I LEARNED THE secret of basketball while lounging at a topless pool in Las Vegas. As I learned the secret, someone’s bare breasts were staring at me from just eight feet away. The person explaining the secret was a Hall of Famer who once vowed to beat me up and changed his mind only because Gus Johnson vouched for me.
(Do I tell this story? Yes. I tell this story.)
Come back with me to July 2007. My buddy Hopper was pushing me to accompany him for an impromptu Vegas trip, knowing that I wouldn’t turn him down because of my Donaghy-level gambling problem. I needed permission from my pregnant wife, who was perpetually ornery from (a) carrying our second child during the hot weather months in California and (b) being knocked up because I pulled the goalie on her back in February.1 But here’s why I’m an evil genius: with the NBA Summer League happening at the same time, I somehow convinced her that ESPN The Magazine wanted a column about Friday’s quadruple-header featuring my favorite team (the Celtics), my favorite rookie (Kevin Durant), and the two Los Angeles teams (Clippers and Lakers). “I’ll be in and out in thirty-six hours,” I told her.
She signed off and directed her anger at the magazine for making me work on a weekend. (I told you, I’m shrewd.) I quickly called my editor and had the following exchange.
me: I don’t have a column idea this week. I’m panicking.
neil (my editor): Crap. I don’t know what to tell you, it’s a dead month.
(A few seconds of silence ensues.)
me: Hey, wait...isn’t the NBA Summer League in Vegas right now?
neil: Yeah, I think it is. What would you write about, though?
me: Lemme see what the schedule is for Friday. [I spend the next 20 seconds pretending to log onto NBA.com and look this up.] Oh my God—
Clippers at 3, Celtics at 5, Lakers at 6, Durant and the Sonics at 7! You have to let me go! I can get 1,250 words out of that! [Neil doesn’t respond.] Come on—Vegas? The Celtics and Durant? This column will write itself!
neil (after a long sigh): “Okay, fine, fine.”
Did I care that he sounded like I had just convinced him to donate me a kidney? Of course not! I flew down on Friday, devoured those four games and joined Hopper for drunken blackjack until the wee hours.2 The following morning, we woke up in time for a Vegas Breakfast (16-ounce coffee, bagel, large water), then headed down to the Wynn’s lavish outdoor blackjack setup, which includes:
1.Eight blackjack tables surrounding one of those square outdoor bars like the one where Brian Flanagan worked after he fled to Jamaica in Cocktail. Once you’ve gambled outdoors, your life is never quite the same. It’s like riding in a convertible for the first time.
2.Overhead mist machines blowing cool spray so nobody overheats, a crucial wrinkle during the scorching Vegas summer, when it’s frequently over 110 degrees outside and 170 degrees in every guy’s crotch.
3.A beautiful European pool tucked right behind the tables. Just so you know, “European” is a fancy way of saying, “It’s okay to go topless there.”3
If there’s a better male bonding experience, I can’t think of one. For our yearly guys’ trip one month earlier, we arrived right before the outdoor area opened (11:00 a.m.) and played through dinner. For the first three hours, none of the sunbathers was willing to pull a Jackie Robinson and break the topless barrier, so we decided the Wynn should hire six strippers to go topless every day at noon (just to break the ice) and have their DJ play techno songs with titles like “Take Your Tops Off,” “Come On, Nobody’s Looking,” “We’re All Friends Here,” “Unleash the Hounds,” and “What Do You Have to Lose? You’re Already Divorced.” By midafternoon, as soon as everyone had a few drinks in them, the ladies started flinging their tops off like Frisbees. Okay, not really. But two dozen women made the plunge over the next few hours, including one heavyset woman who nearly caused a riot by wading into the pool with her 75DDDDDDDDDDs. It was like being there when the Baby Ruth bar landed in the Bushwood pool; people were scurrying for their lives in every direction.4
So between seedy guys making runs at topless girls in the pool, horny blackjack dealers getting constantly distracted, aforementioned moments like the Baby Ruth/multi-D episode, the tropical feel of outdoors and the Mardi Gras/beads element of a Euro pool, ten weeks of entertainment and comedy were jam-packed into eight hours. Things peaked around 6:00 p.m. when an attractive blonde wearing a bikini joined our table, complained to the dealer, “I haven’t had a blackjack in three days,” then told us confidently, “If I get a blackjack, I’m going topless.” The pit boss declared that she couldn’t go topless, so they negotiated for a little bit, ultimately deciding that she could flash everyone instead. Yes, this conversation actually happened. Suddenly we were embroiled in the most exciting blackjack shoe of all time. Every time she got an ace or a 10 as her first card, the tension was more unbearable than the last five minutes of the final Sopranos episode. When she finally nailed her blackjack, our side of the blackjack section erupted like Fenway after the Roberts steal.5 She followed through with her vow, departed a few minutes later, and left us spending the rest of the night wondering how I could write about that entire sequence for ESPN The Magazine without coming off like a pig. Well, you know what? These are the things that happen in Vegas. I’m not condoning them, defending them, or judging them. Just understand that we don’t keep going because some bimbo might flash everyone at her blackjack table, we keep going for the twenty minutes afterward, when we’re rehashing the story and making every possible joke.6
Needless to say, wild horses couldn’t have dragged Hopper and me from the outdoor blackjack section during summer
league. We treaded water for a few hours when I ran into an old acquaintance who handled PR from the Knicks, as well as Gus Johnson, the much-adored March Madness and Knicks announcer who loves me mainly because I love him. Gus and I successfully executed a bear hug and a five-step handshake, and just as I was ready to make Gus announce a few of my blackjack hands (“Here’s the double-down card...Ohhhhhhhh! it’s a ten!”), he implored me to come over and meet his buddy Isiah Thomas.
Of any sports figure that I could have possibly met at any time in my life, getting introduced to Isiah that summer would have been my number one draft pick for the Holy Shit, Is This Gonna Be Awkward draft. Isiah doubled as the beleaguered GM of the Knicks and a frequent column target, someone who once threatened “trouble” if we ever crossed paths.7 This particular moment seemed to qualify. After the PR guy and I explained to Gus why a Simmons-Isiah introduction would be a stupifyingly horrific idea, Gus confidently countered, “Hold on, I got this, I got this, I’ll fix this.” And he wandered off as our terrified PR buddy said, “I’m getting out of here—good luck!”8
I played a few hands of rattled blackjack while wondering how to defend myself if Isiah came charging at me with a piña colada. After all, I killed this guy in my column over the years. I killed him for some of the cheap shots he took as a player, for freezing out MJ in the ’85 All-Star Game, for leading the classless walkout at the tail end of the Bulls-Pistons sweep in ’91. I killed him for pushing Bird under the bus by backing up Rodman’s foolish “he’d be just another good player if he were white” comments after the ’87 playoffs, then pretending like he was kidding afterward. (He wasn’t.) I killed him for bombing as a TV announcer, for sucking as Toronto’s GM, for running the CBA into the ground, and most of all, for his incomprehensibly ineffective performance running the Knicks. As I kept lobbing (totally justified) grenades at him, Isiah went on Stephen A. Smith’s radio show and threatened “trouble” if we ever met on the street. Like this was all my fault. Somewhere along the line, Isiah probably decided that I had a personal grudge against him, which simply wasn’t true—I had written many times that he was the best pure point guard I’d ever seen, as well as the most underappreciated star of his era. I even defended his draft record and praised him for standing up for his players right before the ugly Nuggets-Knicks brawl that featured Carmelo Anthony’s infamous bitch-slap/backpedal. It’s not like I was obsessed with ripping the guy. He just happened to be an easy target, a floundering NBA GM who didn’t understand the luxury tax, cap space, or how to plan ahead. For what I did for a living, Isiah jokes were easier than making fun of Flavor Flav at a celebrity roast. The degree of difficulty was a 0.0.
With that said, I would have rather been playing blackjack and drinking vodka lemonades then figuring out how to cajole a pissed-off NBA legend. When a somber Gus finally waved me over, I was relieved to get it over with. (By the way, there should be no scenario that includes the words “Gus Johnson” and “somber.” I feel like I failed America regardless of how this turned out.) Gus threw an arm around me and said something like, “Look, I straightened everything out, he’s willing to talk to you, just understand, he’s a sensitive guy, he takes this shit personally.”9 Understood. I followed him to a section of chairs near the topless pool, where Isiah was sipping a water and wea...