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In this issue: New Aces President Nikki Fargas: 'I Like to Win' | We Have Wetlands? And These Wetlands Have Friends?! | Media Sommelier: The Tik Tok Laborers of the Attention Economy | My Blossoming Love Affair with Local Craft Beer


STEPPING AWAY from the sidelines after coaching NCAA women’s basketball teams for more than two decades, Nikki Fargas, 49, became president of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces last month. A defensive-minded guard and potent three-point threat, Fargas played under legendary coach Pat Summitt at the University of Tennessee, helping the Lady Vols to a 118-13 record and winning the 1991 NCAA championship.

Fargas, who most recently coached at Louisiana State University, talked to Fifth Street from Seattle, where the defending Western Conference champion Aces opened their season. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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What induced you to transition from college coach to major league franchise president?
I’ve been very fortunate to align myself with some of the most competitive, championship-brand basketball programs like Tennessee, UCLA, Virginia and LSU, who have a great influence in the world of athletics. That has allowed me to meet a lot of corporate people, a lot of community people, a lot of friendly faces that are fans not only on a national scale, but also internationally.

Pat Summitt’s passion and her commitment to advancing women in leadership roles (were evident when she recruited me). She talked about leading the NCAA in number of wins, leading in attendance, leading in television exposure, leading in contractual agreements, leading in sponsorship. …

There are a lot of alignments there with the professional league, having coached professional players and having developed relationships with professional players. When I was asked to make this change, I knew that it was a lane that I welcomed.

How important was Aces (and Raiders) owner Mark Davis’ involvement for you to choose this place and time?
His involvement was key. When I had a chance to talk to Mark and his vision for wanting more, he wanted better. He felt women deserve better pay and resources — nothing but the best. I believed in his vision. He is committed to building a facility that is going to give the Las Vegas Aces the state of the art, where they can call their home, where they can train, where they can recover, where they can have longevity in their career, because they have the resources to do so physically, mentally, and emotionally.

With his Al Davis-Eddie Robinson Leadership Academy (a program to prepare minority candidates for sports leadership), how does that plug into their career choices after or while they're playing. He’s building synergy around Las Vegas not only at the professional level, but also engagement in the community. Those concepts were huge for me in making the decision.

What will you miss the most about being on the floor and in the spotlight?
I’m a very competitive person, and I like to win. I’m channeling that energy into how I can win for the organization off the court — ways that I can build partnerships to strengthen the organization.

I’m going to assist them with making sure that Las Vegas is known as the premier destination for players. How do we sustain a winning culture? That’s going to be my strongest commitment. My commitment to them also will render in player care and the resources that we provide for them.

We have some of the best athletes in the world, and I can champion their ability to create change in areas outside a court. The branding and storytelling are going to be huge for us, because there are so many great stories to be told. My competitive drive will be to lead us in ticket sales as well as sponsorship revenue. Those are all equally important as far as moving forward as an organization.

Describe the sense of obligation a pro sports franchise has to community.
The social and civic engagement of our organization is imperative. We have players who have stood on the front line of change, of wanting to have diversity, equity, and inclusion. Their leadership positions are not just local, but they’re also national. The change that we’re wanting to make is going to be driven in our own communities.

We have an opportunity to stay involved and use our voices, but to also be authentic. We want to make sure that we are being socially responsible and partner with other like-minded initiatives and programs that involve the community in giving back.

We talk about being role models all the time, and we talk about how those things are so important in building our community-outreach programs. With the pandemic, there are a lot of things that restrict us. I have an unbelievable group of young ladies who genuinely care about not only just social issues, but issues that are eliminating opportunities. Why is there a decline in our youth playing sports? That’s something of concern — opportunities and access. How do we continue to build the self-esteem of these young ladies? How do we continue to do that and bridge those relationships with our peers? The mental-wellness aspect of the athletes and so many other people is at the forefront of our discussions.

What’s changed the most about the sport since you played?
Social media and fan engagement. We were so pushing for fans to come to the games. I worked (as an analyst in the mid-1990s) for Fox Sports Net, and we were the one entity that was covering one women’s basketball game a week. To see now those television contracts, those advertisement dollars parlayed into sponsorship revenue! That’s allowed the women’s game to be more competitive as far as the resources that you’re able to provide for student-athletes. That’s where the technology, the business analytics and intelligence come in.

When you think about social media, you have so many different channels to tell the story, to engage your fans where they know you and feel like they can follow you because now you’re giving them the content. Now these athletes are sharing themselves with us in a more intimate way. That is a vehicle that we will continue to explore — how we can connect and reach younger fans where they are at.

You’ve led a number of breast cancer awareness and research fundraisers through long-haul motorcycle rides, including one from Berkeley, Calif., to Knoxville, Tenn., in 2007. How did that come about?
Holly Warlick, former head coach at Tennessee, and I started Champions for a Cause. We love riding, and we came up with Cruisin’ for a Cause. We shipped our bikes to California, and we rode across the country for 11 days. We actually came through Vegas. It was 114 degrees! We hosted fundraising events at different restaurants and at Harley-Davidson dealerships, and the people who came out just were so supportive of our cause. We raised money to give to foundations aligned with our mission, including the Kay Yow Cancer Fund (named for the North Carolina State University women’s basketball coach who died of breast cancer in 2009 after a long fight).

What are you riding, and do you still get out much?
Right now, I have an Ultra. So I’m a Harley. It’s the big touring bike. I’m riding with a purpose, obviously, but I also ride for my own relaxation. I used to go quite often. But now, getting a little bit older, having a child, I don’t ride as much as I would like. In fact, I would love to play golf more.

If you weren’t involved with hoops, what would you be doing?
I love teaching. After being a third-grade teacher right now (for my daughter during the pandemic), I have a tremendous amount of respect — always have — for teachers. They help shape the minds of our young ones from an academic standpoint, but also their development socially, their self-esteem.

Any favorite sports movies?
I loved Coach Carter when that came out. That was one of those movies that I can relate to because I could hear Pat Summitt in Coach Carter. Miracle, A League of Their Own. I did like Secretariat and Chadwick Boseman in 42. And on the funny side, Dodgeball.

With your husband, Justin Fargas (who played for the Oakland Raiders for seven years), and father-in-law, Antonio Fargas (Huggy Bear in Starsky & Hutch, among other roles), are there any famous people in your contact list?
I am very close to Ambassador Shabazz, Malcolm X’s eldest daughter Attallah, so that’s probably one that may throw you a little bit.

When I was at UCLA, Denzel Washington came to our games. He and his wife are unbelievable people. So I said, “Denzel, just kind of stand back here.” You know when your team comes off the floor and they’re high-fiving you? I’m usually the last one to high-five, so I’m getting my high-fives and Denzel is right behind me as I move forward. The players just all stop and almost pinball! They’re getting ready to give him a high-five and it’s like, “Ooop!” and they stopped. It just totally blew them away. Needless to say, we won that game, but we played horrible. They were not focused.  

That’s pretty cool that that round basketball can even trickle into other people’s lives to connect you. And that’s the beauty about sports.          

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"WE'RE MEETING face-to-face for only our second time in over a year,” says Wetlands Park Friends President Christie Leavitt, with the enthusiasm common among Las Vegans currently venturing back into society. “This weekend, we’re going back to our little conference table at the (Clark County Wetlands Park) Nature Center, where we normally used to meet."

In Leavitt and Wetlands Park Friends’ case, that normalcy was brief anyway. The nonprofit group got its 501(c)3 status in October 2019 and unveiled itself to the public in January 2020, just two months before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down almost everything in Las Vegas, including the park.

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“Almost as soon as we launched, the place we operate from closed down,” Leavitt says. “We couldn’t meet at the Nature Center. None of the programs where we would have tabled and done membership drives took place.”

Not an ideal start, to be sure. But the organization’s founders had the patience of those who’ve been around for a while and endured setbacks before.

Leavitt has been involved with Clark County Wetlands Park in one capacity or another since its inception. As education curator for Clark County Museum in the early 1990s, she was asked to participate in the planning of a new municipal park. An anthropologist by trade, Leavitt had previously worked at UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum — back when it was connected to the Desert Research Institute and housed scientific specimens, live animals, and archaeology exhibits.

“My boss told me, ‘You have all that natural history museum experience. Why don’t you sit on the planning committee for this wetlands park?’” she says. “And I was like, ‘Wetlands? What?’”

But she was quickly hooked by the county’s vision for the park, which included not just the practical aims of erosion control, managed environmental zones, and recreation opportunities, but also the aspirational goals of increasing wildlife populations, preserving archaeological assets, and educating the community.

Leavitt went from participating in the Wetlands Park’s planning to manning its first temporary visitors center, a small building in a defunct driving range on Russell Road. When trail-building and site cleanup were completed on the park’s grounds, Leavitt and the part-time volunteer coordinator she’d been working with took over a construction trailer as the first on-site information center. She retired more than seven years ago but has continued volunteering for the park.

“Once it gets its hooks into you, you’re done,” Leavitt says.

Several years ago, someone (neither Leavitt nor Wetlands Park Friends Vice President Linda Wiltberger, the park’s longest-serving volunteer, could remember who, exactly) had the idea to form a friends group. They studied local examples, homing in on Friends of Red Rock and the Clark County Museum Guild as models. Friends groups generally come about when a group of people cherish a public space so much that they want to help out the government agencies overseeing them. The Wetlands Park enthusiasts liked how the County Museum and Red Rock groups provided complementary education, fundraising, and stewardship by collaborating with agency staff to fill in gaps.

But just as Leavitt and Wiltberger drew up a proposal and started the process to get it approved, both the county’s parks and recreation director and the Wetlands Park’s supervisor left their positions.

“So, nothing happened,” Leavitt says. “And the next thing we knew, it had gotten to be late 2018, early 2019. We looked around and saw that the park was in a different place. Parks and Rec’ had a stable staff. We thought, maybe it’s time to run that idea up the flagpole again.”

This time, it flew. By early 2020, Leavitt, Wiltberger, and their fellow volunteers’ plans were coming to fruition. And then the pandemic hit.

Like many organizations, Wetlands Park Friends pivoted. The board met through phone conferences, then on Zoom. Rather than focus on membership-building, they turned their attention to fundraising — something they could do at home, regardless of the size of their volunteer base. In early 2020, they landed a $5,500 REI grant, part of which was used to support the Wetlands Hands On (WHO) program and part of which went to building Wetlands Park Friends’ website. Another recent REI grant, this one for $15,000, will go toward developing an app to help park visitors identify plants and wildlife, and get information on events.

“So, we were able to be useful our first year of existence, despite not being able to do much in person,” Leavitt says.

“They’re adept at grant-writing,” says Elizabeth Bickmore, the Wetlands Park’s senior program administrator, a Clark County employee. “They’ve only been around a little more than a year, but they’ve already supplied funds for our ambassador program, provided resources for the native animals we’ve acquired, and provided funding for that program.” (The new live animal exhibit features a kingsnake, gopher snake, scorpion, and tarantula.)

In some ways, the Friends’ timing couldn’t have been better. According to the county, visitation to the 2,900-acre Wetlands Park soared during the pandemic, increasing 99 percent from 2019, when nearly 275,000 people set foot on-site, to 2020, which saw nearly half a million people.

Wetlands Park Friends is looking forward to the new opportunities that in-person interaction will bring. They’re moving what had been an online lecture series to the park starting in August, planning to sponsor a traveling exhibit, and spreading the word about their $40 family membership, which gives visitors enhanced access to programs.

“I have a Wetlands Park Friends sticker on my car, and people will come up to me and say, ‘This is a desert. There’s a wetlands here?’” Leavitt says. “There are always more people to educate.”

 

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1. “A curmudgeonly English professor moves into a house of teenage L.A. influencers and hijinks ensue”: logline of a middling NBC sitcom or premise of a Harper’s longform essay? If you guessed the latter, then this probably isn’t your first Media Sommelier, where we serve up only the finest morsels from this week’s reads. In “The Anxiety of Influencers,” English professor Barrett Swanson embeds himself in a Tik Tok Hype House, a blue-check factory where Tik Tokers mass produce viral videos.

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Swanson really plays up his professoriality here — he floats around the Hype House “like a ghost in a Henry James novel,” a Tik Toker stares existentially with the intensity “of those Dust Bowl farmers in a Dorothea Lange portrait.” I’m not a fan of pieces that read like a GRE vocab mad lib (I had to look up froideur and immediately forgot its definition) but Swanson’s leaning into the fish-out-of-water narrative makes for a playful read that leads up to a nice gut punch when you get to the meat of the essay: exploring Tik Tok as a form of labor. “These influencers aren’t so much celebrities as they are prototypes of laborers in the new passion economy,” Swanson claims. With a front row seat to the labor exploitation of Tik Tok teens, Swanson writes empathetically of the essay’s subjects, which is rarely the tone with which non-Gen Z writers view teens on the internet.

2. While going viral on Tik Tok could get you a brand deal with Raising Cane’s, going viral on Citizen could land you under the spotlight of an LAPD helicopter. In a harrowing Vice piece, Joseph Cox and Jason Koebler explore the app-formerly-known-as Vigilante, now Citizen, and how the brand presents itself as a technocratic alternative to traditional policing and home security. The focal point of the article is a May fire in LA’s Pacific Palisades neighborhood, which the Citizen app pinned on a falsely identified arsonist. The app quickly disseminated this misinformation to their 860,495 LA-based users who could tune in to a live streamed witch hunt where Citizens talking heads seemingly lifted lines from The Hunger Games, exhorting, “This is tech closing in on you. Good luck buddy.” Koebler and Cox sprinkle in snippets from the company’s Slack and interviews with ex-employees, so at times this reads like a juicy office tell-all, exposing a megalomaniacal boss packaging and hawking suburban anxieties. However, the broader implications the piece makes regarding race, safety, and virality may tempt you to flush your phone down a toilet. You’ve been warned.

3. Even closer to home than the Palisades, current Black Mountain Institute Shearing Fellow Sally Wen Mao pens “High-Rise Syndrome” for The Believer. I love when poets write essays for the exact reasons that this essay is so engrossing. The writing is succinct, the sections are brief and stanzaic, but the scope is vast. Wen Mao covers disparate topics (from Manifest Destiny to airborne cats) and climes (Marfa by way of New York), all of which Wen Mao positions under the weight of violence against women, specifically women of color. The turns the poet takes here are organic and often heartbreaking. Wen Mao writes, “What bodies perish, and what bodies survive? I find myself envying cats again, for their abilities and reflexes. For the very myth of their survival.” Wen Mao’s own artistic abilities and reflexes shine in this troubling, yet timely essay.

4. May 31 marked the 100 year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, a violent uprising of thousands of white Tulsans against Black Tulsans, around 300 of whom died in the day’s bloodshed. Genetta M. Adams of The Root writes, “The first time most (white) Americans likely heard about the Tulsa Race Massacre was when HBO’s Watchmen opened its first episode [...] with the devastating reenactment of the death and destruction that took place on May 31-June 1 in Greenwood, the Black neighborhood known as ‘Black Wall Street.’” If you, like me, are one of those white Americans who had never heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre before an episode of prestige television, I encourage you to read articles Adams has compiled from archives of The Root, an outlet that has been consistently centering the Massacre in its storytelling for the past decade. Additionally, the New York Times featured an impressive recreation of the Greenwood neighborhood that immerses the reader in the physical space of Greenwood while highlighting and humanizing the people behind the buildings and businesses. Coming out of a weekend set aside for remembrance, I hope that readers also hold space to remember these victims of a militarized police force and deputized white civilians. Nicholas Barnette

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THIRTEEN MONTHS, two patio bars. That’s how I spent my pre-vaccination drinking days, an exercise in self-discipline that bore no rewards other than a slightly heavier wallet and a T-shirt that reads “I dodged Covid-19!” It wasn’t like I drank any less. After Joseph James Brewing Company in Henderson turned off its fermenting vessels for good in April 2020, and other breweries sounded the alarm that the same fate could befall them, I pledged monogamy to Nevada beers. Oh, this beer ho was loyal. I waited in hour-long car lines for new Beer Zombie collaborations, I huffed it out to Henderson to do curbside with Crafthaus, and I rushed to that unlikeliest of craft depots, Speedee Mart, whenever they acquired the latest hazy hop bomb. I estimate having bought some 30 unique local beers before I got my second Pfizer hit.

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But after 13 months, having only your pup to hear your slurred lamentations got old. It was only a matter of time before I was gonna go Jack Torrance on my neighbors. And since my last pre-coronavirus visit to the Arts and Gateway districts, several bars and breweries had opened up in 18 square-block area of Downtown I now call Little Los Angeles. On March 30, nearly two weeks after that final vax jab, I accepted a friend’s invite to check out some new places on and off Main Street. Being tasked with choosing the first watering hole, I picked Servehzah on Colorado and Commerce. Why that one? Much like my post-collegiate sex life, I gravitated toward quantity over quality. And this beer emporium boasts 24 taps and 160-odd bottles and cans — the latter accessible to all inside the Beer Cave, a walk-in fridge not unlike the one that briefly imprisoned ol’ Jack.

Servehzah is a tastefully designed suds haven, sporting a roll-up front entrance, Hofbräu-style long tables, an even longer bar, an astroturfed patio for sun-worshippers, a food truck almost always parked just west of the entrance and, like pretty much any beer-glugging spot built after 1991, exposed ceiling beams. This is no dive. This is the kind of place loathed by the people who use “gentrification” as an epithet. Throw anything you want at it or its patrons — its mouth-dropping beer curation trumps all.

On my virginal visit, I decided on a flight. It was on this quarantine-breaking celebration that I tried sour beer, a trend I had previously avoided only slightly less aggressively than I had Covid-19. But six bucks for two five-ouncers struck me as reasonable. I selected two: One fruity sour that brought to mind a curdled Hi-C, and another, an India Pale Ale version that tasted like a vinaigrette wrung out from a fern. Moooooving along, I then sampled a Reno-based imperial/double New England IPA, which you can probably make at home with bongwater and motor oil. I know — why would I order such thing?

Here’s what you should be asking instead: Why did I drink every drop? Maybe I’m projecting here, but people condition themselves to drink ridiculously hopped beers because those beers accomplish with one pint what your standard lager does in two or three. But there's something else going on. I liken it to how I grew to love experimental jazz: endure something unconventional long enough, and you begin to parse and home in on the individual elements, and thus process the complexity with a higher appreciation. Which is how I went from initially reviling IPAs to being able to legitimately enjoy some of its strongest, dankest varieties much like I do an after-work go-to beer. And as for sours, I’ll likely pucker up until I acclimate to them, too. With its aversion to the mass-market brews, Servehzah is a great place to work on developing your beer palate.

Back to that flight: It wasn’t until the fourth and final beer, HUDL’s Vanilla Oak cream ale, that I found something worth savoring. And when I returned to Servehzah six weeks later for another flight, I made sure to try the nitro version, which is thicker and foamier, and slaps only slightly less than the OG version. Overall, I chose more wisely on this second visit, with one exception: a farmhouse ale saison, another beer varietal of the moment. It used to be popular in more agrarian times, and now it's consumed and talked about not unlike how local music fans brag about having seen Nirvana at Calamity Jayne's before Nevermind came out. That doesn’t mean I recommend it, unless wild yeast and tart brews are your thing. And they will be your thing if high alcohol-by-volume percentages are, too. In other words, the effort you’ll put into potent beers is commensurate with its drunken payoff.

If you want to know what you’re getting into before having to scour the Arts District for a parking spot, the entire beer list — taps and bottles/cans — is on Untappd’s app and website. But do not deny yourself the browsing delight that is Servehzah's Beer Cave — though, if you’re as indecisive as I am, bring a hoodie for warmth. I very nearly cheesed out on a pina colada-flavored smoothie beer (yes, you read that right) by Decadent Ales until discovering it had 9.4-percent ABV. With Uber waits still approaching an hour, I’ll have to come back. Again and again.

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Photos and art: Nikki Fargas: AP Photo/Butch Dill; Wetlands: Courtesy Clark County; Servehzah: Christopher Smith

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