LAS VEGAS -- Jerry Tarkanian, God bless him, managed a slight smile.
This was all his, really. This remaking of Las Vegas as a basketball capital. Forget UNLV for a moment. Forget the bitter NCAA battles. Forget Vegas' strip clubs, smoky poker rooms and $4.99 rib-eyes. They're playing four conference tournaments (West Coast, WAC, Mountain West, Pac-12) here this week. Four. In the middle of the desert. In Sin City. On purpose.
They're playing them connected to flashy casinos and thriving sports books. What happens in Vegas plays in Vegas. The NCAA's heart may be skipping a beat but -- as you may have heard -- the association has enough on its mind at the moment.
The sport took root here decades ago because of Tarkanian, the Runnin' Rebels' rebellious former coach. His teams were an extension of the town -- bold, flashy and carefree. Just ask "Richie The Fixer." Tark ran the town -- and maybe the game. How many coaches ever won a cash settlement from the NCAA?
The sport is now rooted so deeply that on Wednesday, 5 percent of Division I (16 schools out of 347) tipped off tournament games here in a nine-hour period. And that was just the men's teams.
That was also after FIBA, the U.S. Olympic team, the NBA summer league and the AAU have anchored basketball events in this city. At lunch time in the middle of this week, Tark's old team played Air Force in a Mountain West quarterfinal. There was a traffic jam. The likes of Pat Riley and Danny Ainge watched. Sitting silently at one end of Thomas and Mack was the 82-year-old master of what he had created in this city.
"We love Jerry Tarkanian," Pac-12 analyst Bill Walton said. "Jerry Tarkanian not being in the Hall of Fame is one of the horrible tragedies [of the game]."Another argument for another time. Tark's place in this week's history is assured. The Mountain West is here for the 11th time in the 14 years of its existence. The West Coast Conference decided its champion Monday at the same place the WAC will later this week -- at the Orleans Arena, next door to the Orleans Hotel and Casino. The Pac-12 is here for the first time, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
When the alternatives are Carrot Top, drag queens and Cirque du Soleil, basketball is a wholesome must-see.
"I think it needs to stay here for the next 100 years," UCLA's Ben Howland said of the Pac-12 tournament, which moved after a series of disinterested years at Los Angeles' Staples Center.
"This ticket for the Pac-12 tournament three years from now will be one of the hardest tickets in the country to get."
There are few issues for coaches coming here. They recruit in Vegas each July at various AAU tournaments. They recruit to their teams with the lure of a trip to Las Vegas. Howland's best player, Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Shabazz Muhammad, hails from nearby national prep power Bishop Gorman.
"It's like going to New York City for so many people when I was in the Big East," Howland said. "Everybody wants to go to Vegas."
Everybody except the NCAA. The association will keep its championships in all sports away from the state of Nevada -- including the NCAA men's basketball tournament -- as long as sports wagering is legal. The NCAA continues to fight the battle in other states that have or are considering legalizing sports betting. Its basketball committee once tried to strong-arm news outlets that published betting lines by withholding tournament credentials. That lasted about as long as it took to say "common sense."
Overall, the NCAA's gambling stance is laudable except that any gaming expert will tell you this is the place where the games are least likely to be corrupted. The NCAA works closely with the sports books and the FBI and other law enforcement to monitor impropriety. It's in everyone's best interest. Even a tiny move in the line can invite scrutiny. Scrutiny calls Vegas' rep into question. No one here wants that.Whatever negative connotation of Las Vegas is left doesn't taint college basketball, "because we're evolving," Howland said. "I don't know why [people] had that negative connotation of Las Vegas before. It's a city of gambling. One thing that always stresses out the NCAA is the potential for gambling and game fixing."
Especially in a city just off kilter enough to advertise a shooting range for machine guns and indoor skydiving.
"Obviously the integrity of the games is first and foremost to the NCAA," said Judy Patterson, executive director of the American Gaming Association. "We think that both parties [NCAA and Nevada] are doing a good job. When's the last time you heard of a big sports betting scandal? Big sports books are working with the NCAA."
In a week, those sports books will be brimming with fans betting the first week of the NCAA tournament. That first four days of tournament play (Thursday through Sunday) far outstrips the betting interest in the Super Bowl. There are a handful of places in the country where nut job hoops fans/gamblers can watch all the games in one place.
Call it the ultimate man cave.
"Standing room only," said Brad Goodwill, a supervisor at The Venetian's Race and Sports Book. "Guys hanging out of chairs."
Philadelphia 76ers scout Mike Vandegarde brought his team family here on Saturday while he worked. By the time he leaves on Thursday, he will have seen two dozen teams -- and had a hell of a time.
"We travel so much," he said of scouts. "Nobody wants to get on a plane and fly and watch four games in a day and then fly somewhere else. Plus, Las Vegas is easy to get to from virtually anywhere in the country. It's perfect from a scouting perspective."
"There are certainly concerns [about gambling]," he added. "But I think the world has evolved in the last 15-20 years, that Vegas isn't the Sin City everybody kind of thought it was. And the world has changed. The world is more open, the world is more accepting."It's still a bit disconcerting to see Pac-12 athletes matriculating through the MGM Grand Casino. But it's also refreshing to see fans and cheerleaders along with them. The legal gambling age is 21 for everyone from the starting point guard to the walk-on at the end of the bench.
"The main concern from administrators is that your players are safe and protected," said Stanford AD Bernard Muir, who worked at the NCAA for eight years. "We're on this great stage."
The veteran this week, the Mountain West, might be the best-kept conference tournament secret in the country. The Palace that Tark built -- Thomas and Mack Center -- fielded an especially competitive field this year. There is depth, there is talent, there is beer in an on-campus facility. New Mexico, the class of the league, actually outdrew UNLV in its Wednesday quarterfinal game.
"That's part of the draw of Las Vegas," Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said. "You're here to watch your team win but if they lose you go, 'Hey, wait a minute, I'm in Las Vegas until Sunday. I've got golf, and the shows and gaming and food. What the hell, I wish I could go to another game but ..."
After playing for three years in Denver, the Mountain West has been here since 2007. The league goes to extremes to promote neutrality on the Rebels' home floor. The so-called "Gucci Row" -- floor seats for high-rolling UNLV fans -- has been eliminated. The league added a bit of class, purchasing the women's Final Four floor that was used in Denver for $85,000.
Neutrality goes all the way down to the wood -- knotless, according to tournament manager Dan Butterly. UNLV doesn't know the dead spots because there aren't any.
"I understand the NCAA doesn't want to bring tournaments to sports books but as more and more teams come into the market who knows how big this can become," Butterly said.
The city has at least four arenas able to host basketball. With the Pac-12 here, the MGM Grand Garden Arena looks like it could be plopped down on any campus in the country. MGM and stadium giant AEG recently announced plans for a 20,000-seat arena near The Strip. That would put Vegas in line not only to become an NCAA first-round site but also able to host a regional.
If the NCAA ever changed its stance.
"I'm sure it will happen," said Ainge, the Celtics president of basketball operations in town scouting this week.
"Anything involving gambling and the NCAA there should be concerns," Vandegarde said.
"I can't comment on that," Muir said.
That we're even having this conversation should be a reason for an octogenarian in the front row to flash a slight smile.