NBA SPECIAL: What happens in Vegas … reported right here



David Cassilo

As I gazed out the window on my flight to the NBA All-Star Game, all I could see was darkness. I figured we were over some clouds or too high up to see the ground, but soon, a bright light in the distance proved me wrong. The plane approached the brightness, and the spot grew until it looked as though it were an island of light surrounded by the darkness of the desert. It sparkled and glowed like tinsel on a Christmas tree, and all I could do I was stare in awe. “Is this Las Vegas?” I asked the passenger next to me. When he replied yes, only one word bounced around in my head until the plane landed: Wow.

I had arrived in Las Vegas, and it was time for the best weekend of my life. I stayed at the Bellagio with my dad, but with all the traffic due to the busiest weekend of the city’s year, it was almost an hour before we reached the hotel. This gave me plenty of time to gaze in amazement at the sights around me. On the drive down the strip, we passed replicas of the Sphinx, Statue of Liberty and Eiffel Tower. There were the various casinos, including the New York-New York, Monte Carlo and Taj Mahal. The city felt like a combination of a museum, a casino and an amusement park, creating an exciting atmosphere.

Finally, we arrived at the Bellagio or, as most young people know it, the casino that was robbed in the film “Ocean’s 11.” Just standing in the lobby would have been a great trip in itself. There was a statue of an elephant made of diamonds in the middle of the room and thousands of tourists taking pictures around it. To get to our room, you had to walk through the casino, which is clearly a well thought out strategy from the Bellagio owners to entice people to gamble immediately. The lights were flashing, people were screaming with joy and disappointment and the slot machines could be heard unceasingly. The casino was everything you could imagine and then some.

During the walk, I had my first celebrity sighting. I spotted current NBA player Eddie Jones and former NBA player Charles Oakley, on the blackjack tables. Jones, who was clearly enjoying the various forms of gambling and drinks offered to guests over 21, posed for pictures with a collection of young women. Oakley, on the other hand, was focused on his gambling. It was a sight that would not change much over the weekend; from what I saw, I would say that Charles Oakley spent about 90 percent of his time gambling, and yes, I include time spent sleeping in this number. However, from the expression on his face, I assume it was not time well spent. I apologize for that play on words; I couldn’t help it.

After a quick dinner and another walk downstairs, it was time for sleep, considering it was already 5:00 a.m. Philadelphia time. With a full day ahead of me on Saturday, I would have more time to explore the city and track down these celebrities.

The day started with disappointment as I watched Villanova lose to Georgetown. On the positive side, the game was on at 9 a.m. in Las Vegas, so I still had the whole day left. This was one of the numerous things I enjoyed about the West Coast. I took a walk down to the ESPN Zone at the New York-New York for lunch. The place was swarming with NBA fans, and I soon learned that NBA legends Bill Walton, Spud Webb and Willis Reed were there. Walton was the most charismatic of the group, and when he wasn’t signing autographs, he was joking around with the fans. Soon they left, and after a bite to eat, I returned to the hotel before my dad and I went to NBA All-Star Saturday.

We made sure we arrived early because, in a crazy turn of events, we had frontrow seats to the competition. I saw every star NBA player from the last 50 years just two feet in front of me. They were all there, from Kobe Bryant, to Magic Johnson, to LeBron James, to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I feel bad leaving out all the names of players and celebrities I saw that night, but the list would take up every word of this article. Despite this, I would be leaving out a major part of the night if I did not mention who I met next. It was one of those moments when you almost have to do a double take to make sure your eyes didn’t fool you. But they were correct, and just two rows behind me was teen golf sensation Michelle Wie. We shared a few quick words and took a picture together. It actually felt kind of odd, considering it was the first time in my life that I had actually been starstruck after meeting someone younger than me, but it was awesome, and I’m not complaining.

The event itself was just as much fun as seeing the celebrities around me. The Blue Man Group kicked off the night with a performance. The first competition was the annual NBA Shooting Stars team competition that featured NBA players, NBA legends and WNBA players. Team Detroit, led by Chauncey Billups, Bill Lambier and Swin Cash, won the event. The next event was a Skills Challenge featuring NBA superstars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul. To have the chance to see these four players just a few feet in front of me was an experience I am not likely to forget. After an intense contest, Wade won the event for the second straight season. The next event and the highlight of the evening was a race between NBA referee Dick Bavetta and an out-of-shape (to put it nicely) Charles Barkley. Barkley shot out to a huge lead, shocking the whole arena, as everyone expected Bavetta to win. The Round Mound of Rebound taunted 67-year-old Bavetta by running backward to win the race. Together, they raised $50,000 for charity, or, as the out-of-breath Barkley put it, “We’re going to give two blackjack hands to charity.”

The contests resumed with the 3-Point Shootout. Miami Heat guard Jason Kapono beat out Gilbert Arenas and Dirk Nowitzki to win the title. The final event was the highly-anticipated Slam Dunk Contest. The competition featured Tyrus Thomas, Dwight Howard, Nate Robinson and Gerald Green. My favorite dunk of the night was Howard’s alley-oop done while in the process of placing a sticker of himself on the 12-foot-6-inch backboard. Even a dunk like that could not get Howard into the finals, and Robinson and Green faced off for the title. What made this even more enjoyable was that Robinson’s mother, who did not stop screaming for her son the entire time, sat to my left. Eventually, to her disappointment, Green won the contest by dunking over a table.

That concluded the night’s festivities, and everyone headed for the exits. On my way out, I saw the tallest player ever to play in the NBA, Manute Bol, along with another 7-footer, Dikembe Mutumbo. At first, I felt bad for Bol and Mutumbo because they could not go anywhere without someone recognizing them, but then I realized I should really feel bad for the people who were sitting behind them that night. My dad and I boarded the bus to the hotel and sat near former NBA coach Lenny Wilkens. The NBA’s all-time leader in victories sat in the front row of the bus, just as he had done while riding with his team so many times before. We got back to the hotel, and on the way back to the room, we saw Oakley at the blackjack table again. It didn’t seem like he had moved since last night.

Sunday was our last full day in Las Vegas, and I made sure to fully enjoy the atmosphere before heading back to Villanova. Leaving 70-degree weather was something I did not want to consider. After a quick breakfast, we went down to the lobby. Not only did I see Oakley gambling away, but I also spotted Jay-Z in back of the casino. Bodyguards surrounded his table because his presence attracted nearly 100 young women. As much as I would have liked to talk to Jay-Z, I soon realized this was an unrealistic dream, so I made my way outside. Just as I walked out, the constant buzzing around the Bellagio stopped because a beautiful green Rolls Royce pulled up in front of the hotel. Whispers could be heard from people guessing who was in such an elegant car. The questions were soon answered when rapper Young Jeezy and his crew stepped out. This was a thrill to me and a few others, but basically no one over the age of 35 had any idea who these people were. After the excitement of seeing two famous rappers, my Dad and I walked to lunch where I attempted to explain to him Jay-Z and Young Jeezy’s significance.

The final event of the weekend was the All-Star Game. Our seats weren’t as close they were on Saturday, but were better for the fan interested in actually watching the game rather than the celebrities. The game started with a performance from Las Vegas legend Wayne Newton. Then the players took the court, and the game started. Like most past All-Star Games, the participants were more concerned with making spectacular dunks than playing basketball. During the game, the crowd went nuts every time they showed a celebrity on the screen. Among the guests were Arnold Schwarzenegger, Adam Sandler and Beyonce. The game itself seemed to go by quickly, and the Western Conference ran away with an easy win. Bryant, the game’s Most Valuable Player, put a cap on the weekend with a spectacular reverse dunk to end the game. As he did this, the crowd stood on its feet and chanted his name. With that, the game ended, and my All-Star weekend was just a few hours from being over.

I had to wake up at 5:30 a.m. on Monday for my flight, so I decided to take it easy Sunday night. We returned to the Bellagio, and by this time, I had become nearly immune to the NBA stars around me. Now I was saying, “Oh look, there’s Bill Walton again,” without batting an eye. My dad suggested we stop at the famous ice cream shop at the Bellagio before calling it a night. We were waiting in line for just a few minutes before I realized that Rich Eisen was standing right behind me. To many people, this name may not mean anything, but to me, it was a huge thrill to have a chance to talk to him. As a sports fan who is addicted to ESPN and the NFL Network, I grew up watching and admiring people like Eisen. For me, finally meeting someone who was once the host of SportsCenter was almost as exciting as seeing Wade.

We took our ice cream and walked through the casino past Oakley (who I also saw in the same spot when I left at 5:30 a.m.) out to the front of the hotel. It was there that, in just a few minutes, the fountains of the Bellagio started. I’m sure many of you remember them from the end of “Ocean’s 11,” but that does not compare to seeing them in person. At the top of the hour, the fountains came up out of the water, and just a few seconds later, water and light shot out of them. They danced across the water as music blasted out of the speakers. During this time, I took a few moments to appreciate what a great weekend it was. I saw more celebrities in two days than I may see for the rest of my life. I had great tickets to one of the most exciting events in sports. I was able to leave the cold weather of Villanova for an unforgettable weekend with my father in sunny Las Vegas. It was a city that provided a departure from reality, but, as the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end. As the fountains danced across the water and I gazed up at the city, the song by Andrea Bocelli coming from the speakers never seemed more appropriate. It was time to say goodbye.