WNBA

NEW YORK — The final buzzer in the 2023 WNBA season sounded off last week at the Barclays Center — and featured confetti pouring from the rafters, as a back-to-back WNBA champion was finally crowned… 

The New York Liberty will win a WNBA title; however, it will not be in 2023. The Liberty made their fifth-ever appearance in the WNBA Finals, albeit their first since 2002 when they lost to the Los Angeles Sparks. In the late 1990s, they were beaten three times by the now-defunct Houston Comets. 

Last Wednesday, they were beaten in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals by the Las Vegas Aces, who were led by A’ja Wilson and Jackie Young. The Aces became the first team in WNBA history to repeat as champions. Viva Las Vegas.   

Between 2002 and 2022, the Liberty was on a downward trajectory. The team had few stars, and the attendance had dropped so precipitously that team owner James Dolan moved their home games from Madison Square Garden to the Westchester Arena in White Plains. Dolan, to his credit, stuck it out as a WNBA team owner far longer than most of the original owners. Two years ago, he sold the Liberty to current Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai. The Libs relocated to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.   

New York Liberty in 2023 WNBA Finals – Image Credit: New York Post

The 2023 Liberty team had the most talented roster in its history. Breanna Stewart was this year’s WNBA MVP and she will return to the Liberty in 2024, as will fellow stars Sabrina Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot. The only Liberty star who will be a free agent is three-point sharpshooter Jonquel Jones. There is no reason the Liberty should not be contenders for that elusive WNBA championship trophy in 2024.

There was plenty of good news for the WNBA. ESPN sent out a press release touting the high ratings the WNBA Finals received. For the first time I can recall, sports talk radio stations were providing Liberty coverage. In addition, the WNBA was attracting traditional male sports fans who have long believed following the women’s professional basketball league was not something guys do. WFAN afternoon air personality Evan Roberts posted a photo of him and his friends at Game 4 at Barclays Center on social media. They were as upset about the Liberty loss as they would a Mets or Jets defeat in a big game. 

Sabrina Ionescu – Image Credit: USA Today

Big East commissioner Val Ackerman was the WNBA’s first commissioner. She was one of the many sports notables who attended the annual Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis annual dinner in midtown Manhattan, which was held last Monday, two days before Game 4.

When I asked if she was rooting for the Liberty, she did not hesitate. “Yes! The Liberty is an original franchise, and it would be great for the league if they won the championship. Joe Tsai has done a fantastic job as a team owner.”       

Ackerman is cautiously upbeat about the St. John’s University Red Storm men’s basketball team which is now coached by Rick Pitino. “Their fans should be excited but should also have realistic expectations this year.”      

More on the Annual Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis

The aforementioned Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis was started by the late NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti when his son Marc suffered a spinal cord injury playing football for the Citadel in 1985. In the thirty-eight years since that fateful day, the Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis, which is based at the University of Miami’s medical college, has made tremendous strides in getting people ambulatory who otherwise would be relegated to wheelchairs for the rest of their lives.      

Two Baseball Hall of Fame inductees, Jim Thome and Andre Dawson, attended the Buoniconti Fund dinner. Thome told me he likes the new rules which make pitchers work faster and prevent hitters from stepping out of the batter’s box at will. 

In one of the more drastic career changes you will find, Andre Dawson, who played for 21 years in the majors, bought a Miami funeral home a few years ago, and it is not a passive investment as he is on the premises every day.     

The Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis’ 38th Annual Great Sports Legends Dinner raised millions for The Buoniconti Fund, the fundraising arm of The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis – Image Credit: Getty Images

Dawson told me one trend he has noticed since he bought the Miami funeral home is the increasing number of cremations versus burials. “The economy has played a big part. Miami real estate, even for a burial plot, has become costly. On top of that, you must purchase a tombstone and annual maintenance.” Also in attendance were golfer Jim Furyk and fencer Monica Aksamit.      

After being a star on the PGA Tour for years, Furyk now competes on the PGA Champions Tour which is more commonly known as the senior tour. He would like to see the Champions Tour make stops in the New York area. Furyk smiled when I told him I watched such links legends as Chi Chi Rodriguez and Lee Trevino compete in a senior tour event held in Nassau County’s Eisenhower Park.     

Monica Aksamit won a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics and was hoping to compete at the 2024 Olympics slated for Paris this summer. She decided to retire instead. “The US Olympic Committee was not funding the fencing team the way it should,” she told me. The statuesque Aksamit is currently signed to the Ford Modeling agency and hosts a popular podcast. “I am still trying to figure out my future,” she added with a smile. 

Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health

The Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health is another nonprofit which has a significant sports heritage as the late tennis icon Arthur Ashe started it shortly before his death thirty years ago. The missions of the AAIUH are to provide health services and education in nontraditional areas such as barber shops and nail salons, and to provide funding and support to economically disadvantaged students who have an interest in careers in the various health sciences. 

Annual fund-raising Sportsball held by AAIUH

Last Thursday, the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health held their annual fund-raising Sportsball. NFL Hall of Famer, former Giants linebacker Harry Carson, and Mets and Yankees pitching great Dwight Gooden attended.

Advertising Week in the Big Apple

Advertising Week New York is a four-day event held each fall which brings together all segments of popular culture and branding. AWNY, whose founder and CEO is Bayside native Matthew Scheckner, just marked its 19th year.

Image Credit: Advertising Week/New York

Sports are a major part of popular culture, and it has long been a favorite way for advertisers to reach consumers. Scheckner is a huge sports fan, and he was able to get three stars from the 1994 Stanley Cup-winning New York Rangers: Mark Messier, Stephane Matteau, and Mike Richter to discuss their memories of that magical year for Blueshirts fans. Other sports figures who appeared at Advertising Week this year were Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and former NBC Sports president and current Notre Dame athletics director Peter Bevacqua.  

College Men’s Basketball: Fordham vs. St. Johns at MSG on December 16th

The Atlantic-10 Men’s Basketball conference held its yearly media day last Tuesday at Barclays Center. Fordham head coach Keith Urgo, who led the Rams to a surprising second place finish in his rookie 2022-23 season, admitted he is thrilled to be coaching against his idol, Rick Pitino, when Fordham plays St. John’s at Madison Square Garden on December 16.

Keith Urgo – Image Credit: Fordham Men’s Basketball/Atlantic-10 Conference

Urgo was so in awe that he may very well ask Pitino for an autograph instead of shaking hands with him after the game.

NYCFC 2023 Season comes to an End

Major League Soccer’s New York City Football Club ended their season on a high note at Citi Field Saturday night by defeating the Chicago Fire by a score of 1-0. Unfortunately, like Citi Field’s major tenant, the New York Mets, NYCFC will not be participating in their league’s playoffs. 

Image Credit: NYCFC/Twitter

Remembering Oscar-nominated actor Burt Young

I was saddened to learn of the passing of actor Burt Young who was born Gerald DeLuise in Corona in 1940. Young is best known for playing Paulie, the brother-in-law to Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, in the “Rocky” series of films. Young was a boxer in real life, as he competed in the ring during his two-year stint in the United States Marine Corps.

You can read more of Lloyd Carroll’s columns posted weekly on The Queens Chronicle.

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