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Randy Harvey

NBA Rolls the Dice on WNBA Owner

May 24, 2003

An interesting discussion occurred recently in New York between NBA Commissioner David Stern and several of the nation's sports editors.

One editor in particular, George Solomon of the Washington Post, seemed to think that there's trouble in River City.

That's because the WNBA has relocated a team to a casino in Uncasville, Conn., where the Connecticut Sun opens its season today against the Sparks. The name of the casino is the Mohegan Sun, which is owned and operated by the Mohegan Indian tribe. The Mohegans bought the team formerly known as the Orlando Miracle for $10 million and gave it a home in the 10,000-seat arena adjoining the casino.

Solomon argued that the association between a WNBA team and a casino is an endorsement by the NBA of gambling. The NBA is the WNBA's parent league.

Stern didn't respond directly, but he asked Solomon if the Washington Post accepts ads from casinos. The implication was that, if so, it could be equally argued that the Post endorses gambling. (I wasn't in the room, but I received a tape recording of the session from someone who was there.)

Solomon said he wasn't sure.

"I promise you," Stern said, "they take ads from Atlantic City."

A call to the Post's offices by one of Stern's deputies revealed that the Post does accept ads from Atlantic City casinos, several of them.

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I recount this discussion not to start a debate over whether newspapers should accept advertisements from gambling establishments -- The Times, like the Post, does -- but to point out that gambling is so prevalent that we hardly notice even when the evidence is right under our noses.

This is so obvious that it is hardly worth writing, but, in case you've been locked in a dungeon for the last decade, you don't have to go to Las Vegas or Atlantic City or to the horse track to gamble any more. You can go to an Indian casino or a card club. Or to the supermarket to buy a lottery ticket. Or to church and play bingo. Or stay home and bet the ponies over the Internet.

There are even rumors that the Chicago Sun-Times building might be converted into a riverboat casino. It is located on the banks of the Chicago River, but, even if the newspaper has often appeared rudderless, the building is decidedly not a boat.

No matter. Gambling is practically everywhere. It is a $50-billion industry and growing. Not everyone gambles, but millions, including moral majority mouthpiece Bill Bennett, do.

So what, Stern asked that day in New York, is immoral about a casino team in the WNBA?

"There's been an evolution," he said. "When I was a young lawyer, I used to prepare Congressional statements from J. Walter Kennedy, who was then commissioner of the NBA. We used to fight against the legalization of gambling, all gambling."

They were allied, Stern said, with every association of district attorneys and every association of police chiefs, who agreed that gambling could be connected to "loan sharking, alcoholism, absenteeism and prostitution. It was generalized morality.

"It was really great. I could go down there [to Washington] with men of the cloth and we would stand toe to toe and we would testify and rail against it. Good luck. That was in 1967.

"Now almost every state has a lottery, where the governor goes on television and says, 'You bet the grocery money to help education, senior citizen housing, health care, whatever.'

"Hey, America made the bet, and they bet on gambling. Anybody who doesn't think that isn't living in the America I'm seeing."

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Stern isn't saying that gambling is socially responsible, only that it is socially acceptable.

"I'm not purporting that the motivation for moving a franchise is to help society," he said. "We're a functioning business. It's to locate where we think we can have a successful franchise."

But Stern does draw a line, and, considering America has been turned into one gigantic gambling parlor, it is a practical one for the NBA.

"Years ago, we moved to the notion that what we were going to do is use our assets and resources to prohibit where we could betting on NBA basketball," Stern said.

When ITT/Sheraton Corp. bought the New York Knicks, its executives had to remove NBA games from the sports book at Caesars Palace. (The only legal sports books in the United States are in Las Vegas.) When the Maloof brothers bought the Palms Hotel in Las Vegas, they had to remove NBA games from the sports book. When owners of Carnival Cruise Lines bought the Miami Heat, they had to remove NBA games from the sport book on the ships and from their casino in the Bahamas. When the NBA located franchises in Toronto and Vancouver, it stipulated that Canadian sports lotteries could no longer include the league's games.

Discussions between the NBA and Las Vegas city officials about locating a team there have started and ended with the NBA's ultimatum that its games would have to be removed from the city's sports books.

"Casinos, be my guest," Stern said. "But stay away from our games.

"It's not about the criminal element, although that's important. It's about most of our fans, who are not point-spread fans. They saw a good game last night. They were in Philadelphia. The hometown crowd left, the 76ers had won by five points. The fans didn't say, " ... they didn't cover. The spread was 5 1/2.' There was no sense of disappointment. There was joy and elation. That's the kind of game we'd like to continue to protect."

I'm not sure how many people will be swayed by Stern's arguments. But, when the session ended in New York, Solomon, indeed a wise man, asked if it could be arranged for the Mohegan Sun Casino to advertise with the Washington Post.

Randy Harvey can be reached at randy.harvey@latimes.com.

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