Vegas, Day Two

by Lang Whitaker

It’s after midnight in the casino at the Wynn Hotel, I’m sitting at the blackjack table and I am hotter than a pistol. I’m up about $200, half of Team USA is hanging around, Wes is asking me to do shots and, at the moment, life is pretty good.

And I’ve never played blackjack in my life.

But hang on. First, let’s rewind.

Day 2 in Vegas started at 10 a.m. with the alarm clock blaring. By 11:30 a.m. I was over at the Thomas & Mack Center at UNLV, where Team USA is practicing all week. Any place that has a framed Reggie Theus jersey hanging inside can’t be too bad. The practice was closed to the media, so I sat in the press room and wrote up the notes from Day One. Practice opened up with about half an hour remaining, and the players were doing some drill where they had to make 100 baskets in some amount of time. New Hawks forward Shelden Williams was sitting nearby, watching, and he noted that the team was running the same drills they ran at Duke.

After practice there was a lot going on. The media in attendance basically had 30 minutes to stalk whoever they wanted to stalk, so everyone was running all over the court and up into the seats. The last player working out was Dwight Howard, who stayed out there a good 20 minutes after any other player, throwing up (and sinking) jumpers from about 18 feet.

Coach K spoke for a while, and someone asked him about having to be tough on guys while maintaining a rapport and keeping their ears. Coach K said he doesn’t really worry about that with this team, because they’re together for such a short time. He said it would be different if this were the ACC season or something like that.

While all of this was going on, we had a SLAM photo shoot happening with a couple of the U.S. players. Only problem was we were still waiting for one of their NBA uniforms to arrive, so I ended up standing outside the arena and waiting for the messenger to show up. Eventually he showed, and I ran the jersey down but I missed a bunch of the media time.

From UNLV, Arash and I went over to the Rio Resort and Casino, where the World Series of Poker was taking place. Arash needed to pick up a media credential for the Tournament, so we parked the car and I went in and kind of wandered around while Arash took care of business. There were a LOT of men there, guys wearing poker-related shirts and hats, guys looking tired, guys looking angry. I saw a very tall Phil Hellmuth walking down a hall, wearing sunglasses and his iPod earphones. If you go to the World Series of Poker and see a woman, it’s a pretty safe bet she’s working at one of the booths along the hallway where they have scantily clad women handing out drinks and food and other free crap.

Got back to the hotel around 5:00 and Arash and I realized we hadn’t eaten all day, so we grabbed some dinner. I went back to my room afterwards, caught up on some work and then and took a nap. I meant to sleep for at most an hour, but when I woke up it was 9:00 p.m. I could have easily just stayed in bed and slept through until the morning, but this is Vegas, and there was money burning a hole in my wallet.

Half an hour later, Arash and I were walking up the Strip, dodging European tourists (oddly, I must have seen a dozen Steven Gerrard jerseys) gawking at the various hotels. We had no real destination in mind. We weren’t hungry, we weren’t tired, but we weren’t really motivated either.

We finally decided to go over to the Wynn Hotel, where all the Team USA crew was staying. We were about halfway up the strip and maybe two miles from the Wynn, so we hopped on the new Vegas Monorail, which zips up and down the Strip. One of the stations said “Wynn Shuttle,” so we exited there and found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, alongside a highway with a two-foot wide sidewalk precariously close to the road. The Wynn was visible over a dividing wall, but there was no clear way to get over there, so we trudged along as cars whizzed by, blowing us back and forth. I kept imagining a car jumping the curb and mowing one of us down, and I was desperately trying to find some place we could escape to.

Eventually we stumbled across a random cheap hotel, where there appeared to be two pimps and one of their employees sitting outside on a bench. The marquee out front advertised the hotel’s BBQ ribs, which were selling for $11 a pound. I have no idea if that’s a good rate for BBQ ribs, but any restaurant sells food by the pound gets respect. Just as we got to the hotel, a cab careened up and dropped a couple off, so Arash and I jumped in the cab and headed for the Wynn.

It was around 11:00 p.m. when we walked into the Wynn, and within seconds we saw Jerry Colangelo chatting with Phoenix coaches Mike D’Antoni and Marc Iavaroni. Colangelo took a seat at a $15 minimum blackjack table. We walked to the back of the casino and saw a bunch of Dukies standing around — Steve Wojciechowski, Johnny Dawkins, Shane Battier, and for some reason Clyde Drexler was with them — and then Coach K came walking down the hall, alone, which was kind of strange to see.

A lot of the players — Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Gilbert Arenas, Dwyane Wade (wearing slippers), Bruce Bowen, Chris Bosh — were coming and going, and their families and friends were hanging around and getting to know each other. Jermaine O’Neal was there, taking pictures with all the fans who asked, and Rick Carlisle showed up and started chatting with JO.

Arash and I hung around and talked with a bunch of the guys, and then ran into Chris Paul’s family at one of the cheaper blackjack tables, playing for fun. I know the most basic rules of blackjack — get 21 without going over — but that’s about it. Doubling down? Splitting? No clue. But Chris’s brother was really well-versed in everything, so we ended up at a table together, along with man who told us he was visiting Vegas from Japan. I cashed in $100 and grabbed a seat, and the three of us started winning, over and over. We all were talking and having fun, and the next thing I knew I was ahead by about $150. I’m well aware it’s not because I’m good at blackjack or anything, but I was just getting lucky. I also tried to use a modicum of common sense. For example, when I lost three or four hands in a row, I’d start doubling my bets because I had to hit sooner or later.

Suddenly, our dealer, a patient woman named Suzanne, told us she was changing tables, and the new dealer was an older woman named Sheryl. And wouldn’t you know it, we all started losing. In her first four or five hands she hit 21 three times. After I lost enough money to get back near where I started, all three of us got up and left, because there appeared to be no luck remaining.

Ten minutes later, Suzanne returned and all three of us jumped back into our seats and started winning again. At this point all of the Team USA players were long gone, leaving assorted family members and friends and agents. I looked over at the table next to us and noticed Sheryl dealing, and one guy with a lot of tattoos sitting at her table looking a little shocked. Someone then pointed out that it was one of the Backstreet Boys sitting there. We warned him that Sheryl was a killer, but he pressed his luck.

Next thing I know I look down and I’m up, way up. So I quit. Suzanne consolidates my chips, I give her a tip and Arash and I start heading out. I walked over to the cashier to cash in and found a few agents I know at the craps table. Wondering if my luck would carry over, I put in a $25 chip and they asked me to roll. They told me not to roll a 7 or an 11, and of course I rolled a 7. Being that Kevin Johnson was one of my favorite players, I’m pretty sure I can’t play a game where 7 is a bad number.

So that was it. I cashed out, and Arash and I caught a cab back down the suddenly deserted Strip over to our hotel. We realized we hadn’t even had dinner yet, which probably explains why I was so, ahem, light-headed. At 4:15 a.m. we sat down at a diner in our hotel and ate a huge breakfast/dinner. I went for steak and eggs, Arash the eggs benedict.

And after my night, I was definitely buying.