NCAA Madness & Hope in Las Vegas
This story has nothing to do with fear and loathing and everything to do with hope. This is a tale about heavenly light in the dark depths of a starless night, glimmers of triumph in the face of certain soul-snapping failure, and rising from the ashes of financial destruction to cover a nine-point spread in double-overtime. It’s about booze-soaked, cigarette-stained faith in the underdog, about risk and reward and having irrational confidence in the latter. It’s about young athletes with nothing to lose and everything to gain. This is a story about college basketball in the month of March and the madness that it brings to the Nevada desert town with a name that jumps so sweetly off your lips : Las Vegas.
Two years ago a strange man with thick glasses and an expensive watch told me on an airplane that the singular most impressive event on the Las Vegas calendar was the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — specifically the first two rounds of games when 65 teams from around the country do battle, with only the “sweetest” 16 teams left standing a short four days later. On Thursday, March 16, at 7 a.m., sucking the eye-popping, delicious, oxygen-charged air of the MGM Grand Casino, the rumors become real to me. With more than two hours until tip-off of the first game, the sports book at the MGM is absolutely packed. Men of all shapes and sizes jockey beneath the warm glow of 36 big-screen televisions clutching odds sheets and early-morning cocktails, all of them speculating on the unpredictable. The line to place a bet is more than 100 dudes deep and takes nearly 30 minutes to navigate despite the fact that 18 windows are open for business — middle-aged millionaires, slick-haired Guidos in sweat suits, and spring-breaking college kids all trading stacks of cash for tickets of hope. Armed with “inside information” and buoyed by a hunch, people lay down more and more money on underdogs; the jumbotron screen of teams and their respective odds shuffles every so often, offering slight tweaks in the lines, ensuring that the casino remains the ultimate winner.
You need to be fluent in sports-betting speak to have any chance of winning in this gamble, and things like parlays and money lines and over/unders clog my mind as I approach window number 8. Thinking to myself, “I’m psychic, I have good luck, I watch ESPN, I read three sports pages a day, sports radio kept me company on the long drive through the Mojave last night. I’m ready. I’m invincible,” I lay down an array of bets, taking mostly underdogs. After all, this is March, the season when underdog teams show up to the ball, à la Cinderella. I tell myself that my picks are sure things and my gut agrees. The buzz I get as the cashier hands me my ticket stubs is distinct and electrifying. “Good luck,” she smiles, and I realize the days’ schedule of 16 games has just become a whole lot more interesting.
Hoop Dreams“It is an absolute blur from Thursday morning to Sunday night. Without a doubt it is Las Vegas as good as it gets,” said Robert Walker, the director of the race and sports book at the MGM and the Mirage as well as 11 other books off the Strip; his opinion is not one to be taken lightly. He is the proverbial odds maker, the cold calculating mind behind the ever-important betting lines that, while they don’t determine who wins the game, decide who wins the money. “It is my favorite time of year. Everyone always thinks Super Bowl, Super Bowl, but the first weekend of the NCAA has definitely surpassed that in terms of bodies and action in the casino,” said a noticeably excited Walker just before the first game of the Sweet 16. “It is just plain contagious.”
Contagious is a gross understatement for the atmosphere in the Mirage sports book Thursday afternoon. Having been royally screwed in the first half of the day’s action, I decide to change venues — and in turn change my luck — relocating down the Strip to the Mirage. Armed with free drink tickets given out for bets placed, the crowd is well lubricated and loud. Dozens of television screens show the games, as a surprisingly evenly balanced male-to-female crowd stares toward the hoop heavens; their hopes and financial futures ebbing and flowing with the tempo of the games. My sweaty fist grips the remaining bet stubs in my pocket with nervous optimism. A horrifically close game between North Carolina-Wilmington and George Washington was coming down to the final minutes and if GW can pull it out by more than two points I stand to make enough money that my morning failures would no longer matter.
A bucket of cold Coronas appears on the table in front of me just as GW takes the lead by one. But before I can even take a sip, NC-Wilmington is back on top. It goes on like this for the final three minutes, with hundreds of people screaming and yelling for their respective teams as the score dances back and forth in a jitterbug of 3-pointers and high-tension foul shots. Just as the final buzzer sounded, GW, which was at one time down by 18 points, ties it up and sends the game into overtime. Jumping up and down, spilling beer on strangers, and waving my ticket stub in the air, I can taste redemption. A short, round Indian man standing next to me pushes at my shoulder, “Dis basketball, dis basketball iz fucking crazy!” he screams at me wild-eyed and frantic. I notice a Mirage stub in his hand and ask him who he picked, “The GW! The GW!” he answers excitedly in between sips of some sort of vodka drink. I point out the +2.5 on his ticket and explain that “the GW” must win by at least 3 for him — and me — to finish in the money. His eyes go wide and his face flattens for a quick moment while the news settles in. “Then we need offense in dis dance around the line eh?” And offense is precisely what happens in the five-minute overtime and when the immortal Carl Elliot hits a free throw with 10 seconds left, the deal is done. After 18 lead changes and 10 ties, GW is a three-point victor and I have my first win of the tournament. Like a dog in a hen house tasting blood for the first time, I am blissfully ruined.
The next three days are, as Walker promised, “an absolute blur.” The games begin early and end around nightfall with the entire day a wild ride of buzzer beaters, hard fouls, missed shots, and free drinks. Tickets stubs and odds sheets clutter my hotel room floor and fill my pockets. I am haunted by close games lost and upsets overlooked. I have long since hidden my ATM card from myself, swearing to never again let some no-name school from the Bible Belt simultaneously break my wallet and my heart.
Sunday morning I am slumped in a chair in Leroy’s Sportsbook, deep in the bowels of the Tropicana Casino, facing a daunting, traffic-riddled, five-hour drive back to Santa Barbara. A far cry from the glitz and glamour of the MGM and the Mirage, Leroy’s has a plastic atmosphere like an out-of-date bus station in a small town and is a perfect match for my mood. But still hope remains. There is a slate of afternoon games left — all of them with enticing odds and amicable underdogs — and a simple three-team $20 parlay would pay a much needed $140. Eyeing the line of eager gamblers that snakes out the door, a deeper truth washes over me: There is no such thing as luck in Las Vegas. All there is is bright lights, booze, bookies, bets, and — for 14 wild days in March — a college basketball tournament that is chock-full of that quintessential Vegas ingredient: hope. Reborn by this realization, I stand up, finish my cup of coffee, and reach for my wallet. After all, this is March — Cinderella’s favorite time of year to dance.