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Best of Benjamin Spillman
Benjamin Spillman

Event an All-Star gain -- or pain

21 February 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Long after the buzz from the NBA's Las Vegas party wore off, the hangover still lingered for many.

Some were unsure the $91 million left behind by tourists in town for the event was enough to soothe headaches from an airline backlog, traffic snarls and crime related to the event.

On Tuesday, Las Vegans, tourists and community leaders discussed the pros and cons of holding the NBA's biggest party in America's bawdiest playground.

Community leaders focused on the exposure the event brought to Las Vegas and touted estimates that NBA-related events attracted 85,000 people and generated $90.6 million in nongaming economic impact. They applauded law enforcement's handling of the event.

But some locals who witnessed crimes or felt the sting of rude, poor-tipping hotel guests and tourists caught in airline or traffic delays said the game was not worth the trouble.

"If I do come back, it will not be for the All-Star Game," said Anita Lamar, 47, of New York City, in town for the NBA's midseason exhibition game.

She said that upon arriving in Las Vegas, she waited hours for a cab to take her from McCarran International Airport to her hotel. Then she got caught in a traffic jam en route to the Thomas & Mack Center and never made it to the All-Star Game. And on Monday, her departing flight was delayed nearly four hours because of mechanical difficulties.

"We had a nice time, but it was ridiculous," Lamar said. "It was like one disaster after a disaster after a disaster."

Meanwhile, some casino workers had choice words for the NBA fans they had encountered.

Bruce Showers, a slot machine floor supervisor who has spent 12 years at the New Frontier and almost 30 years in the casino industry, called the fans "the rudest bunch of people I've ever experienced."

There were a few instances of physical violence at the New Frontier and at least one instance of a customer showing a gun to a cocktail waitress, he said.

"Some of the girls were afraid to wait on the crowd," Showers said, adding that tipping "was practically nonexistent."

Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie praised law enforcement's handling of All-Star Weekend. Outside of a few violent encounters, the weekend was a success, he said.

"This town ... was as busy this weekend, for four days, than I've seen it any other time," Gillespie said.

From Thursday through Monday, 403 arrests were made of people attending NBA All-Star events or in town for NBA-related activities, Gillespie said. Of those arrested, 172 were residents, and 231 were from outside Southern Nevada.

A majority of the arrests, 239, were for prostitution-related crimes. During an average week, the department makes about 175 vice-related arrests. Gillespie said vice arrests increased because the number of squads dealing with such crimes was doubled.

The second-largest number of arrests, 63, was for trespassing. The remaining arrests were for disorderly conduct, battery, burglary, petty larceny and outstanding warrants.

There was an average of 81 arrests every 24 hours during All-Star Weekend. By comparison, on New Year's Eve more than 130 people were arrested during a 12-hour period, Gillespie said.

But All-Star Weekend was a lot more involved than New Year's, Gillespie said. The NBA event involved gatherings valleywide during four days and coincided with Chinese New Year celebrations and the MAGIC convention.

The most violent incidents left five people recovering from gunshot wounds, including a bouncer in critical condition Tuesday after being shot early Monday outside a strip club. None of the other gunshot victims suffered life-threatening injuries.

Early estimates placed overtime costs for the Police Department at about $600,000, Gillespie said. The majority of the overtime costs will be reimbursed by private entities, including Strip hotels, he said.

Many of those who complained about the All-Star crowds -- especially if they mentioned crime or violence -- prefaced their comments by saying the large number of young, black fans in hip-hop style clothes at NBA events were not the motivation for their complaints.

But Claytee White, Director of the Oral History Research Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, attributed some of the tension to a culture clash.

"It has to do with the hip-hop generation," said White, who has written about black women in gaming.

Some of the crowd attracted to Las Vegas for All-Star events are associated with music and imagery that highlights a flashy and lawless component of popular culture, White said. "The component that follows the NBA is not the most nonviolent component of the hip-hop generation."

The most visible transportation problem unfolded early Monday morning, when Southwest Airlines workers showed up at 5 a.m. at McCarran and found hundreds of passengers waiting to check in.

Many of the passengers had booked Sunday departures but decided to stay until Monday. The line stretched about three-quarters of a mile from the Southwest Airlines counter.

"That sort of started the day off on the wrong foot and we never caught up," said Beth Harbin, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines.

James White, 46, of Washington, D.C., stayed until Tuesday to avoid the Monday crush at McCarran. He still found himself waiting in a line that extended outside McCarran and occupied a blocked-off traffic lane.

"I don't know what Southwest should have done, but they should have had a bigger staff than this," he said.

By Tuesday afternoon, the Southwest Airlines passenger backlog finally had receded.

Officials at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority boasted that the benefits from hosting the All-Star Game vastly outweighed the drawbacks. In addition to the increase in visitors and the economic impact, the game put Las Vegas in an international spotlight.

Panoramic shots of Las Vegas and positive references to Southern Nevada by All-Star players and broadcasters will carry currency with tourists and travel agents worldwide, said Vince Alberta, a spokesman for the authority.

"Overall I think people had a great time," he said.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who has championed bringing an NBA team to Las Vegas, called the game "the greatest event to ever happen to the city."

The mayor acknowledged receiving e-mails complaining about the crowd's behavior during the weekend.

Goodman responded to the messages by listing service projects that NBA players participated in while in Las Vegas, including stars who visited the Sunrise Hospital pediatric center.

"Sadly, the bad apples which were here made you unhappy, and that is truly a shame," Goodman said. "I wish we could teach everyone good manners and civility, but that would be wishful thinking."

Review-Journal writers Brian Haynes, Arnold M. Knightly and David McGrath Schwartz contributed to this report.