It is the nature of the place, Las Vegas. With arid desert sprawling in all directions and a grand canyon in one of such magnificence it’s hard to fathom it was created in just one day, the area was discovered to be an oasis centuries ago by Spaniards traveling north from Tejas. The area has always been about survive and advance.
The Vegas of dumbfounding excess, the Vegas that turned the seven deadly sins into a design for glitzkrieg business success, that Vegas the world has come to know is but 50 years old.
Reality is, the town wasn’t founded by Bugsy Siegel, a man somewhat less influential than mythos would portray and significantly less handsome than Warren Beatty. There is one self-evident truth in this place where Liberace in white mink and Elvis in full bloat became icons, in this ever-ever land where historical markers honor Siegfried & Roy: Be it a game of chance, or one of skill, the house has the advantage. Always. Bugsy did know that.
Vegas is a strip where tradition is the next billion-dollar super casino. History wasn’t on the Louisville Cardinals’ side when they landed at Steve Wynn’s latest masterpiece, an eponymously named resort complex with accommodations as sumptuous as any around the globe. Three games in four days wrapped around a turkey dinner was a lot to ask of an unsteady conglomeration of talent shorn of its senior leadership.
The house teases, gives false hope. Win a few bucks at the slots, the player gets cocky, reaches into his wallet for that extra stash needed for diapers and milk back home and heads for the black jack tables.
The red and black opened with the homies, UNLV, at the Thomas & Mack Center, a program and edifice both owing their stature to a wily coyote with sad eyes and a penchant for chewing on towels, deliciously monikered Tark the Shark. Jerry Tarkanian. Like the Cards, whose Old Coach was also swept out the door ignominiously, Tark was not-so-gently asked to abdicate. Unlike the University of Louisville, a perennial national contender again, where the athletic administration treats the Old Coach with two national titles and a Hall of Fame plaque as a pariah, UNLV has never returned to former glory. But Tark is still beloved by the school and had a center court seat of honor at the tournament.
U of L’s short-handed shortcomings were only slightly evident against the home-standing Runnin’ Rebels, a team that shot like they couldn’t drop a bucket down the artesian wells that gave the town its existence. The hall wasn’t nearly full, the rush-hour crowd less than vocal except when the locals took a brief second-half lead. The place thinned out like there was a silent fire drill after the Cards went on a 16-2 rampage.
Cardinals 68, Hometowners 48.
When the team joined several hundred faithful for a mighty tasty Thanksgiving lunch in a not-so-traditional setting, they must have figured they’d be gaming the rest of the weekend on house money. When The Rick admonished his minions to be wary of BYU, many yawned and went for seconds.
They should have taken note that this place is a destination for many of foreign distinction. Asians. Hispanics. Middle Easterners. On both sides of the gambling tables. Vegas the oasis is a melting pot.
That includes a skinheaded scoring assassin named Jonathan Tavernari, a Brazilian who found himself hooping it up during his prep years at Bishop Gorman High School, right there in Vegas. Unlike the Paiutes, whom Brigham Young tried to convert in the 1850s when the native targets of his missionary zeal were still called Indians, Tavernari fell prey to the siren call from Provo. He abdicated the land called “the meadows” to hoop for Brigham Young’s school. He was Mountain West Frosh of the Year last season.
He scorched the depleted but higher-ranked Cards as an exclamation point. At times he looked more like Larry Bird than the city’s many Elvis impersonators do the King, hitting five treys in 11 attempts. At other moments, he was the old guy in the Tuesday Y league, the baller who played for the regional high school champs a decade ago, with the fall-away, one-handed, one-footed push shot off his forehead from the key that fell a lot more than it didn’t. Jonathan Tavernari underscored that the Cards’ zone is still a work in progress.
The Cougars, whose seniors are truly senior thanks to those missionary timeouts, proved that experience often Trumps — in Vegas, that word is capitalized — talent. Tavernari proved a guy who knows his way around the house advantage usually bests the novices who struggle with Vegas’ ways.
Mormons 78, Cardinals 76.
So much for the anticipated match-up with mighty Carolina in a nifty little arena at the Orleans Casino, an especially wretched gambling hall that smells like cotton candy and is to Bourbon Street as the Wynn — where the Cardinal contingent and team stayed — is to Monte Carlo.
No Dickie V. No TV at all.
But here’s to advise that the answer to the eternal query — if the game’s not televised, does it actually exist? — is yes.
Louisville, no longer playing with house money, contested and bested a decent Old Dominion squad Saturday afternoon. Many of the Cardinal not-so-faithful dressed as empty seats, choosing to engage the one-armed bandits back at the casino instead of cheering on their team. DC, E5 and Edgar Sosa displayed signs of maturation. TWill discarded the Nate Johnson persona that took the court against BYU. The Rick had his weary troops double down against the Monarchs.
Cardinals 64, ODU 53.
In a town where such things are of consequence, the exhausted, out-of-focus Cards still covered the spot.
All in all, the Cards, dignity intact, left Vegas tired but ahead, with two gutty wins, a learning experience loss and the unis on their back. As for lessons learned, only upcoming tilts will show whether what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.