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Sociology 101: Las Vegas, the NBA and Its All-Star Game...By Nelson Lardner

The National Basketball Association's All-Star Weekend extravaganza has come and gone from Las Vegas. League commissioner David Stern has already gone on record with the pronouncement that the league will not return to Sin City with the event until the city produces a new-and-improved basketball/hockey/concert arena.

What was left unsaid in that statement could fill a book. We'll look to lay out some of the sordid details, to an extent which will likely offend virtually everyone involved in some manner. Hell, somebody has to testify.

Las Vegas has been a convenient entertainment suburb of Los Angeles for decades. The I-15 umbilical cord has been most instrumental in nourishing the Southern Nevada area towards its current seven-figure metro area population figure and multi-billion dollar levels of prosperity. But the "benefits" of this long-term relationship during this year's President's Day weekend were anything but purely positive, aside from broad fiscal considerations.

You didn't read about these niceties in PC-pure media outlets such as USA Today Monday (though Tuesday's editions included a surface review, without touching on the underlying causes). But for many a casual visitor - as well as a high percentage of Las Vegas' stalwart service personnel -- the weekend just past was a logistical and aesthetic nightmare.

The arrest total during All-Star Weekend has already far, far surpassed the New Years' period's number - and all the returns aren't in yet. Native and visitor alike are used to crowds and nasty traffic conditions during busy weekends; it's part of the landscape, given the burgeoning population, and the traffic capacities of vital motor-vehicle arteries in the vicinity of the Strip. But the market influx of Los Angeles- area NBA groupies and hangers-on for the weekend show brought a distinct gangsta flavor to the weekend environment - and a meaningful number of their local spiritual bretheren were only too happy to join in the festivities.

The majority of the major name strip resorts were uncomfortably crowded. And the level of loutish street behavior (defined for these purposes as loud, boisterous demeanor, littering, public spitting, broad chip-on-the-shoulder attitudes which occasionally spilled over into something more) frequently passed into modes of conduct publicly held resort owners and their employees REALLY don't like - including theft of food and beverage services, and chronic non-tipping for services rendered.

We haven't even touched on the multiple armed robberies and shootings, at rates far higher than normal. And we're not talking about the folks who happened to be in town for Chinese New Year. Those who out of some exaggerated sense of self did little but gawk, take up space and provoke trouble were not the caliber of individual Vegas would prefer to attract - especially when spending little or no money.

More and more, Vegas is being looked upon as a potential home for an NBA franchise. We're not talking expansion; Commissioner Stern wants no part of that right now, as an additional team(s) would broadly dilute earnings of current franchises. But Vegas could serve well as a new home for teams looking for a more stable home. The Hornets are the poster-child possibility, given the current tenuous state of New Orleans, but there are others which might be intrigued by a population base not currently blessed with easy access to performances by a major league franchise.

The sports gambling issue casts shadows, but Stern has been far less hawkish about gambling as a whole in his most recent public pronouncements. And I figure there's probably room for the kind of no booking-of-the-local-team's-games codicil, while hotels might book the remainder of the NBA in a broad compromise. This is how it was with UNLV and Nevada-Reno football and basketball for years, before even that distinction was waved not long ago.

The problem is the 800-pound gorilla no one wants to talk about - and that's the very real possibility of a very large dropoff in local attendance, in short order, if an NBA team isn't reasonably competitive. Vegas is laden with frontrunners reluctant to support a loser to any sustained extent. A Western Conference team would be aided by out-of-towners from other major Western outposts who'd be happy to have a readymade excuse to visit Vegas, but the bulk of ticket-buying support would have to be local, and the question lingers, in a town chock full of fascinating diversions and distractions.

Mayor Oscar Goodman is already talking a sales tax increase to bankroll a new arena. Obnoxious and regressive? For sure - local sales tax is already 7 3/4%. You'd like to believe this isn't another party being thrown by the taxpayers through strongarm politicking. But Stern's essential dissatisfaction with Thomas & Mack makes the picture clear enough. And any franchise owner thinking of invading with any chronic non-playoff-contender had better think twice, because rank-and-file fan support won't sustain, for long.

Oh . . . the game? Children know the NBA's Western Conference is stronger, top to bottom, and didn't need this exhibition to confirm it. And once the West sprinted out to their commanding early lead, any chance of a competitive game largely went out the window, given the forboding regarding the Eastern side's chances going in. School was out, and any semblance of defense - never a priority in this setting - was dismissed.

For those who didn't get enough of unguarded offensive displays with the Slam- Dunk Competition and the Three-Point-Shooting Contest, they got a couple hours more of it in Sunday night's scrimmage. The crowd in attendance did not seem displeased, but no doubt many watching on their television screens were less than enthralled with the unfettered skills on display. Every All-Star game is a gag, to some degree, but some minimal dedication to the spirit of competition should be part of the package. Even with all of its failings, baseball has at least figured that out.

I'll make one bet right now: when Vegas gets an NBA team, most of the league's matches will remain posted on the city and state's betting boards. The fact that it'll be a good while before the city hosts another NBA All-Star Game is a given.

Nelson Lardner

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