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Chris Jones

Stern: No Quarrel With Casinos

17 February 2006

HOUSTON -- National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern is looking forward to a bigger and better show when his sport's signature exhibition arrives in Las Vegas one year from now.

But the city's legalized sports books remain a source of fear and loathing for NBA leaders, even as plans move forward to place the 2007 All-Star Weekend within the shadows of Strip resorts.

Recent allegations of an illegal sports betting ring tied to National Hockey League icon Wayne Gretzky and Pete Rose's admitted bets on Major League Baseball games are the type of trouble the image-conscious Stern strives to avoid.

While some raised eyebrows when the NBA tabbed Las Vegas as All-Star host, Stern on Thursday repeated that his league has no quarrel with casinos in general.

Though he no longer gambles, Stern said he enjoyed blackjack in his younger days. And NBA bylaws, he added, do not prevent players, coaches or owners from gambling, as long as that gambling does not involve NBA events.

"We certainly thought that (next year's All-Star selection) was a way to demonstrate that our current position vis-a-vis Las Vegas is in no way rooted in that ancient notion that somehow gambling is bad. The states of the United States have made a judgment that it's not," Stern said, citing widespread lotteries and tribal casinos.

"Our position on basketball gambling is for the most part, NBA fans ... don't get glued to their sets to watch a bunch of games that they put a bet down on."

Should the NBA indirectly condone sports betting by awarding a franchise to Las Vegas, for example, Stern fears other jurisdictions with NBA ties would also legalize sports betting to generate tax revenue.

Should that occur, gambling concerns could replace the purer motivation Stern believes now fuels interest in NBA games.

"We think the nature of our fans would change. ... Perhaps you'd even go away from the game unhappy because the home team won but didn't cover," Stern said.

So for now, Las Vegas remains the proverbial line in the sand, having received next year's All-Star events only after state leaders agreed to ban bets on that weekend's NBA activities.

Stern, 63, spoke privately with the Review-Journal at the Four Seasons hotel in downtown Houston, host of this year's All-Star events. Ski Austin, senior vice president of NBA Events and Attractions, and Adam Silver, president of NBA Entertainment, were also present.

The trio was instrumental in the push to name Las Vegas the first city without an NBA franchise to host the popular All-Star events, which date back to 1951.

Plans for the 2007 All-Star Weekend are progressing well, they said, with local leaders scheduled to tour this week's events in Houston to gain a better understanding of how things unfold.

More work will begin next week, Stern said, including the development of sponsorship packages and marketing components leading up to February 2007.

Las Vegas could also see an NBA-themed retail store open when the 2006-'07 season tips off this autumn, Silver said.

The executives were noncommittal on rumors that Las Vegas could become a regular All-Star host.

The 2008 All-Star Weekend is likely headed to New Orleans, whose Hornets franchise will play most of this and next season in Oklahoma City due to damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. Beyond that, it's anyone's guess.

Rossi Ralenkotter, president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, on Jan. 30 met with NBA leaders at their New York headquarters. He said last week those talks included informal remarks about returning All-Star festivities to Las Vegas in 2009 or later; another source close to the subject added the NBA approached Las Vegas about such a move.

But Stern was more ambiguous Thursday, saying he was unaware of such discussions but remains open to staging All-Star events in non-NBA cities, including a very remote chance of going overseas.

"There are certain advantages to having a non-NBA venue," Stern said, referencing Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban's recent comments on his desire that Dallas never host another All-Star Weekend.

Cuban and some other owners don't like to displace season-ticket holders who cannot get All-Star tickets, the bulk of which are claimed by the league.

Las Vegas' numerous golf courses could be used for new All-Star events, Stern said, including tournaments featuring former NBA players.

Las Vegas fans can look forward to the annual All-Star Jam Session, which will be held at Mandalay Bay. The interactive event is using 500,000 square feet this week at Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center.

The mix of hotels, restaurants and entertainment in Las Vegas should overshadow this year's popular draw in Houston, whose hotel inventory required the NBA to place guests in 25 separate hotels.

"Las Vegas is totally capable of taking a big bite out of that with just two or three hotels," Stern said. "It has what every city has. It just has it bigger, and more concentrated."

Silver expects guests may extend their Las Vegas All-Star stays to better enjoy its amenities.

Addressing another topic of interest in Las Vegas, Stern said the NBA has no plans to add another team. But several franchises -- including the Sacramento Kings, Seattle SuperSonics and Orlando Magic -- may consider moves should arena issues in their respective cities go unresolved, he said.

If the sports betting obstacle was somehow resolved, Las Vegas would be a front-runner for a team. Las Vegas casino operators are unlikely to agree to a permanent ban, however.

Stern hopes today's franchises stay put, though he concedes "that was true of Vancouver and Charlotte."

In 2001, the Vancouver Grizzlies left a disinterested British Columbia and moved to Memphis, Tenn., after an unsuccessful Las Vegas recruitment led by Mayor Oscar Goodman. The Hornets began play in New Orleans in 2002, while Charlotte welcomed the expansion Bobcats to the court in fall 2004.