Experiencing March Madness, Las Vegas-style

LAS VEGAS—Two NCAA Tournament games had concluded in dramatic fashion more than 10 minutes earlier, to wild clapping and cheering in the massive South Point exhibit hall Friday, when another eruption occurred.

Nearly 2,500 people in the 80,000 square-foot playland stopped and gawked, at about two dozen guys whooping it up, high-fiving and hollering, as if they’d just hit the lottery.

Those two thrillers had ended a while back? What happened?

Nebraska’s Keisei Tominaga had just drilled a 25-footer from the top of the key to give the Huskers a 17-13 advantage 4½ minutes into their game against Texas A&M — that’s what happened.

So the Huskers won that game’s First-to-15-points proposition.

“And we didn’t each just toss in a $20 bill, either,” said a short, happy guy with ample girth that tested the seams of his Steve Nash No. 13 Phoenix Suns jersey. “That was an $800 bet!”

It paid $600, with Nebraska at -133.

There were many more decibel explosions in the expanse with four 20-foot screens on one side, eight on the other, and odds dangling from a high center odds screen. Below that, ticket writers served lines on both sides. Kiosks lined a wall.

The South Point wasn’t kidding when it advertised The Most Massive Madness Party in Vegas. It was indeed massive, yet accommodating, comfortable and affordable.

Free parking, free admission and very reasonable concessions.

“It’s about all the little things with Michael Gaughan,” South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews told me about the owner of the property, the son of the late Vegas pioneer Jackie Gaughan

Those “little things” compelled me to spend the first three days of March Madness right here, where no smoking is the rule and not having to pay for a seat that normally wouldn’t come with a price, anyway, is the deal.

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March Madness, Day One: Kentucky fans subdued by Gohlke

Steve Stallworth glanced at me Thursday and said, “Do you know what you look like?”

Others were around us, and I know the guy who runs the South Point Arena and Equestrian Center as one of the most positive people on the planet. He must greet every male as “brother.”

I prepared for praise, might have straightened my back.

“Like a degenerate.”

A second of shock later, I nodded my head and closed my eyes. Laughs all around. He had nailed the bull’s-eye.

He said, “Going across the hall, eh?”

Indeed, in dark knee-length Milwaukee Bucks shorts, a grayish button-down cotton shirt completely unbuttoned, a white Pan-Am surfing T-shirt underneath and a San Diego State cap on my coconut, he knew I’d fit right in across the way.

At one point, Andrews dropped by Table 43, where I had set up shop with my computer, notebooks, research material, brackets, game sheets and future odds.

Bigger than a football field, he said as he gazed from a narrow hoops court (for free-throw contests) to a cornhole game and a Pepsi putting contest, booths peddling shots of hard stuff, to two Pop-a-Shot games on the far side of the room.

(This beat a pigskin field by more than 22,000 square feet.)

What’s more, the other side of the room featured a row of four large TV screens, close-captioned for the hearing impaired.

Little things, indeed.

Concessions offered $6 pulled-pork sandwiches, $5 nachos (melted cheese, ground beef and all the fixins), and $3 pizza squares, the price of a Pepsi. Restrooms were many, lighting was superb.

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It helped to wear a cap, whose bill could hide the glare of overhead lighting. I knew, too, to wear layers, as books pipe in AC to offset the many bodies.

And kiosks enabled patrons to avoid the ticket counters.

When the games began, another reason why I’d remain here became clear when a few simultaneously went to ads. Instead, room dee-jay Martin Aleman cranked up the beats.

Nobody here would have to endure Chuckles ’n’ Crew, a big buffalo boxing-out restaurant customers into next week or the latest dopey pharmaceutical jingle.

“Jailhouse Rock,” Jukebox Hero,” “Jump Around” and “Pump Up the Jam” were just some of the tunes at Aleman’s fingertips, via a mixer and computer.

Near my circular table, a group of Kentucky fans had settled in, several buckets of beers spread out before them. They were rather subdued as Oakland took a 19-13 lead on a 3-pointer by marksman Jack Gohlke.

Gohlke wasn’t finished, hitting 10 from long range and finishing with 32 points in the Golden Grizzlies’ 80-76 upset victory. Gohlke and his teammates reveled, and Aleman put “Boogie Shoes” on high volume

The UK fans, though, didn’t want to dance. One, with a big red beard, stood incredulously before his brethren with his arms out, palms up. Another yelled, regarding boss John Calipari, “They’d better can that (bleep-bleepin’) guy by Monday! We suck!”

Jake Krafka, a 25-year-old former University of Denver hoopster who works in marketing for the Wynn, was in all his glory.

“You can’t beat this,” he said. “Everyone is here for the same thing, watching the beautiful sport of college basketball. What it’s all about. All these people love the game, and that’s why they show up here.

“The love.”

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March Madness, Day Two: 400,000 in Vegas, 5x the Super Bowl handle

Brooks Barnhard wasn’t wearing the white Washington Bullets jersey, bearing Wes Unseld’s No. 41, that he had donned Thursday, deciding not to treat his buddies like that.

“It was dirty,” he grinned. Someone in his small group had found the Size-60 jersey at a garage sale, for $15. And since the 6-foot-9 Barnhard, who played at the University of San Diego, was the tallest, he got the prize.

Barnhard, 53, conducts basketball camps and clinics in the San Diego area. He’s been wearing that Unseld jersey to the South Point on the first day of the NCAAs for the past 10 years.

He doesn’t bet more than $20 here or there, but he coordinates the brackets, and his friends all make personal wagers on certain games or who will advance to what stage.

Krafka, at a nearby table, had apparently gotten in on the action as, after one game, he handed Barnhard $20 for a wager gone awry. 

Aleman cranked up “Crazy Train” as I strolled to the other end of the room to find Jonathan Newton, a 26-year-old graduate of San Diego State, who works in the medical-device industry in Orange County.

The white Aztecs No. 15 Kawhi Leonard jersey he wore is what drew me to him, and he showed me a video clip on his cell that he’d taken a year ago at this very spot.

Wall-to-wall cheers had triggered Newton to shoot video, spanning the room from left to right. It looks like New Year’s Eve and the ball had just dropped.

In actuality, Farleigh Dickinson, a 16 seed, had just beaten Purdue to 15 in that novelty prop.

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Newton and a friend had been invited by a table of grandmas and grandpas—one of whose nephew is SDSU power forward and Phoenix native Elijah Saunders—to sit with them.

“So cool,” Newton said. “We hope to come here for the next 30 or 40 years, when we’re grandpas.”

His bets are minimal, and he never risks money on the alma mater, which we share. In fact, we learned we share the same fraternity, graduating 33 years apart from each other.

“(Aztecs boss Brian) Dutcher is amazing,” Newton said. “But I could never bet on their games. I get worried enough, my hands and knees shaking, biting my nails.”

The Aztecs had just beaten UAB, 69-65.

“There’s nothing like this,” Newton said. “Hanging out with your friends watching all the games, and this is way better than anywhere on the Strip.”

The Strip sounded as if it was packed, too. Friends reported packed crowds everywhere, minimal room to maneuver, nowhere to sit much less stand.

One report said 400,000 visited Vegas over the weekend, and another predicted the Nevada handle for the three-week NCAAs to be nearly five times the Super Bowl, or almost $1 billion.

Stallworth visited me at Table 43. The former UNLV quarterback was on his way to Palm Springs, for an annual golf trip with three ex-offensive linemen.

Both James Madison hoopsters (in a few hours) and Stallworth could boast of beating Wisconsin as a claim to fame. On Sept. 20, 1986, he led the Rebels to a 17-7 victory over the Badgers here in Vegas at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Stallworth also owns the distinction of organizing the first Division-I men’s basketball games on the direct property of a Vegas casino, when Kansas beat Florida, 82-80 in overtime, at the Orleans Arena in November 2006.

Both the Jayhawks (Ball State) and Gators (Western Kentucky) had played the previous day, but they showcased that event.

Michael Gaughan then owned the Orleans, and Stallworth followed him to the South Point.

When Yale belted Auburn, 78-76, Aleman blared Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” an apt epitaph for another big dog that had lost.

As I bet futures on Final Four and title winners during a season, I nix half a dozen from my purchase list, which includes Kentucky coach John Calipari, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, Kansas, Auburn, Houston and Purdue.

I am heavy on defending-champion UConn, Creighton and Marquette, and Arizona winning the West would round out my dream Final Four.

That faction of First-to-15 bettors roared again, this time for the start of the James Madison-Wisconsin tilt. As the Dukes sprinted away from the Badgers, 5-2 then 9-2 then 12-4, their yelling increased.

Julien Wooden sailed in for a layup to make it 15-4 advantage. They had struck again. The Steve Nash fan smiled widely as many around them wondered what the heck was going on.

March Madness, Day Three: The ‘proper way’ to do Vegas

I talked to Aleman about a couple of Friday minutes that must have tested him, which he confirmed. Colorado and Florida were going to overtime as Yale put the finishing touches on its upset of Auburn

“I was moving play-by-play,” he said about monitoring both on his screen. “I was fading in and out, between the two, seeing what mattered. Challenging, but I love it. I want people to feel it. Not to brag, but it’s about bringing the energy.”

A minute later, he’d blare Steve Perry singing about the city boy, “born and raised in South Detroit,” and those within my view either shook their head or hands, or tapped a foot.

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He had another appointment and would bolt by 2 p.m. A 16-hour day (which included set-up) was followed by a 12-hour run, and then this six-hour slot. Josnel Rodezno filled in with aplomb.

The crowd had thinned out a bit and would get thinner by the hour. The First-to-15 tables emptied. Enthusiasm waned.

Andrews against dropped by Table 43. 

I ask about the handle. Out of the gate Sunday, he marveled at the inflow of cash. Well, he told owner Michael Gaughan on Friday morning, Thursday was incredible. Very difficult to top.

Then Friday’s handle did just that, a stunned Andrews told me.

He said the South Point doesn’t operate the Massive Party for a fourth day due to light attendance on past Sundays.

Behind me, among a group is one guy who barks every time Gonzaga does something well during its 89-68 thrashing of Kansas.

I investigate to find 35-year-old hoarse-but-happy Michael Charwood wearing a white Gonzaga No. 2 Drew Timme jersey.

He had been barking about the Bulldogs, and he coaxed others to join in. He did not bet, either, because he didn’t want to jinx Gonzaga. He called Kansas “Kansas City.”

“I love it!” Charwood said. “Yup, that was me barkin’. So good! So glad they let me in the group.”

Mike Peloquin, 59, has been coming here for years and invited Charwood. The proper way to do it, Peloquin said, is to arrive a week early, see some conference tournaments that Vegas stages, maybe go to a Golden Knights NHL game.

Then cap it here at the South Point. Peloquin and others had bet over the Zags’ total of 151.5, “to keep it interesting,” which won.

What resonated were the words of Barnhard buddy Frank Bossone, who said, “This is the best place to watch the games, the Disneyland of hoops.”

March Madness, Day Four: Favorites continue to roll through weekend

A day of rest? Nope. But the proceedings were dialed down, a lot, when I visited my home book at Green Valley Ranch to watch the end of the second round with fellow regulars.

The room was mildly packed in the morning. It, too, then thinned out. Marquette won in a squeaker, Purdue blew out Utah State, and Clemson rallied to beat Baylor, 72-64.

Two-thirds of my no-buy list—Kentucky, Kansas, Auburn and Baylor—had been eliminated.

In the Sweet 16, if Gonzaga beats Purdue and Duke defeats Houston, I’ll slip on my own boogie shoes.

I checked back with Andrews, who had raved about the handle Thursday and Friday. It’s still good to be the book, I intimated to him, which he didn’t deny.

But I’d heard the second round on Saturday had zapped Vegas, as most favorites covered. Andrews texted me, “We got hammered.”

Most favorites covered Sunday, too. In overtime, Houston did not cover but beat Texas A&M in a game that ended at 11:50 p.m. ET. One game remained, but it was never in doubt as the Aztecs pounded Yale, 85-57. It was 12:15 a.m. Monday on the East Coast.

There were no cheers or claps among maybe 40 people in the room. Six or seven lined up at the window to cash tickets. The first week of the NCAAs had quietly ended. Time to recharge for Thursday, the start of the Sweet 16.

For the love of hoops.

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