LAS VEGAS – Beyond the Palms casino floor, in the booths of the 24-Seven Cafe, Gavin and Joe Maloof were selling the NBA All-Star weekend again. There were no rooms and courtside seats were running $30,000 a ticket, but still they were pushing to get a hotel guest to consider a return trip to the Strip.
Just then, a half-smile was strutting across the lips of Derek Jeter.
"We've got all the players staying here," Gavin said, and soon Jeter's face was brightening, laughing, considering for a fleeting moment the scene that the owners of the Sacramento Kings and Palms constructed for him.
"When is it again?" Jeter said before catching himself and beginning to shake his head side to side.
"No. … No. … No," Jeter declined, backpedaling so that there would be no misunderstanding him. Too close to the start of spring training in Tampa, he said a little over a week ago.
"This trip is it for me."
Everyone knows what's coming between now and Sunday night's NBA All-Star game at UNLV's Thomas and Mack Center: downright dizzying days of debauchery. So, around the Maloofs recently at their casino restaurant, there were NBA games flickering on the screens mounted on the restaurant walls, the ding-ding-ding of the slots singing in the distance.
"Vegas is used to big events, but I don't know it's ever seen an event like this," Gavin said, twirling a fork full of pasta.
This is going to be some wild scene in Vegas, beginning and ending at the Palms, where the Maloofs are hosting the NBA's players and a fair share of the parties. Around the Strip, there's the Dwyane Wade-Jamie Foxx party and Tracy McGrady-P. Diddy bash – an endless backdrop of excess for All-Star Weekend that has inspired Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to ask in his blog: "The biggest question is whether All-Star weekend will shut down the city. … Complete, absolute gridlock."
Bring it on, the Maloofs say. This promises to be a party of historical proportions, the most expensive ticket in the history of, well, tickets. The Maloofs are the de facto hosts. This is their town, their league and, in a lot of ways, their weekend.
Five years ago, the Maloofs were driving together in Vegas when they started talking about the idea of holding the All-Star game here. Joe called NBA commissioner David Stern on his cell phone, told him the idea and waited for a response. Only, there was nothing. Just silence. They knew where Stern stood on the NBA and Las Vegas: Until the league's games were no longer available to gamblers on the sports books, the league wouldn't consider the city for a team.
After the long pause that day, Stern told the Maloofs, "Let me get back to you guys," and eventually that started everything on the way to an All-Star weekend that begins on Wednesday when Stern visits Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman's office. It is there that Stern will listen to a pitch from Goodman, an ex-mob lawyer, on why the NBA should trust his city with a franchise.
"I'm going to sit down with the commissioner and have a real serious conversation about sports betting," Goodman said. "We are going to show the NBA that Las Vegas is a natural for them."
Before boarding a jet for Vegas on Tuesday, Stern no longer clung to his absolutes of the past. Now he's saying the NBA and Las Vegas are an issue for the league's Board of Governors, that no longer would the public's access to betting on league games at the city's sports books cause him to restrain his nod for an NBA team here – as long as his owners agreed to it.
For the first time, it seemed, Stern welcomed the prospects of entering into a negotiation with Las Vegas.
"I guess it's fair to say that I don't want this reflecting on me as Horatio at the Bridge, that I'm saying we're slaying the gambling dragon," Stern said in a phone interview. "That's not the way we feel. We've traveled to Europe with Mayor Goodman, done business with the convention bureau in Vegas. It would be good if they eliminated our games from the book and then we could have that next conversation."
"But if Mayor Goodman has something to tell me in our meeting, some ideas, I'll be there to listen. … (Ultimately), if there is a discussion to be had, the Board of Governors will put it on the agenda (in April)."
Goodman will tell Stern about the five "substantial" investment groups that, he says, have talked to him about privately funding a new arena. He'll tell him about one of the fastest-growing population bases (1.9 million in the city and surrounding valley) in the west and about the ability to pack luxury boxes and attract corporate sponsorships to bring the NBA here.
As far as ownerships' concern about the NBA games staying on the books, Cuban wrote in an e-mail, "No one has ever explained to me why being on the books is a problem. Until then, I have no problem with it."
As much as anyone now, the sports face of Vegas happens to be the Maloof brothers. When athletes like Jeter come to Vegas, they mostly hang at the Palms, which now houses Hugh Heffner's Playboy Club on the 52nd floor. Stern trusts them, and that's a lot of the reason this All-Star game found its way to Las Vegas. The Maloofs happen to be two of the commissioner's favorite owners.
Together, they have a history in the league, what with their late father George owning the Houston Rockets in the 1980s. Joe, 51, and Gavin, 50, turned the Kings, one of the pitiful franchises, into a model basketball and business enterprise. They've done for the Kings what Cuban has done for the Mavericks. The Maloofs constructed a championship contender, with a league-best sellout streak approaching 350 games in one of the league's smallest markets.
Yet, negotiations with Sacramento and the state of California about a new building became so acrimonious that the Maloofs invited the commissioner's office to come and take over the discussions. Stern calls the Kings "one of the great success stories" in his league and wants no part of letting the NBA crumble in that market because of an arena issue. The debate has gone on seven years now with no resolution.
Anaheim has been discussed as a possible destination for the Maloofs, especially considering their foray into the movie and music industries. Nevertheless, they've investigated an endless stream of public and private financing plans and locations for a new arena in Sacramento. They have one of the best NBA fan bases in the sport, and no one – not Stern, nor the Maloofs – appear willing to walk away too easily from it.
"There's not much more time," Joe Maloof said. "We don't want to put a deadline on it. When you put deadlines on something, you get people anxious and nervous. But time is starting to run out because the building (Arco Arena) is getting old. It's almost physically impossible to play there anymore."
So the question forever lingers: Are the Kings ultimately destined for Las Vegas?
"We are committed to Sacramento," Gavin said.
When it was suggested that it would seem odd for anyone but the Maloofs to own an eventual NBA team in Vegas, Gavin said: "We'd like to own a team here, but not basketball. Maybe baseball or hockey. We'd love to own a team, but just not basketball. It should be us (with the NBA). You're right.
"But we're set in Sacramento."
Said Goodman: "I've never had a discussion with the Maloofs about the Kings, and I'm never going to let Las Vegas be used as a pawn for another city. But the bottom line is that the Maloofs are Las Vegas guys, great for the city and would be a natural (as owners). But we've never had a discussion with them about moving the Kings."
When reached by phone Tuesday afternoon and told of Stern's softening on Vegas as an NBA destination, Gavin Maloof said, "I've spoken to owners on this, and I don't think there's any objection to Las Vegas. We haven't gotten to the point of talking about taking the sport off the book here, but they've always been positive toward Vegas."
What's more, he said recently, "When (Stern) and the NBA owners see this game and what sports can do for the city, it's going to open a lot of eyes. We've always been a big proponent for one of the big four sports in Vegas. There's a need for it. We like to say that Vegas has everything, but yet it has nothing. If you don't have a sport or team, you have nothing. For the locals, how many times can you go to a Mystere and all these shows? We need a sport."
So here comes the NBA to Las Vegas for All-Star weekend, all gridlock and parties and wall-to-wall humanity. There are no more rooms and no tickets available at the Palms, but there are restaurants and booze and gambling all the way through Sunday night. This was the weekend the Maloofs imagined for the sport, a vision that they sold on the commissioner, sold on the NBA.
Sooner or later, someone will probably own an NBA franchise in Las Vegas. Maybe the Maloofs, maybe not. After this weekend on the Strip, you wonder who will be left to stand in the way.