WASHINGTON (AP) — Vice President Kamala Harris led a White House celebration Friday for the 2022 WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces, praising the team for its "grit and determination" on the court and "ferocious" advocacy in support of colleague Brittney Griner during her detention in Russia last year.
The Aces defeated the Connecticut Sun 78-71 in Game Four of the finals to win the championship trophy, 3-1, along with what's become a traditional invitation to the White House.
"It was only five years ago that this franchise moved to Las Vegas and now they are the first major professional sports team in Nevada history, in Nevada history, to win a championship, and that's because this team defines grit and determination," Harris said.
The Aces were lifted to its first championship title by Finals MVP Chelsea Gray, who scored a game-high 20 points; regular season MVP A'ja Wilson, who added 11 points, and shooting by Riquna Williams, who came off the bench to score 17 points.
The title made Becky Hammon the first rookie head coach in WNBA history to win a championship. She joined the Aces from the San Antonio Spurs, where she became the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history.
Harris also praised the Aces for being role models and leaders outside of the arena by serving the Las Vegas community through a team foundation, supporting student health and mental wellness, and pushing for equal pay for female athletes and all women.
The vice president commended the Aces for speaking out in support of Griner, the star center of the league's Phoenix Mercury, who was detained in Russia in February 2022 after authorities at an airport near Moscow said they found vape cartridges that allegedly contained oil derived from cannabis in her luggage. Griner faced a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison if convicted.
"Our nation's stronger because of your leadership," the vice president said. "For example, when an American citizen was wrongfully detained abroad, you organized and advocated in a ferocious extraordinary way. You organized folks, you lifted up the issue, you helped educate folks about what was at stake, all in support of Brittney Griner."
The two-time Olympic gold medalist was freed from a Russian prison 10 months later, in December 2022, in exchange for the United States releasing Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Aces players also lead in the fight for broader rights and freedoms, including the right to vote and for LGBTQ individuals and their families, Harris said.
Harris said the larger story is that the WNBA is more than a basketball league, but rather is a way to "inspire our young people and people across our nation to dream with ambition."
The WNBA title is the first for the Aces, which is one of the league's original eight franchises. The team began as the Utah Starzz from 1997-2002, then relocated to San Antonio as the Silver Stars (and later just the Stars) from 2003-2017. The team moved to Las Vegas before the 2018 season.
The Aces are also the first major professional sports team to win a championship for Las Vegas, which also has the NFL's Raiders and the NHL's Golden Knights.
The team, she said, reminds everyone that "Las Vegas is so much more than just 4 miles on a strip."
Wilson and Gray also presented Harris with a jersey with the No. 49.
The White House had announced several weeks ago that President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, would host the Aces. But the assignment went to Harris after Biden extended a family vacation in the Lake Tahoe area through Saturday.