The surest thing in Vegas

Dan Wetzel

That Las Vegas should be home to an NBA franchise is almost beyond debate at this point – just some outdated fear of some shadowy characters and point-shaving scandals standing in the way of a city with everything else going for it.

But sports wagering is so prevalent everywhere that the argument has little to no merit. The integrity of the game is far safer in a place with legalized wagering than illegal, the FBI will tell you, because it isn't Steve Wynn who is interested in fixing games. The same can't be said of the eventual boss of your local bookie.

Even NBA commissioner David Stern acknowledges that the gambling issue has all but faded away in an America where everything from river boats to lotteries is part of the local fabric.

So as the NBA All-Star weekend – Sunday's game and all the over-the-top trappings that go with it – descends on Las Vegas, it is a historic and legitimizing moment for the nation's fastest growing city.

It is, in many minds, a tryout for Vegas. Nail this and maybe the Seattle SuperSonics or New Orleans Hornets are coming your way. Show everyone what the city can be and a franchise hangs in the balance.

Only, it shouldn't be viewed like that. For a town that has already proven itself, this shouldn't be some high-stakes dress rehearsal where so many elements out of its control could break bad.

The fear of the weekend for city fathers and local hoop fans is that what some are calling the biggest party ever in Sin City could produce the kind of random yet ugly incident that can give everyone and everything a black eye.

You just never know when large crowds gather. Most likely everyone just has a good time. But it only takes one escalating fight, one wild scene of violence caught on grainy cell-phone video, to make the 24-hour cable loop, and all the goodwill gets buried in bad publicity.

The NBA is used to dealing with a double standard in the national media. When there is an on-court fight, the footage not only overwhelms sports coverage but also the newscasts on CNN and Fox News. The league is branded as full of thugs and punks, and everyone takes a hit.

But when a baseball is gunned at someone's head at 95 miles an hour and an even bigger, even more out of control bench-clearing brawl erupts, it is called "part of the game" and forgotten within a day.

It's the kind of thing that makes Stern's head nearly explode in frustration.

The reasons are open to debate, but only the most naive person wouldn't acknowledge the racial makeup of the league (overwhelmingly black) and intimacy of the players (no hats or helmets, no walls between the crowd and the court) play a part. There is still a segment of America that simply won't tolerate the NBA because of what the players look like.

Too often, media coverage of the league pathetically panders to those people.

So as impossible as it is to predict what might happen in Las Vegas this weekend, you can certainly envision a scene gone bad that will prompt endless media debate about whether the NBA in Vegas is really a good idea after all.

All of which would be ridiculous. What happens this weekend in Vegas should, truly, stay in Vegas.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wondered in his blog if this would be the biggest party the city had ever seen, and as crazy as that sounds at first, it probably will be. All-Star weekend is generally the biggest party any town has ever seen.

"The biggest question is whether All-Star weekend will shut down the city," Cuban wrote. "Complete, absolute gridlock."

All-Star weekend all but stopped Atlanta dead in its tracks in 2003 – the traffic was at a standstill and for a couple hours wireless phone services simply crashed. And that's a city that hosted a Super Bowl and a Summer Olympics. It may happen even in Vegas.

"Atlanta was shut down for the All-Star game, in a certain respect by gridlock and those who came pouring into town to be part of the overall event," Stern said. "It seems like Las Vegas can take it. That said Las Vegas is not an easy place to get around."

But even if the worst case happens, even if on the overcrowded Strip or a packed and heated club there is an incident, it would have nothing to do with the normal days and nights of the city.

It would say nothing about Las Vegas' fitness to house a franchise or the ability of its players to avoid trouble in a metropolitan area that once you get off Las Vegas Boulevard is really more neighborhoods, Little League fields and churches than blackjack, booze and bimbos.

So no matter what happens – good or bad – Las Vegas should remain a perfect place for the relocation of an NBA franchise.

The mayor wants it. There are casinos that would beg to have a state-of-the-art arena on their property. There is corporate (casino) money to buy luxury boxes and a massive local fan base just dying for a big-time sports team to call its own.

Las Vegas is simply a no-brainer for the NBA. Hopefully, some no-brain clown doesn't ruin the party this weekend and create a baseless, over-heated media debate that clouds such a reality.