by Lang Whitaker

As 2007 fades into 2008, like we always do at this time, let’s go over the year in The Links…

Feb. 14
When Ben Osborne took over as editor in chief, we also reconfigured some other stuff. I was hired by SLAM in the summer of 2000, and for the last seven years I’ve been the online editor. We’ve gone from having zero content on the site to a few articles from the mag each month to what you see before you today, with about ten original stories posted every day.

But the grind has been getting to me for a while now. For the last seven years, I’ve written about the NBA right here almost every day. And it got old, to be honest.

So when Ben came in and asked me to shift what I was doing and help him out, I was ready for a new challenge.

So, I’m now the executive editor of SLAM magazine. Your man Sam Rubenstein? He’s the new online editor.

Wait, what does this mean? Well, as executive editor, I read everything that runs in the mag before it goes to our art department to be laid out. I edit the stories, try to come up with funny headlines, select pullquotes, make the stories tighter, help come up with coverlines, come up with story ideas, help set up interviews and photo shoots, etcetera, etcetera. Basically, I’m trying to help make the magazine fun.

But I’m still writing here. I’m still Linkstigating. The Links aren’t going nowhere. And I’m still consulting on SLAMonline. It’s just that now when someone wants to run an ad campaign or write something for SLAMonline or whatever, Sam’s in charge.

• ESPN has an excerpt from John Amaechi’s book posted here. To summarize:
It begins with Amaechi talking about how the Jazz system didn’t work for him but the Jazz wouldn’t change it because they had Karl Malone. (Duh.)

Amaechi talks about Jerry Sloan getting mad at him because he got called for a three-second violation. Amaechi took this personally.

He describes NBA locker rooms as “flamboyant.”

He hung out at a place called “Cahoots” in Utah. (Sidebar: If you’re hanging out at Cahoots and someone calls your cell phone, do you say, “I can’t talk right now, I’m in Cahoots”?)

Amaechi sat around his apartment and listened to The Carpenters.

There’s a lot of talk of someone named “Ryan.” Hmm.

Amaechi cried when Andrei Kirilenko invited him and “a partner” to his Christmas party. He couldn’t attend, but he sent over a bottle of “Jean Paul Gaultier-dressed” champagne. Whatever that is.

Feb. 16
All of a sudden, we were in Vegas. Yes. We were able to check into our hotel before we got our bags from baggage claim — that’s how next level this town is. There were about 100,000 people in the baggage claim area. Only NBA player I saw was Scott Padgett, and I guess it’s debatable as to whether or not he’s really an NBA player.

The highlight of the day may have been when Ben overheard a reporter from China approach Caron Butler and say, “In celebration of the Chinese New Year, we are seeing when people were born. When were you born?”

Butler said, “1980.”

The woman checked her chart and then, as cultures awkwardly collided, she announced, “That makes you a monkey!”

Everyone stood there momentarily stunned, not really sure how to respond. An American reporter told the woman that what she’d said wasn’t considered a polite thing to say to people in America. She explained that being a monkey meant that Butler was resourceful and a good thinker, and Butler smiled and accepted that diagnosis.

Also spotted: Blog hater Sam Smith, with a ticket to the Elton John concert poking out of his back pocket.

We bounced from the interview room to the Hardwood Suite, where Nike was hosting (and feeding) people. It was cool, but once you’ve seen one hotel room with a basketball court, really, haven’t you seen them all? (The name of that room may be the greatest double-entendre in Vegas.)

Celebrities spotted today outside the NBA events: Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Slim from Cash Money, Eddie Jordan lost on an elevator, Hassan Adams, Rashard Lewis at a gaming table watching other people play, Monta Ellis, Chuck Hayes from the Rockets.

The best sighting? As the SLAM crew piled into a cab outside the Palms, we heard a rumble from the folks accumulated outside the doors of the hotel. We glanced over and there was Shaq, in a beige suit, walking around aimlessly. He strolled out from the entrance to the area where cabs were dropping off, and everyone just froze to watch him; he literally stopped traffic. He may not be the player he once was, but dude’s still got it.

That’s where we stop for now. I’m at the Rookie/Sophomore game right now writing this up. At halftime I went up to visit Chris Paul’s family, and I ran into Chris’s mom. First thing she said to me was, “Have you hit the tables?” (She remembered.)

Not yet, I told her, but the night is still young.

Feb. 17
Getting back to the hotel after the Rookie/Sophomore Game was considerably easier than leaving the hotel. But once we were back at our hotel and had weighed our options for the evening, we decided the best bet was Michael Jordan’s party. First of all, it was Michael Jordan’s party. Secondly, it was in a tent outside the MGM Grand, which was within walking distance. We had invites and were on the list for a few other parties, including the T-Mac/Diddy party at Caesar’s Palace, but thanks to our previous All-Star experiences, I knew better than to plan on hitting more than one party that night. And who better to bet on than Air Jordan?

(One of the other big parties was the ESPN party. But I knew we made the proper call in not attending after I ran into four ESPN employees at the Jordan party, and also after I was told that ESPN was paying athletes to make appearances at their party. Is that how the ESPY’s work, too? Amazing. Classy, too.)

Once we went through the metal detectors and got inside the tent, there was a long, darkened runway we had to walk down, with flashing lights illuminating our steps. We popped out of the tunnel into a cavernous space. The middle of the room was dominated by a huge stage that looked kind of like a parade float. It was decorated in the camouflage theme that features on the Jordan XXII, and featured several windows cut into it revealing several wildly dancing (and scantily clad) women. Around the other side of the middle element, DJ D-Nice spun tunes. Toward the back of the room, a huge bar was set up, with about 20 bartenders pouring free drinks. And behind that, an elevated area was built to hold the VIPs (i.e.: Michael Jordan).

We entered with Chris Paul and his wingman, Trailblazers point guard Jarrett Jack. Following is a list of noteworthy people I spotted at the party: Toccara from “America’s Next Top Model,” golf prodigy Michelle Wie (who is friggin’ huge — at least 6-3), Jordan designer D’Wayne Edwards, Darryl McDaniels, Damon Stoudamire, Monta Ellis, Mitch Richmond, Dominique Wilkins, Steven Hunter, Armon Gilliam, Clinton Portis, Michael Jordan…to name a few. There were also a lot of women there who were very, er, talented. Didn’t get any of their names (holla!).

We’d been there about ten minutes and were hanging out at the bar when a big guy came running through the crowd, pretending to thug people out of his way. It was Carmelo Anthony. It was the first time I’d talked to him since he punched Mardy Collins a few days before the release of his SLAM cover. I told him he’s got a heckuva sense of timing. He smiled. I also convinced Carmelo his first round of drinks were on me. Hopefully he didn’t notice it was open bar.

By 2:00 a.m. — 5:00 a.m. by my body’s clock — I was dragging. Sam and I were standing by a side door that opened and admitted Tony Parker, Eva Longoria and a small crew. Ciara was on the dance floor. Khalid and his wifey left to try and hit the T-Mac party. Rumors were swirling of a shooting on the strip….it was time to call it a night.

But we soldiered on. At 2:30 a.m., Sam and I went back to the tables, and 15 minutes later, Sam fell asleep while sitting up at the blackjack table, which was pretty amusing and hilarious.

I stumbled up to my room and crashed. A few hours later, my phone rang, waking me up. It was light outside. Saturday was beginning.

And it would all start all over again.

Feb. 18
I’m not sure I should even be doing this. I’m working on a combined 150 minutes of sleep over the last two days. I hate lights, fresh air, water, fruits and vegetables. All-Star Weekend in Vegas is turning out to be both remarkable and outrageous. I’ll do my best to catch you up on Saturday night’s doings.

After the Dunk Contest, the SLAM Crew heaed back to our hotel, where we parted ways with Khalid (he was on some secret mission). Ben, Sam and I dropped off our bags, changed into some presentable clothes and rolled out to the Venetian Hotel and Casino for the Steve Nash/GQ party.

The Venetian is loosly based on the city of Venice, Italy, although this is a very loose interpretation. For instance, instead of dozens of canals running in between ancient crumbling buildings, the Venetian has one canal that runs through a mall. They have gondola rides available, and gondoliers wearing white and black striped shirts. Also, nobody was riding the gondolas.

A bunch of people were in a loose mass in a random corner. We investigated and discovered they were all hoping to get a glimpse of Jay-Z, who I guess was hanging out under a stairwell or something.

We finally found the V Bar, which was hosting the shindig. When we arrived it wasn’t very full, but we did see Matt Bonner and Pat Garrity standing around outside; we assumed they were looking for the white player’s party. They never did come into Nash’s party, but before long Nash arrived and then Kevin Garnett showed up with a crew that included Rashad McCants and Jawad Williams.

Nash and KG each had VIP areas set aside for them, but neither of them hid in their areas, instead moving freely around the small club, shaking hands and just acting like regular people. Andrea Bargnani also showed up, along with Darrick Martin, representing Canada and Raptors.

A DJ was playing some great old school hip-hop, from Brand Nubian to Poor Righteous Teachers, and before long KG could help himself: The Big Ticket staked out a spot right in front of the DJ table and started dancing, mouthing along to every lyric. An hour later, KG finally took a seat, drenched with sweat. Soon after, KG headed out, and by 1:30 we were gone, too. Nash was still there when we left, making the rounds, having fun.

We took the monorail back to our hotel and arrived by 2:00 a.m. Ben headed out to meet a buddy at the poker tables, and Sam and I were thinking about getting seats at a blackjack table when a friend sent me this text message:
Palms. Playboy Tower. Goooood. Shaq here. Wanna come thru?

This posed a serious problem. Should we play blackjack for an hour then get some much-needed sleep? Or should we do Vegas things and hit the Palms and get no sleep?

Minutes later, we were in a mile-long cab line outside our hotel. As we waited, we saw a guy bring out a huge, clear bucket filled with what appeared to be orange juice. The guy then produced three bottles of champagne and poured them into the bucket, creating an industrial sized Mimosa. And inexplicably, women were drinking from it. Yuck.

After a 45-minute wait, we got into a cab with a driver who was eerily reminiscent of Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs. While Sam and I tried to concentrate of not being abducted, the driver went through some back roads and a parking lot and suddenly we were at the Palms.

Inside the Palms we bumped into Mark Jackson, who sent his love to the entire SLAM family. After a while wandering around, we found the entrance to the Playboy Towers and the club, which I think was called Moon, although don’t quote me on that. We were allegedly on “the list,” but when I squeezed my way to the front of the line and asked for the person with “the list,” I was told she was gone and to please move along. OK. I got on the phone, and minutes later our people came down from upstairs. After some wrangling, we were in.

After a quick elevator ride, we emerged into a Bret Easton Ellis novel. Lights were flashing. Women were dancing on furniture. We were invited up into a private area. Sam wandered off. I was escorted across the dance floor (where Mark Cuban was getting down) and out onto a huge open rooftop deck 50-something stories above the Vegas strip. It was nothing short of amazing, even more so because it was like 4 in the morning and we were in Vegas and all of a sudden, we were singing “Baaaaaal-ling!” The whole thing redefined excess. And it was awesome.

A little over two hours later, after another hour-long wait for a cab, we walked back into our hotel. The clock ticked past 6:00 a.m. The sun was starting to rise, and people were stumbling around all over the place, coming home from long nights out on the town blowing off steam.

Got in the elevator and some dude muttered, “Man, I wish I could just click my heels and be back home.”

Understood. My throat was dry. My eyes were red. My voice was gone. I had to pee. I had to sleep.

But I had to be at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in less than four hours for breakfast with David Stern. (Those notes are coming soon.)

And it don’t stop…

Feb. 18
After surviving this and logging about two hours of sleep, I tumbled from bed at 9:00 a.m. Half an hour later, I was sharing a cab to the Mandalay Bay with two reporters. Our presence had been requested by Mr. David Stern.

The last two years, our folk at TNT have organized small media breakfasts with NBA commisioner David Stern and TNT sports president David Levy. They invite a handful of reporters, set out some coffee and danishes, then invite us all to have an on-the-record conversation about the NBA.

I couldn’t get to that coffee fast enough. I reluctantly removed my sunglasses and took a few notes…

• David Levy begins by talking about the previous evening’s dunk contest and three-point shootout. He says it was “as exciting an in-arena experience since MJ and Nique.” Or maybe I’m still a little addled.

• Stern notes that TNT and the NBA have “the longest-running relationship” in professional sports. Had never thought about that before. ESPN and MLB have been connected for a while, too, I guess.

• Two minutes in, Stern begins a sentence by saying, “I don’t want to channel Les Moonves here, but…” Love any Les Moonves references.

• Someone mentions the NBA showing so many games on cable vs. broadcast TV, and Stern gets a little prickly. He says he didn’t hear any outcry over Monday Night Football going to cable, or baseball’s League Championship Series going to Turner Sports. Meanwhile, he said, the NBA is “slammed” for it.

• Stern says that last month NBA.com did 23 million broadband streams. One year ago, they did 1 million streams.

• Rather casually, Stern mentions that the League has had meetings this weekend with Myspace, Facebook, Second Life and YouTube, and that the League is close to finalizing an “experimental, experiential relationship” with all of them. I came really close to asking Stern if he had a MySpace page. But I didn’t.

• David Levy says something about how “more people are watching TV than ever before.” Stern, pouring himself some orange juice, doesn’t even look up but exclaims, “Amen!”

• Someone notes that since we’re in Vegas, Charles Barkley’s gambling addiction seems like a relevant topic.
Levy: “I think the media as well as Charles has talked about this too much.”
Stern: “And therefore…”
Levy: “I will not talk to the media about my private talks with Charles.”

• Stern describes the D-League All-Star Game as “spectacular.”

• A reporter mentions that baseball and football have had to deal with several persistent headaches, from the Cincy Bengals to steroids. He asks Stern what his biggest fire to put out is, and Stern says, “Absolutely nothing.”

• Stern notes fans read “websites, blogs…” Glad he knew what they are. Now if I can just find his MySpace page.

Feb. 20
Las Vegas seems to be a place that exists in some sort of wrinkle in time. Remember the villains in Superman 2, the two men and the woman, who have been sentenced to spend eternity inside some sort of strange one-dimensional plane? They’re trapped inside that spinning shard, wearing those skintight black leather outfits, not sure which direction is up or down. In some strange way, that’s exactly what Las Vegas is like. Just without the leather outfits. (Not speaking for Sam, Khalid or Ben there).

Vegas takes your life and makes it its own. For instance, more than once I was running around Vegas and all of sudden realized I hadn’t had a meal in about 20 hours. Or you’re sitting there having a drink and you remember you haven’t slept in two days. As the clock neared 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, my hot spell at a blackjack table at the MGM Grand ended and I colored out my chips, cashed them in and shuffled across to the elevators.

As I walked, I pulled out my Sidekick and saw that there were a few messages that had come in over the past few hours while I was playing (when I was not allowed to use my phone). I replied to a text message from a friend, noting I’d had a good night at the tables and that we could speak the next day when we were both rested. I dropped my phone into my pocket, and maybe 2 minutes later I felt it buzz upon receiving a reply back from my friend. at 5:00 a.m. Everyone’s up and at them all the time. Vegas.

(I learned later that someone was shot in the lobby of the MGM while I was in the lobby playing blackjack. That should be a pretty good example of just how huge the MGM is: Someone got shot in the lobby while I was there in the lobby and yet I had no idea until there was a shooting until I got back to NYC.)

How was Vegas as a site for All-Star? Surprisingly great. This was my fifth All-Star weekend, and each year the same two issues cause problems: traffic and people. I say “people” meaning the folks who pour into All-Star’s location each year with no intention of going to the game — they’re there to blow off steam and party, which is cool. They hope they’ll see a basketball player or perhaps a celebrity. And if not, they’ll put on sunglasses indoors and make sure people see them.

All-Star weekend can be like a mall full of high school kids. The trick is differentiating between where the bad kids are hanging out and where the good kids are hanging out. We did pretty well with that.