Sports

What happens in San Antonio stays in … Vegas?

“There’s no hard and fast rule across sports for how to handle team histories and intellectual property when franchises relocate, but there should be some common sense: when a team moves, if it changes its name, it relinquishes the history. It’s just good practice. Can you imagine the Oklahoma City Thunder dressing up as the Seattle SuperSonics, even for one game? But, if the Lakers bust out a Minneapolis throwback every now and then, so be it. They’re still the Lakers, just as they were all those years ago when they played in a place where that name made sense.”

I wrote those words three years ago for Dealbreaker, about the news that the Carolina Hurricanes would cosplay as the Hartford Whalers for two games against the Bruins. I know that it’s been a popular thing, because everyone loves the nostalgia of the Whalers and their uniforms look great, but it’s still one of those things that doesn’t sit right.

I wrote about this subject in 2014, too, for Sporting News, about the feeling of the Washington Nationals trying to have it both ways, acting like the Expos’ history was their history, yet also having Danny Espinosa on their roster, wearing Gary Carter’s retired-in-Montreal number 8.

So, I’ve been pretty consistent on my feelings about relocated teams and how their histories should be handled over the years. It’s not a position that I expected to really reconsider. But that’s exactly what happened last week, when I saw Tully Bevilaqua tweeting pictures of her trip to Las Vegas for the Aces’ alumni event.

Wait a minute. Bevilaqua never played in Las Vegas, since they didn’t start playing until 2018 and she last played in 2012, for the San Antonio Silver Stars, rounding out a WNBA career that started with the now-defunct Cleveland Rockers, continued with the Portland Fire, and also included stops in Seattle and Indiana, where she’s made her home now and broadcasts Fever games.

But there she was in Vegas, along with old teammates from San Antonio and even the Utah Starzz, the charter WNBA franchise that played six years in Salt Lake City. And it all seemed so natural, so right. Suddenly, I was confronted with reconsidering some opinions I’ve held pretty strongly for a long time. Bevilaqua was nice enough to accept a request to talk about that, and here’s some of that conversation.

Jesse Spector: So, what was that experience like, being welcomed as alumni of a team that’s really a few years old, but certainly goes back to San Antonio and Utah?

Tully Bevilaqua: It was unbelievable. Like, from the management side of things, they rolled out the red carpet for us from the time we arrived to the time we left. They treated us like royalty when we were there. It was amazing. And, you know, talking to the owner, Mark Davis, about how he wanted to also recognize the fact that the team wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for San Antonio and Utah, he wanted to make sure he recognized the former players that came before this group in some way, and it blew me out of the ballpark when I got the email. And like I said, from the moment we started, when we arrived, we were just treated like we were actually a part of the Aces, not another named team from back in the day.

JS: That is very cool, and I feel like that’s kind of the way it needs to be if you’re going to do this, because… like, if the Thunder did this and you brought back Sonics players, that would feel like a real slap in the face to Seattle fans in a way that… this doesn’t? I don’t think you’d get that same reaction in San Antonio.

TB: There has been no negative from what I have seen, from any of my social media posts and anything like that. There hasn’t been any negative posts from those from San Antonio or those from Utah, where the team used to be. And then those that are in Vegas with the Aces, welcomed us. At halftime, we were interviewed on a stage out on the court area, and the fans were so receptive and welcoming.

JS: Did you have an opinion about that sort of thing beforehand? Did you feel before this weekend, any kind of connection to the Aces?

TB: I guess because it’s never been done before, like no thought was given to us, you know, like, no. I never really saw it in that way as being part of an alumni group for that team, and so I never really gave a thought to that prior to this. It’s kind of cool, because, all of us alumni now, we’ve gotten older, a lot of us now have families. I know my 10-year-old son is my biggest PR agent out there — he can be at the pool swimming and I can hear him telling the kids that he’s made friends with in the pool all about my basketball history. And it’s kind of cool that he’s a kid that wants everyone to know what his mom did, realize she’s not playing now while still talking about the league now and the fact that he’s met Sue Bird and he’s met Candace Parker and all these players. But then he still wants to flip it back to people that, well, hey, my mom used to play in this team and this team and this team. And I think when I put that perspective into it as well, about how he wants people to know about my past and my background, my experience. This is pretty cool.

JS: Part of it, too, is that the league is at the 25-year mark, choosing how it deals with its own history. It’s different in different situations, like in baseball, the Baltimore Orioles were the St. Louis Browns, 70 years ago, and nobody cares. But people in Montreal, after the Expos moved and became the Washington Nationals, might still sting because they haven’t gotten a team back.

TB: Obviously, the league has had teams fold, and it’s either, it was a better situation having the team fold, or relocating it and keeping it, keeping the numbers there. There’s only a few teams that have a history of being in a. Former location. So we’re only talking about a handful of clubs that can do that. And so now, I do know other teams in the league are doing a 25th anniversary game night, a theme. But this is just taking it to the next level. Mark Davis, with the Aces, he was super keen on making sure that the alumni wasn’t just a one-off event. He doesn’t want to have this just one time. He wants to make sure there are more events over the years with former players brought in and maintaining the relationship with the club.

JS: And that’s really cool. I think the only other question I have is, if the league did go back to San Antonio, and I don’t know how likely that is, but the league does need to expand. If for some reason that happened, would you feel any kind of connection to that San Antonio team, or is this more, you know, you’re part of the Aces now?

TB: That’s a good question. If it were ever to happen, maybe! I’m willing to fly out to both locations and spend some time. I mean, who knows? I don’t know how that then changes the relationship already set up by Davis and the Aces, that maybe they just shuffle it back over to San Antonio. But right now, we’re rolling with it because it is a unique initiative. These things don’t happen very often once you retire, and so, you know, we’re just enjoying the moment and kind of brings back that juice again. We got out there on the court, and participated in the talking shop, and things like that. It just takes you back like it was yesterday. It was awesome.

Own it, don’t use it

It strikes me that Mark Davis, in addition to owning the Aces, owns the Raiders, who started in Oakland, moved to Los Angeles, moved back to Oakland, and now play in Vegas, having been the Raiders ever since their inception as a founding AFL team in 1960.

What makes this work is, to borrow from the Raiders, in fact, a commitment to excellence. What Bevliaqua described was an organization truly invested in carrying the legacy of the previous iterations of the franchise, not just looking to use it to thicken the team history books. In this case, it may also help that Utah and San Antonio didn’t carve out that much space for themselves in the league’s collective consciousness: in 21 seasons, the Starzz, Silver Stars, and Stars combined to win four playoff rounds, getting swept in two conference finals and one WNBA Finals.

So, maybe it’s not a hard and fast rule that if a team changes its name upon moving, it needs to relinquish its history. But there’s a definite choice to be made about how to handle it, and it’s clear that there’s a right way to do it, because that’s just what the Aces have done, fully owning their past instead of simply trying to use it when it’s convenient.


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