Dancing on the Line

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.

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