LAS VEGAS - If you've never been to Las Vegas - which I hadn't prior to this trip - I'll do my best at this time to inspire visuals of a city that creates a sensory overload. It's a place second to none in terms of people watching and the bright lights, special effects and infrastructure in general beg the question, "How in the hell did this all get out here?" It's in the middle of the Nevada desert, surrounded by mountains that keep the rain out and the heat in, yet people flock here in droves, most with the same goals in mind. It reeks of debauchery, crime and debt, and, depending on where you find yourself, the smell of despair, loneliness and hopelessness is prevalent in the slot machine chairs. It's a place to lose yourself in both the best and worst ways...
...but holy crap is it fun while it lasts!
I had never gambled before. In fact it was something I'd been wildly against (personally, at least - you can do you, it's all good) ever since I lost $40 of my parents' money while playing online poker and betting on sports in college. (Sorry Mom and Dad....just $40, I swear. I love y'all.) But I mean, it's Vegas, right? It has to be done.
I stayed away from the slots in the airport (like RIGHT when you get off the plane), but that was easier than not buying an Ed Hardy shirt. After making the terrible, money-bleeding decision to rent a car and then returning it the next day because it was the worst and then finding myself at the mercy of cab drivers and rides from those who drove to Vegas from California, it was time to watch some basketball.
San Antonio played the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday night in kind of a fun reunion with new Hawks GM Danny Ferry. Ferry, Popovich and Co. were all in attendance and sitting near one another for the beginning of the Kawhi Leonard test-drive experience. And how fun has that been, by the way? Just give Leonard the keys to the LeBron-role-playing convertible and let him run the show. Other teams' writers/bloggers are wrestling with the "this is very entertaining, but why the hell is he here, but thank goodness he's here because Summer League is boring without star power, but still I hate the Spurs" idea, but I'm fairly certain none of them believe this event is better off without him. Besides, if you're getting worked up over results or who's playing at Summer League, your life is in the wrong place and Vegas is most likely no place for you.
Still, the important part of the day had not yet arrived. The gambling would take place at a low-end casino called Terrible's. Blackjack seemed easy enough, though I realized I wasn't fully aware of the strategy and particular percentages so it took me a little while to acclimate to my surroundings, which means I lost. Like, everything I had cashed out. It's OK though, as I did not blow through my budget for the evening. Dealers can be cold people, apparently. Not much conversation, the dialogue that actually exists is difficult to understand at times and, oh yeah, they TAKE YOUR F***ING MONEY! So when one of them by the name of Jeffrey stepped up in relief and actually helped me with what I was doing, I was smitten. I would not accept him leaving, nor would the rest of the Spurs media. I lost my money, but it was an enjoyable learning experience, one that would set me up for the week ahead.
The Spurs had an off day on Monday. It was kind of strange seeing how several other teams had already played multiple games and San Antonio was just starting, but there are (I believe) 24 squads out here with only two arenas in which to play, so I get it. The highlight of that day basketball-wise was the practice I recapped in Tuesday's piece. The relaxed state players, coaches, team personnel and writers seem to be constantly reveling in is a refreshing change from the often stressful NBA season. Friendly Pop is a wonderful, wonderful thing. I sometimes wonder what it's like to be that guy. To be someone who is as feared as he is loved, to live a life where everyone around you wants to talk to you, but much of the time can't seem to find the words. But here he is, watching Jacque Vaughn coach his team (well, his "team") from a high corner of the gym surrounded by his most trusted henchmen. His beard, shorts and T-shirt reveal a casual side to him I imagine he wants few to see. After all, if you see him like this too much you lose the fear. To lose the fear of Pop is akin to assisting in your own dark-alley murder. Respect him, fear him, because we'll always have Paris, right? I guess more appropriately, what happens in Vegas ... well, you know the rest. The beard, the shorts, the ever-present smile, just leave it here.
The experience of the trip thus far occurred at Fogo de Chão. It is simply the most gluttonous, most ridiculous dinner setting you'll ever come across. It's also a fun thing to say: "Fogo de Chau..." but I digress. As I approached the lavish display of four spits of expensive meats rotating around an open flame in a glass display near the entrance, I thought to myself, "Welp, I like red meat."
But this was absurd.
The ambiance is great and the smell emanating from the depths of the restaurant is enough to seep into your nose and lift your feet from the ground. Your spot at the table comes with a couple of plates and a circular card with one side colored red and the other green. "Red" means "no meat, please" while "green" means "bring me meat." The second your card is flipped to the green side, a parade of dudes dressed like Aladdin surround your table with what look like fancy pitchforks holding racks of anything from bacon-wrapped prime rib to Parmesan-covered chicken. It was amazing for about 15 minutes as the Ali Baba lookalikes refused to end the meat parade of delicious cuts you just pulled off their knife with a pair of tongs, but after roughly 18 pounds of cow enters the body it begins to feel uncomfortable. The salad that preceded the dinner meant nothing, and the ten of us creating an instant cholesterol problem for ourselves requested wheelbarrows to remove us from the establishment.
And they didn't have to wheel us far as we returned to the site of the previous night's gambling. But this time I was ready, though Jeffrey was nowhere to be found around the Blackjack tables at Terrible's... at least for a while. But just as I found myself in position to have a winning night, Jeffrey came through to replace Cang (I think that was her name. Damn Heineken). But this night wouldn't be so enjoyable with the friendly dealer. He proceeded to clean me out over the course of about 30 minutes and what felt like about 10 straight hands where I failed to win. It was a disaster and Jeffrey was no longer my friend. See, gambling ruins friendships just as it creates them.
The following night's SB Nation house held a much lower-key poker game in which no money was involved. It was a blogger kind of poker game. But it was needed. The bright lights and opulence of this city can be unbearable at times just as they can be wonderful and mesmerizing. The fountains at the Bellagio and the Luxor's light visible from space exist because people spent their hard-earned money here. It's a result of the people of this country, which is what's both wrong and so great about the freedom we all enjoy.
It's America at its finest. Well, it's America, at least.
Part 2 coming up later in the week...hope y'all enjoyed.