by Lang Whitaker

There are many experiences here in Las Vegas that are unique to Las Vegas. For instance, waking up and immediately having to check your wallet because you have absolutely no idea how much cash you might have. Or walking through a hotel lobby and finding a half-empty bottle of Hennessey sitting in an ashtray…at 11:00 a.m. or finding Visine in your hotel bathroom next to the toothpaste and shampoo. And continuing the tradition I established over All-Star Weekend, I again found myself paying for a $3 drink at Starbucks with a $100 bill.

One of the funniest things we saw was when Russ and I were on our way out of the mall at Caesar’s Palace early Wednesday and we walked by one of those stores that sells framed sports memorabilia. A sign outside the store announced: MEET PETE ROSE AND STEVE GARVEY HERE THIS WEEK. As we got closer, we noticed a man standing outside the store speaking loudly to nobody in particular, yelling, “Meet 10-time All-Star Steve Garvey! Have your picture taken with Steve Garvey!” We got closer, looked in the store, and there was Steve Garvey, sitting all alone at a long table. I don’t recall if he was twiddling his thumbs but he definitely should have been. He looked so forlorn, just chilling there waiting for someone to pay money for the chance to meet him. And there was nobody anywhere near him or that store. Then, making it even better, we walked on past and saw a huge monitor hanging in the window of the store, with a camera focused tight on Garvey, so everyone in the mall could see Garvey sitting there all alone and bored. Kind of sad, really. But awesome at the same time.

To say I am running (and writing) on fumes right now is an understatement, maybe the greatest understatement of all time. It’s late Thursday night in Vegas as I’m writing this and Russ and I are sitting in the airport, waiting for our red-eye flight back to New York. We were supposed to leave around 10 p.m., but the flight is delayed three hours. At least. Fun.

To understand my exhaustion, consider that Russ and I woke up at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday morning, spent all day in the gym at UNLV watching basketball games, then had probably the wildest, most fun and most surreal night of our lives. The details of last night will remain a secret between myself, Russ, an NBA player, a handful of other people who entered and exited our crew throughout the evening, a limo driver, a blackjack dealer, and a series of the world’s flashiest clubs and ridiculous hotel suites. I’m sorry, but I’m invoking the “What Happens In Vegas Stays In Vegas” rule here. What I can tell you is that after the games ended Wednesday night, Russ and I swung by our hotel and dropped our stuff off, then met up with our people around 10:30 p.m. I climbed into my bed the next morning at 9:00 a.m. Yes, it was that kind of night.

We then slept two hours, woke up at 11:00 a.m., packed and checked out of our hotel rooms and spent all afternoon homeless, sitting miserably at today’s games, at a movie (“Superbad,” which I’d already seen so I slept through most of it) and at restaurants, just waiting for time to pass. Also, we were both suffering profoundly from flu like symptoms, if you know what I mean. It wasn’t until about 5:00 this afternoon that I was sure I wasn’t going to lose the battle with those symptoms.

So, I’m grumpy right now. Need sleep. Lots of it. Sorry.

HOW-EVA, in between running around Vegas, Russ and I also sat through seven basketball games over at the Tournament of the Americas. Some random notes…

• Even though we had credentials for the Tournament of the Americas, I wanted to sit in the stands at the Thomas & Mack Center and just chill during the games. So, despite the best efforts of NBA PR guru Brian “B-Mac” McIntyre, Russ and I resisted efforts to be credentialed and instead kept it real, sitting in the seats. We walked up both days and bought $10 tickets, which got us into the upper deck for four games each day. Basically, we paid $2.50 to see the US Men’s National Team play.

We were supposed to sit in the seats we’d bought, but the arena was mad empty early both mornings when we arrived, and a friendly usher let us into his section in the lower bowl after I promised not to cause any trouble.

I pointed out to Russ that sitting there and watching game after game in front of tiny crowds felt like being at a lackluster high school tournament. Russ agreed, but added the difference here was that the winning teams got to go to the Olympics.

The only other noteworthy thing about the Thomas & Mack Center was that it was about 55 degrees in that gym. It was 105 degrees outside yesterday, but it was so cold in the gym that Russ and I had to keep going outside just to warm up. Russ wanted to offer one of the security guards a wad of cash for their coat. I kept hoping a St. Bernard would run over and dole out a nip of brandy from a small barrel around its neck.

• Team USA looked great in both games, but they should have looked great, playing against Venezuela and the Virgin Islands. The US opened against Venezuela and Kobe, in particular, was all fired up. He did a nice job acting like he was working hard to defend Venezuela (and University of Maryland) point guard Greivis Vasquez, and a story in the LA Times made it seems as though Kobe completely shut down Vasquez, but I guess we were watching a different game. Because the game we were at, Kobe got into foul trouble early and Vasquez ended up leading Venezuela in scoring.

That said, Kobe looked like the best player in the world out there. Having JKidd on the team makes a big difference, but Kobe makes a huge difference. Who can guard him? How do you stop him? And will playing with Jason Kidd for the next two weeks cause Kobe to go crazy again and demand the Lakers go get JKidd?

I saw all of the teams play except for the Dominican Republic, and the US is going to win this Tournament. Bet on it.

• Mike Miller is a strange choice for the US team. Not only does he look like a girl, but he was tossing up airballs left and right in that Venezuela game.

• Amare Stoudemire is about half as threatening on the floor when he doesn’t have Steve Nash playing with him. And it doesn’t help him that he’s been playing with the US’s second team, so he doesn’t even get to play with Kidd.

• I think the surprise team of the Tournament is going to be Mexico. My main man Michael Lee at the Washington Post wrote a great story about them here. (I tried to get Mike to call their offense “Forty Minutos of Diablo,” which doesn’t really make sense but sounds really cool.) There’s a great story there, particularly how Mexico boss Nolan Richardson beat US coach Mike Krzyzewski to win an NCAA title back in 1994. Nobody’s really paying much attention to Mexico, but they put it on Puerto Rico on Wednesday to get the win. I’d love to see them make a little run.

• My favorite player in the tournament is Mexico center Horacio Llamas. He played briefly in the NBA a few years ago, and now, at 34, he’s holding down the middle for Nolan Richardson. Llamas joins the long line of fat guys who have played center in Richardson’s system, including Oliver Miller and Dwight Stewart. What to like about Llamas? When he’s on the floor he wears about 20 sweatbands and headbands and various accoutrements. Also, he shoots a bunch of threes, and he crossed over a guy and tried to go around his back on the dribble. And he kind of looks like Omar. Anyway, we have an official player of The Links for the Tournament of the Americas.

• FIBA had a generic mascot named Jay Jay running around, changing outfits for each game. During a Mexico game he ran out wearing a sombrero and a poncho. He’s pictured here all blinged out. Very weird.

• Puerto Rico’s uniforms have a Burger King logo on their shorts. They weren’t able to have it their way with Llamas, though.

• I liked that Venezuela brought in Sean Penn to coach.

• There was a PJ Ramos sighting! He’s “playing” for Puerto Rico. Also, dude was constantly in the casino at The Palms. He might be the most inconsequential 7-3 person currently playing basketball — guys just go right at him and shoot uncontested layups over him.

• The scoreboard at the Thomas & Mack Center is called “Redd Vision,” which seems like favoritism toward Michael Redd if you ask me.

• The ball they use in international games looks like a WNBA ball. Also, it seems super bouncy.

• If Chris Sheridan was writing these notes, he’d ask the readers if they know how to call a time out in international basketball. The answer is that only coaches can call a time out.

• Argentina should be one of the better teams in the tournament, but without guys like Manu GINOBILI!, Andres Nocioni and Fabricio Oberto, they didn’t seem very potent today. Carlos Delfino is playing but he tries to go one-on-one way too often.

Luis Scola is a very intriguing guy to watch. He has a nice little post game, lots of turnaround jumpers and lots of finesse. Kind of reminded me of Juwan Howard or Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Defensively he didn’t do much, but if he has Yao behind him in Houston next season he’ll be fine. Oh, and he really needs a haircut and a shave.

Also, keep an eye on Argentina’s Pablo Prigioni. He seems to have a knack for being around the ball.

• Leandro Barbosa torched Canada in game one, and he basically made Canada guard Andy Rautins tear his ACL by juking him out of his shoes. Barbosa was allowed to shoot wide-open threes all over the floor, and he went for 30 points and 5 assists.

Nenê didn’t play a lot in Brazil’s first game and he ended up fouling out. (Barbosa told me that they were trying to ease Nenê into game shape.)

People have also talked a lot about Brazil’s Tiago Splitter. He’s been in and out of the NBA Draft over the few years, and he finally ended up getting nabbed by the Spurs this year. Perhaps we just caught him on a bad night, but he was pretty horrible in the game against Canada.

• Speaking of Canada, I watched both of their first two games — a loss to Brazil and a close win over a punchless Venezuela. When your best player is Sam Dalembert, it’s never a good thing. Even weirder is that Canada coach Leo Rautins just kind of stands around on the sideline and doesn’t show a lot of emotion. I liked when Canada was down 75-67 with 6.7 left against Brazil and Rautins called a timeout. The 8-point play he designed didn’t work out.

I like Canada forward Carl English, but he tends to drift out on the floor. Also, he looks like he spends a lot of time on his hair.

• During that Canada/Brazil game, with 2 minutes left in the third quarter, Sam Dalembert and Nenê had combined for 0 points. They will make a combined $18.4 million this season. Not joking.

• Best uniforms go to Canada’s road joints and the Virgin Islands’ yellow jerseys with the script across the front.

• There’s a guy on Canada named Vlad Kuljanin who can barely run. Which makes him fun to watch.

• Why isn’t Vegas resident Celine Dion out at the games supporting Canada? Hater.

• Tiago Splitter should play a lot of blackjack.

• With no dotted line under the rims, it seems like almost every collision in the paint is called a charge.

• The PA announcer in the Thomas & Mack was struggling. My favorite instance was when he referred to “Leonardo Barbosa.”

• I was kind of hoping that Hugo Chavez would denounce the imperialism of Coach K after the US/Venezuela game. I don’t think he did, though.

• One aspect of the game where the USA has a decided advantage is regarding lane violations. For some reason, with every country except the US, guys go flying into the lane on almost every free throw attempt.

• Disappointing that Kobe’s not wearing number 8.

• I really think LeBron’s grown since the Finals. He said the other day that’s 6-9, 260 now, and he towers over almost all of the guys on the US team.

• Michael Redd, you’re my man and all, but it’s time to go ahead and shave your head.

• Ways to make games between the US and other countries more fair: make Team USA players get drunk before games; force each player to eat a 20 oz steak in the locker room just before running onto the floor; make USA guys play blindfolded; make the US players shoot in either numerical or alphabetical order.

• Russ noted that Tayshaun Prince has added his customary 15 grams of muscle this summer.

• Don’t know if you caught it, but late in the US/Venezuela game, Dwight Howard wiped a shot from Venezuela center Bayona and then did a Shaq hand stare thing before breaking into a smile.

• If you see a really hot girl in Vegas, a good opening line is to ask her if she’s working tonight. Wait, I didn’t mean to write that here.

• An interesting question Russ, Mike Lee and I were talking about: Which of Coach K’s former Duke players has had the best NBA career? Elton Brand? Grant Hill? Maybe Christian Laettner?

• Uruguay played uninspired ball against Argentina, but in game one against Panama former Hawks benchwarmer Esteban Batista went for an eye-popping 26 points and 19 rebounds. I asked someone in the know who has kept a close eye on Este the last few years to put that performance into perspective for us. Quoting our expert: “Yeah, he still sucks.”

• If Panama doesn’t run onto the floor to Van Halen’s “Panama,” there’s no justice in this world.

• Anyway, that’s all I got. Hey, we can talk about basketball again! And we didn’t even have to mention Tim Donaghy.