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Embracing the (March) Madness, Vegas-style

Stacy J. Willis on pick and rolls, $500 chairs and the sadistic math problem that is the NCAA Tournament

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March Madness in Las Vegas is a colorful mess of beer, strangers and high-fives.
Photo: Danny Hellman
Stacy J. Willis

Harvard. Really? Didn’t the 1-percent glean anything from the shifting tone of political opinion? Isn’t it enough that they’ll all earn seven figures? Isn’t it enough that their dropouts will run mega tech companies? Did they have to weasel in on the hardwood, too?

I’d planned to rise before daybreak to get a good seat for the Duke game on Day 2 of the fullest two days of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. But after Harvard knocked out New Mexico on Day 1 (last Thursday), ruining my bracket and my faith in the common man and the social concept of equal playing fields, f*ck Duke. Enough of the privileged! My shattered bracket has now become a vehicle for a completely nonsensical political agenda. May my Arizona Wildcats crush the Harvard Crimson and avenge the middle-class desert-Southwest state universities. It’s as good a plan as any, if bitter and ignorant. It’s at least as good as picking by rank (see No. 14 LaSalle over No. 4 Kansas State); and just a touch more rational than picking by mascot, (see Syracuse’s Otto the Orange over Montana’s Grizzlies).

This whole ordeal, known to millions of others as fun, began on Thursday morning when I decided to embed with the mad in March Madness, Vegas-style, at some the city’s best sports books and viewing parties.

I arrive at the fan-favorite LVH (it’ll always be the Hilton to me!), aka “Hoops Central” at 8:30 a.m, which, it turns out, was Mistake No. 1—8:30 a.m. is way too late for a tournament that tips off at 9:15 a.m. The place is packed. There’s a thousand-mile line at the sports book, unless you want to bet on greyhounds or horses. Everyone I bump into and everyone I throw an elbow at is wearing one or more of these garments: cargo shorts, ball cap, sports jersey.

A would-be bettor assures me the line’s moving; he’s only been there 20 minutes and has nudged forward a good five feet. I decide it won’t hurt my luck to wager later, given that I filled out my bracket based on loyalties, my mood and maybe a dash of astrology. Plus, I read online that the odds of getting the whole bracket right are 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808. So there’ll be time for crumpling up perfectly good $20 bills and tossing them into the fire once I find a seat.

Turns out, finding an empty seat is an end-of-the-rainbow proposition. I wish I’d brought my camping chair, or one of those little fold-up stools that golf fans sometimes carry. There’s nothing.

So I head through the casino to the 1,500-seat LVH theater, which every year is converted into a giant game-watching party. I find a seat in the second-from-the-back row next to a single old man who smells like cigarettes and coffee. It’s 15 minutes before the Michigan State vs. Valparaiso game. Hi. Hi. Spartans? Yeah. Yep. Good enough. I sit down.

Here’s the conversation behind me:

Guy: “I’m ready to party today, man.”

Girl: “Sh*t, I left it in my pants.”

Silent but palpable confusion.

Guy, finally: “I’ll give you something to stick in your pants!”

Girl: “No, asshole. My lucky penny. I left it in my jeans!”

(On second thought, maybe Harvard should win, further merging education and sports?)

So 9:15 can’t come fast enough. And it does ... but not before a DJ and video crew try to get 1,500 people—people carrying hot dogs and beer and/or coffee, people climbing over theater seats back to their buddies, people laughing and arguing odds and talking smack—to do a well-orchestrated Harlem Shake.

A full 50 percent of people seem to cooperate; another 30 are oblivious; the other 20 actively ignore the plan. Still, they gave it a shot. (Check out “LVH Hoops Central Harlem Shake” on YouTube. I’m the one in the back, thinking it’s about time for a beer.)

In truth, a $4 can of beer does brighten my outlook. That, and Michigan State is winning, as it should. I wander back to the sports book, which I like a lot better than the theater. It just seems more Vegas, and thus more homey, to see the red and green odds board between the TV screens, and feel the timeless presence of horse and dog races on the smaller screens.

I’m ready to bet. I hone in on the middle of the line and see a perfect opportunity for a pick and roll that’ll let me drive the lane toward the wagering window. My unknowing teammate takes his stand and I make my move to cut in—but sh*t! These guys are good!—I’m boxed out. I have to pass and regroup.

I ask a guy further back how long he’s been there:

“Twenty or 30 minutes. Not long.” I love a fan with a positive perspective.

Still put off by standing in that line, I make friends with a gentleman named Ken from Pennsylvania who has a mighty comfy leather chair in the sports book. He’s yawning. I see an opportunity. I ask him what time he got here in order to secure such prime real estate.

“3:30 a.m.”

“Are you kidding? Wow. You must be exhausted, and ... perhaps ... ready for a nap?”

“Nope,” he says, grimacing as Butler heads for the foul line against Bucknell on the big screen. “But I’ll sell you this chair for $500.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“How about $20?”

He guffaws, then pounds his fist on his thigh when Butler makes the shot. I decide to back away. Then I realize I can’t remember whether I picked Butler or Bucknell. I start digging through my folder of Important March Madness Papers looking for my bracket. I’ve got the “Hoops Central Survival Guide,” which I could’ve used last night while poorly planning this affair, a bunch of odds sheets and proposition sheets, but I’ve lost my freakin’ bracket. Vexed, I text my girlfriend, who submitted a copy of it in her office pool along with $10 we’ll never see again.

“Did I pick Butler or Bucknell?”

“Butler. :)”

Smiley-face emoticon indeed. I’m on a roll. A two-game roll.

To reorient you about my basketball knowledge, betting experience and general acuity, let me say this: I bet on Akron to beat VCU. I still don’t know what VCU stands for. I only know that Akron is a city in Ohio that sounds like it could use a win. Akron lost 88-42, which for about an hour was the largest margin in NCAA Tournament history, until Syracuse slaughtered Montana, 81-34.

For the relatively unindoctrinated such as myself, the millions of ways to bet on tournament games seem like a sadistic way of mucking up good, clean fun with math. And how can I have lived in Las Vegas for more than a decade and not understand parlays? It’s a mystery, but you have to accept some things and just move on, so I peruse the proposition sheets: “Will a Number Two Seed win the NCCA Tournament?” Followed by odds: “YES +450; NO -600.” It seems simple enough, but my innate outlook on life tells me it’s really a trick; a combination word problem/election ballot question complicated by implied stats and topped with odds, which I have made a life of misunderstanding and avoiding.

So I stick to simple bets that I make up myself, like, “Will the University of Arizona (my alma mater) and UNLV (my adopted home team) make it to the championship game?” Yes. Yes they will. Because I will wish very hard for it. I place $10 bets on each to win their first-round games. Easy schmeazy.

After bonding with some bucket-of-beer-sharing guys wearing Wildcats jerseys at LVH, I decide it’s time to check out some other parties. I spend the rest of the afternoon of Day 1 joyously hopping between Downtown casinos—the Plaza’s new sports book is a little too bright and airy for my taste; Binion’s was virtually empty. My favorite spot is the D’s Long Bar, where a few radio guys broadcast live and a good mix of out-of-towners and locals, young and old, male and female cheer and jeer with the kind of high-fiving fellowship sports are all about. Also, I lost no bets during this time.

When a friend picked me up and we headed to the Red Rock Casino for my two pivotal games—UNLV vs. Cal and U of A vs. Belmont, the buzz began to wear off. In fact, the day quickly went to hell.

Let me summarize so as not to evoke PTSD for other Rebels fans: UNLV sucked. A casino full of other locals groaned in unison throughout the excruciating stop-n-go, foul-n-shoot agony of the final few minutes, and we lost in the first round. Again.

I hate basketball.

Day 2 begins with Duke walking over Albany, and a series of other games that are meaningless to me now, as are my political leanings, astrology and the word “quinella.” My girlfriend and I hit the South Point party in the hotel’s Grand Ballroom, where the entire crowd—several hundred at least—is sitting around circular banquet tables (with tablecloths!) watching big-screens and eating from a buffet that features squares of pepperoni pizza in silver warming dishes. A few games of beer pong are underway and one guy is asleep with his head on the table. It’s festive, but for me, a dark sports book is a better scene.

So we head to Caesars. It’s mobbed, dark and loud, the way I imagine these things should be. Half the crowd is in sports jerseys, half is dressed for a night on the town and the whole place has that smoky, grit-glam allure of old-school gambling while still being March mad.

Anyway, we make a go of it—eventually finding seats embedded in the part frat-house, part nightclub, part wise-guy atmosphere. We cheer (at everything!). We jeer (at that over-played commercial about the blind date having a mustache!). We drink (very little at these prices!). We high-five (just because!), and Charles Barkley embeds his voice in my brain for the rest of eternity (how many endorsement deals can one pro-turned commentator get?!).

All said and done, I’m sure we spent more than we won, but then, the tournament’s not over yet. Go Wildcats.

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