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The NBA comes to Las Vegas? Let's get this party started

February 20, 2007|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Empty bottles were lined up on top of stuffed trash cans as if they were makeshift bars.

The smell of marijuana hung in the air. A man in a wheelchair moved along the sidewalk, passing cars in the street as if they were standing still.

Actually, they were, because gridlock had set in along the Las Vegas Strip on Friday night.

On a street corner across from Aladdin/Planet Hollywood, Drew Petitii stood on a footstool and attempted to hand out pamphlets proclaiming he knew the route to heaven. He was ignored by those interested in the route to the next party.

Welcome to All-Star weekend, prelude to the 56th annual NBA All-Star game, and more important, the site of more than 30 All-Star parties and related festivities.

Party with the NBA's biggest stars, party with rap stars. Party early. Party late.

A brunch with Cedric the Entertainer, a celebrity poker tournament with rapper 50 Cent, nightclub bashes with Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and friends.

And for the party hardy, Chicken N' Waffles at Wynn Las Vegas from 3 to 6 a.m. "I've been here 15 years," said Alvaro Gomez, a banquet server at MGM Grand's Crazy Horse Paris Cabaret, "and I've never seen this town so alive."

A city built by mobsters, playground of everybody from Elvis to Mike Tyson, Las Vegas welcomes them all with a casual nod and keeps right on expanding its world-famous Strip.

That's why the reaction to All-Star weekend was so noticeable. The Statue of Liberty at the New York New York Hotel and Casino wore a size-XXXXXXXXXXL jersey of Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic. Gigantic banners of NBA players hang from the gold towers of Mandalay Bay, the emerald walls of the MGM Grand, the pyramid that is Luxor and the ever-changing facade of Bally's.

People were buying NBA special-edition jackets for $3,500 and paying as much as $15,000 for tickets to the game.

Among those drawn to this four-day event were Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield, LaDainian Tomlinson, Terrell Owens, Reggie Bush and boxer Shane Mosley.

There was a palpable excitement around town that had even the old-timers sitting up and taking notice.

"This is the first time I have experienced something like this here to this degree," said Joe Hawk, sports editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "But it's because there are great expectations."

Las Vegas is betting on the come, hoping that a spectacular weekend would somehow make the NBA overlook such issues as the presence of legalized sports gambling and the absence of a suitable arena to grant this town a team of its own.

The Review-Journal, in an editorial, said "Las Vegas is auditioning on its biggest hospitality stage yet."

There were enough events crammed into the extended weekend to emulate if not rival Super Bowl week.

One lone reporter could not possibly taste all the hors d'oeuvres, sample all the drinks, soak in all the music and spot all the celebrities crammed into the prime real estate on the Strip over 72 hours of merriment.

Nevertheless, a honest attempt was made.

It's empowering to arrive at a club, see more than 100 people milling without the $100-$200 tickets required for admission, all trying to find a way to sweet talk or sneak past the burly sentries at the door, and know you've got no problem.

You give your name, a list is checked, the velvet rope drops and the red carpet beckons.

Once inside, however, the excitement fades. After a night on the town, it's all a blur, one party indistinguishable from another. There's food (chicken, beef, even chocolate cheesecake on a stick, but not much else), drinks (some bars are open, some cash only), great music and, of course, the stars.

Or so they say. Many star sightings are confirmed only by word of mouth, since the crush of humanity, the dim lighting, the roped-off areas for celebrities and the preponderance of bodyguards too often leave the big names out of sight. The promised hosts, often paid an appearance fee, are sometimes known to do a quick walk-through and disappear.

Arriving at James' party at Bellagio about 8:30 means a wait of almost three hours until his arrival. Tracy McGrady is supposedly in the packed Jet nightclub at the Mirage, but navigating with difficulty around the room, the only confirmed sightings are of Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson and Chauncey Billups. Arriving at Jordan's party at 1:30 a.m. meant missing him by half an hour, but Owens was still there, one of the last to leave.

By 5:15 a.m. Sunday the traffic on the Strip was still bumper to bumper, the horns were still beeping and a man hawking All-Star T-shirts was offering them at half-price.

It had been a long weekend and they hadn't even played the game yet.

Thursday's tipoff

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