by Lang Whitaker

I’ve been around the world, been to 40 states in the US and probably about as many countries all over the globe. But I’d never been to Las Vegas. And for some reason, it was important for me to get here. I know it’s a cheesy place, full of tourists and excess and, well, tourists, but I kind of liked the idea of the whole thing: lights, energy, action. To me, Vegas seemed like a place where anything could happen — good or bad. Which I figured would make it an exciting place.

When I walked out of my apartment in New York City yesterday morning, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of indifference; I wasn’t even excited about my first trip to Vegas. I wanted to see Vegas, but I wasn’t looking forward to the whole gambling thing, just because I have very little experience playing cards and while I wanted to hit the tables, I didn’t want to lose all my cash. I guess it was the idea of gambling I liked, although the actual gambling probably wouldn’t be fun.

When I got in the cab and told the driver to go to JFK, he gave me two choices: 1) Pay a $45 flat fee, which is the fee decided on by the city of New York, or 2) use the meter. I thought the meter might end up being cheaper, since there should be less traffic on the roads that early in the morning, but I didn’t want the hassle so I told him to charge the flat rate. I didn’t even feel like gambling on a cab ride.

Checked in and found I had an aisle seat, which was quite a relief. I had a middle seat last week on the 6-hour flight to L.A., and I did not want to relive that experience so quickly. Got on the plane and the man next to me had the greatest mullet I’ve ever seen: shaved in the front and toward the back, but with long, straight, flowing hair from the crown of head to his elbows. Just amazing. Nice guy, too — he offered me Twizzlers over Illinois.

Yesterday was MTV’s 25th birthday, so I watched a lot of MTV on the flight (yeah JetBlue!) and watched a long section on MTV in the late ‘90s. At that time I was freelancing for SLAM but was spending most of time writing about music for the local paper in Atlanta, and I realized yesterday how great I had it then. Some of the biggest artists of that era included the Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, Britney Spears and Biggie. Even if I didn’t like most of those artists, there was just so much craziness and crappiness to write about that in retrospect I now understand what a great era that was. I can’t imagine writing about music now — what exactly is there to say about AFI or Chamillionaire or Jewel or whoever?

I also tried to watch as much stuff as I could about the Fidel Castro situation. As I’ve mentioned before, my wife is Cuban and she still has family there, so for her and many other families, this whole thing down is very serious stuff. Also saw a live press conference in New York where Mayor Bloomberg was issuing warnings about the heat. He asked that New Yorkers set their thermostats no lower than 78 degrees. Was he serious? Why even bother? I haven’t seen that new Al Gore movie about global warming, but last week I was reading a book about European history and I read a passage about a time in the 1300s when it rained daily in Italy for six consecutive months. The rain not only spread the Plague, but it kept anyone from planting or harvesting their crop. If that happened now I wonder if we’d blame global warming?

Anyway, after landing in Vegas, I hopped a shuttle to my hotel where I met up with my main man Arash Markazi. Some of you might remember Arash from his Lakers reports on The Links, and some of you probably read his stuff on SI.com. We didn’t’ plan to meet in Vegas, but once we both realized we’d be here this week we coordinated plans.

So after we checked in, grabbed lunch and did a little work, we headed over to the Thomas and Mack Arena at UNLV for a scrimmage between Team USA and Puerto Rico. There were a few thousand fans in the arena, and it was open seating, except the closest ten rows were all blocked off. The media was allowed to sit wherever we wanted, so we went down and grabbed seats on the front row, courtside. ESPN’s Insider Chris Sheridan sat with us and noted, “Now I know what Spike Lee feels like.”

— Immediately, everyone noticed Kobe Bryant sitting behind one of the baskets. He was sitting with Team USA boss Jerry Colangelo and his agent, Rob Pelinka.

— Coach K was introduced to a mixture of cheers and boos. He grabbed the mic and cursed everyone out for booing him. OK, not really. He welcomed and thanked all the servicemen and women in attendance, and everyone cheered after that.

— Starting lineup for Team USA was Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, LeBron, Dwight Howard and…Antawn Jamison?

— LeBron starts the game off with a basket.

— I wonder if anyone on Team USA speaks Spanish? Actually, I know Bruce Bowen does. Could be very helpful against Spanish-speaking countries in the World Championships. I was able to steal a few plays from PR just sitting courtside.

— Puerto Rico’s Elias Ayuso comes out smooth, and wearing a pair of LeBrons.

— Lots of jumpers early on for USA.

— First subs are Brand and Bowen for Dwight and Jamison.

— Team USA runs a play called “angle,” where Bron brings it up court, but someone doesn’t pick for him and he ends up turning it over.

— With Bowen in, the USA goes on a 8-0 run. It’s capped by a lovely Chris Paul steal on a pick and roll where he reads the roll and drops off his man to intercept the pass. On the ensuing fastbreak he dishes to LeBron who gets held in the air, but he powers through the lane and manages to flip the ball up at the rim. Crowd oohs at the power he showed.

— With a few minutes to go in the quarter, eight guys on the bench all just get up and walk out of the arena, led by Carmelo. I thought they were checking in but now I’m not sure what’s going on.

— US is up 18 to 9.

— LeBron defends his man way out by halfcourt, yelling “Ball!” over and over as his guy aimlessly dribbles around. He sticks his guy until he drives and picks up an offensive foul, leading to standing ovations from Coack K and Jim Boeheim.

— The USA keeps getting the big guys the ball in the high post, where they seem to have no idea what to do. Dwight and Elton pick up cheap charging fouls from that spot.

— Chris Paul gets a breakaway dunk, and the crowd is going crazy until they notice that Chris fell to the floor hard afterwards. He gets up and look fine.

— A Puerto Rico shot rests on the rim, and Dwight Howard reaches up through the rim to knock it away. He laughs as they tag him with goaltending. USA leads 25-18 after one.

— Second quarter starts with this team: Carmelo, Shane Battier, Chris Bosh, Kirk Hinrich, Joe Johnson. Hinrich is playing in a t-shirt under his jersey, like he’s back in high school.

— PR guard Rick Apodaca drives in a tries to force contact, but his shot is rejected by about four guys simultaneously. On the next trip down Apodaca tells the ref, “You got to give me one before the end of the game.” The ref responds, “Not one on three, buddy.”

— Melo drills two three pointers.

— Carlos Arroyo is calling plays in English for the PR team. So much for needing a interpreter to steal the plays.

— Mike James should figure out a way to get Puerto Rican citizenship and play for them, or some random country since he can’t get playing time for the US.

— The US offense appears to be: spread the players out and shoot open jumpers. It’s working, too.

— One of the refs, who works in the NBA and I can’t remember his name, signals PR ball out of bounds by saying, “Azul aqui!” One of the other refs says, “I like that!”

— When your two best post players are PJ Ramos and Daniel Santiago, the third string centers for the Wizards and Bucks, you probably don’t have much chance against the USA. Puerto Rico desperately needs “Piculin,” my man Jose Ortiz.

— Melo goes baseline and baseline dunks on Santiago and a guy named Carmelo Lee.

— Battier draws a charge, Coach K stands and applauds.

— Arroyo hits a halfcourt runner off the glass to end the quarter. They’re not keeping a running score on the board but the US won that quarter 29-22.

— Third starts with a DWade flush.

— Still some adjustments to be made. LeBron drives to the rim and throws it out to the perimeter to Bruce Bowen for a three. Bowen is waiting in the corner, where they always get him the ball in San Antonio. Bron throws it to the wing, where Larry Hughes or Damon Jones would be waiting. He makes a perfect pass to me, sitting courtside.

— The US starts getting after it. Dwyane Wade pulls a double spin move in the backcourt and bursts free. He passes to Bron who spins to the layup. PR pushes it back and someone goes up for a layup that LeBron hustles all the way back and pins against the glass with two hands. Bron outlets to Dwight Howard who gives it back to a sprinting Bron for a dunk.

— Two of the refs are from the NBA. Shouldn’t they try to get really bad refs that make every call against the USA players, just to get used to the International style?

— During a USA free throw attempt, LeBron says, “Twan, you stay on your man no matter who’s taking the ball out.” The shot goes in, and Jamison immediately picks up the wrong man.

— US wins the third 31-17.

— Bobby Joe Hatton just destroys Arenas and shatters his ankles. Gilbert goes head over heels backwards. He better be glad this one’s not on TV.

— Carmelo splits a double team and tomahawks a dunk home. He really looks amazing tonight.

— With 2:35 left, the US is up 22-21. PR runs a play where they get it to Ramos in the post, who misses a hook shot and growls loudly.

— Seconds later, the score tied and 22, Melo drains a clutch three pointer, and as PR is taking the ball out of bounds. Melo yells, “Hell yeah!”

— 31-25 final in the fourth. I’m told the total is 116-82, but I have no idea.

— Bruce Bowen thanks the fans and does a nice job of it.

— Kobe heads into the interview room wearing an LRG shirt and brown Air Max. He’s wearing shorts but I don’t see any surgery scars or bandages. Doesn’t appear to have a limp, either, so I assume he’s coming along in his recovery.

— Bill Walton asks if Kobe will be with the team in Japan. Kobe says he’s talked about it with Coach K and Colangelo and they decided he should stay behind and continue the rehab on his knee.

— Chris Sheridan starts pumping Kobe for info on the knee: When did he hurt it? Why did he wait for surgery? How bad was it? Etc. Kobe doesn’t look thrilled. He says he didn’t know surgery was necessary until “late in the summer.” He also says he had “scar tissue impingements” in the knee.

— Kobe says he wanted to have a good time “kicking it” with the guys on the team.

— Bill Walton asks who did the surgery — of course Walton wants to know that — and Kobe says, “Steadman.” With Gayle King assisting, of course.

— Kobe says Vegas is a “nice spot…if you like gambling you can really have a lot of fun.”

— Colangelo then says Kobe will be with the team in Japan at some point because Nike wants him to go to Japan. Kobe seems surprised to hear it.

— Coach K and Carmelo come in. He says the team will have different starting lineups and talks about how there will be nights some guys won’t play.

— Coach K says the team won’t have one singular leader, and says Melo, Bron and DWade “have set tone and worked hard.”

— Coach K says “Since day one, nobody has played harder than Melo.”

— He says the team has worked harder on defense than offense so far, and now they’ll start to worry about the offense.

— Coach K says people should ask Melo some questions. “He’s gonna walk out and say, Coach K is taking my street cred.” Seems like an odd thing to say.

— Coach K notes that the free throw shooting is tough because there’s such a change of pace between the regular pace of the game and then completely stopping and shooting.

With everything over, Arash and I headed back to the hotel, dropped our stuff off and headed out to the Strip. We walked out and checked everything out, but I’m not going to write about all that right now because I want to do a photo diary in a day or two. Didn’t even gamble at all last night, because by the time we ate and got back to out hotel it was midnight, 3:00 a.m. my time, and I’d been up all day without a nap or anything. Fell out around 1:00 a.m.

More later…