Monday, August 18, 2008

Guest Post: Vegas in 10 Parts

Ben Golliver is the mind behind Draft Kevin Durant and a contributing writer for Blazers Edge. He recently initiated a movement to honor Terry Porter, and has done interviews with Daddy Gaddy and Shoals. He's a spry lad. I said if he had anything that didn't fit at Blazers Edge, we'd like to see it. It took me about ten seconds to beg him to let me run this. It was rather pathetic, with the groveling and weeping, but Ben handled it with style. What follows are notes and impressions from his time in Vegas for Summer League. Yes, while I was running around chasing people at Cheesecake Factory, this is what Ben was up to. Proud day for me and my family. Enjoy.


I.

Pulling off to the side of the curving road to take in the Hoover Dam is a great way to forget that today's high temperature was 106 degrees. It's 8:30 p.m., and still pushing 90. There's a slight breeze coming in over the orange hills above, so that the shirt I'm wearing unsticks itself from uncomfortable skin as a digital camera snaps. The Dam, concrete upon concrete, stretches as far as the eye can see in all directions, provoking all sorts of questions from nearby tourists, none more common than, "Where's all the water?" The canyon walls are marked white by decades of current flow but today the actual water line is at least 50 feet below the white marks. Can an entire river evaporate?


The ride from McCarren Airport to the Dam was pleasant and quick, a short 30 mile burst through the desert, pick-ups with gargantuan off-road tires kicking up dust alongside us. "I always slow down going through Boulder City," says my travel companion and guide as we approach the Dam. "The cops here are pretty ambitious." It appears that they are quite successful too; seconds later, I spot a shiny red SUV with BCPD tattooed on the side pulling out of a driveway, sirens blaring in hot pursuit of a minivan that must have, somehow, exceeded the posted 30 miles per hour speed limit. $4.20 for a gallon of gas is a a concern for this police department. Truth is, the Boulder City Police don’t have many concerns. The small town, with a perfect view of Lake Mead, is dotted with million-dollar residences. It wasn't always this way.



II.

Smoking crack, apparently, is a great way to forget that today's high temperature was 106 degrees. It's 1 a.m., and it's still pushing 90, and there is heavy foot traffic in all directions along Swenson and Twain. It's a people potpourri, yes, hookers, tourists, swing-shifters, party-goers, cops, and, of course, corner boys and their customers.


The corner boys here push it all, or so I am told. "Meth for white people, crack for blacks, but everyone seems to agree on one thing," says my travel companion, "the quality of drugs here is shit." I nod, taking in this information slowly, my eyes peeled to 3 o'clock where two LVPD squad cars have pulled into a gas station, sirens blaring as Young Black Men drop instinctively to their knees, hands in the air, the universal code for "I'm not resisting, please don't shoot." Earlier today, at this same gas station, I saw a woman beating the heat by not wearing any pants. The oversized t-shirt as a dress look had been in full effect. I had laughed it off.


I look across the street to a concrete strip of check-cashing places and convenience stores, and I lock the car doors. We are waiting at a stop light, just trying to get home. At this moment, this isn't where I want to be. It wasn't always this way.



III.

Watching Jerryd Bayless's cesarean-section arrival onto the NBA scene is a great way to forget that today's high temperature was 106 degrees. It's about 7 p.m., and it's a cool 72 degrees. The Thomas and Mack gym is hyped up, and Jerryd Bayless cannot be stopped, not by the Suns tonight, not by anyone. The impact of his entry into the minds of the assembled basketball intelligentsia is forceful and levitates in the gym air. Ooh. Aah. The bounce to his swag is very real, his dribble is both emphatic and effortless, his body control borders on mind control. He is drawing new maps to the basket, he is absorbing contact, he is brushing his shoulder off. He is eating people's souls with his glare. His parents sit nearby cheering him on. His coach for the summer, Monty Williams, stands with his arms folded, watching along with the rest of us. Bayless hits an impossible game-winner. The gym erupts. It feels like early June for a moment, not the middle of July.


The game ends, and I chat amicably with a member of the Trail Blazers front office as we await Jerryd's postgame thoughts. We are interrupted briefly by an event staffer who comes by for a handshake and to say, "Your boy just wrapped up the MVP, hell of a game." "Yeah, no shit," seems like the proper reply. Instead, it’s just the normal pleasantries in return. I look around and Monty Williams, dressed in his red coach's polo shirt, wipes his brow, doing his best to contain a big smile. He looks at ease. His boss, Blazers head coach Nate McMillan, makes his way down from high in the stands, looking comfortable and serene, but not overjoyed. Outright happiness, I have learned, isn't Nate's manner. Below the hardened exterior, I'm sure he's ecstatic. It wasn't always this way.



IV.

In recent years, Las Vegas Police groups have resisted efforts to track traffic stops by ethnicity and age, a measure proposed by Nevada legislators in an effort to cut down on rampant racial profiling. It seems that Las Vegas and Nevada, hidden below a cloak of mafia intrigue, still have a very real problem with race. How many remember that Las Vegas was once known as the "Little Mississippi of the West"? How many know that corrections officers at the High Desert State Prison recently stated that prisoners were being segregated on the basis of race? How many know that in October 2007, just a few hundreds of miles from Vegas, Esmerelda County school district officials approved a policy that prohibited Spanish from being spoken on school buses?


Riding shotgun at 1 a.m., I didn't know. I had no idea. When I thought of Las Vegas, I thought of lobsters in Hawaiian shirts gambling away their childrens' college savings. I thought of standing in line after line at club after club. I thought of conventioneers with colored name tags. I thought of idyllic poolside pictures on Facebook. Don't forget the tropical drink in the left hand and the thumbs up with the right hand. I thought of middle class white America. I thought of escape.


Riding shotgun at 1 a.m., I thought different things. I thought, "Something isn't quite right with that boy."


He was, to my best guess, 17 years old, his jean shorts almost prototypically baggy, hanging almost to his ankles, his bright-white hightops visibly shiny even at this late hour. He crossed the street from our right to left, his demeanor paranoid and his eyes darting in every direction. He kept looking back at the gas station, at the cops, and, I assumed, at his friends who were still kneeling. As he neared the sidewalk he cut the corner heading west, stepping outside the marked pedestrian walkway in a manner seen on every Manhattan street corner one million times a day. He stood not 15 feet away. In a flash visible in his eye, those brief, horrifying seconds of recognition, two rollers were on him, screeching to a stop just behind us, doors flying open, guns drawn. His motion ceased, stunned, as a cop approached, grabbing him by the cuff, detaining him. My eyes must have look confused. "Jaywalking," my travel companion explained. "It's the perfect excuse."

I didn't see anything else. The light turned green and we continued through the intersection.



V.

The Hoover Dam was built during the Great Depression, the last time the American economy was this bad. This humongous public works project to redirect the Colorado River was seen as a beacon for destitute folk across the country. Thousands migrated to the desert in hopes of employment. It was arduous work and the struggles that went into creating the dam remain a part of local lore to this day. The shantytown in which many workers lived, dubbed "Ragtown," was straight out of Thomas Hobbes, unbearably hot during summer, unbearably cold during winter, unbearable period. But you are apt to hear the story told, "The Hoover Dam was completed 2 full years ahead of schedule." And this is true and should be remembered.


It is only partly true, though, because as bad as things might have been for whites working at the Hoover Dam site, conditions were significantly worse for blacks. Amazingly, blacks didn't even have it the absolute worst; Mongolians were specifically excluded from being hired in the government contract with Six Companies, the contractor in charge of the Dam project. While blacks weren't excluded so overtly, life and workplace were fully segregated in practice. Blacks were not allowed to live in the mythic Ragtown and were excluded from Boulder City entirely. With no other choice, they made a long commute from Las Vegas each day. Once on site, they were forced to drink from separate water sources on the job site and left to work in the sheering heat of the Arizona gravel pits. Given the economic conditions, there was no alternative.[1]


Viewing the Dam last week I didn't see any of this. I took my pictures, hopped back in the car and returned to Las Vegas.



VI.

The Las Vegas Summer League, conceived in recent years as a showcase for NBA draft picks, international players and other professional basketball players trying to make an NBA roster, is both a tremendous opportunity and a graveyard for the hopes and dreams of the nearly-good-enoughs. The off-court scene is breathtaking: Hall of Famers, billionaire owners, general managers, scouts, national media personalities, and fans, black and white, mingle harmoniously.


On the court there is no harmony. There are players who have spots assured. They loaf. There are players who need their names on the back of their jerseys, otherwise no one would know who they are. They grind. There is a young man, OJ Mayo, looking to make a highlight film; there is another, Nick Young, looking at the fly honeys. There is a mountain man, Steven Hill, whose beard inspires more cheers than his play; there is a play the game the right way plodder, Josh Davis, who has every white scout over 60 years old wishing him the best. Of course, the same scouts are hesitant to encourage their management to sign Davis, lest they be laughed out of the room.


Importantly, the racial divide between the players and the fans that exists in many places, Portland included, does not exist here. Also, importantly, the racial divide that seems to exist everywhere else in this city -- the ancient divide between the haves and the have-nots -- is replaced by a different, more meritocratic divide -- can he ball? Yes or no?


"So, how is he playing?" I hear this a lot, from new friends and strangers, curious to know the fate of an otherwise-forgotten career or an unproven up-and-comer. I soak this up as the gym empties, leaving only a few writers pecking away at keyboards. I wanted to stay all night, but at the same time, I wanted to get out of there immediately.



VII.

In 2005, The Hoover Dam Bypass project was undertaken to alleviate heavy traffic that is caused by the many switchbacks that lead to Hoover Dam. The Bypass will ensure uninterrupted traffic along Highway 93, which has been designated a NAFTA route. Expected to be completed in 2010, it will consist of a 2,000 foot long bridge that crosses the Colorado River, spanning a mountain gap between Nevada and Arizona.[2]


Looking at an unfinished bridge ,sitting high above a nearly empty dam, one formidable engineering project piled on top of another, a new route literally, intentionally, bypassing American history, I watch that history evaporate with the water. I imagine international commerce proceeding more efficiently, and I take heart knowing that, at the very least, less will be lost and sacrificed during the construction process this time around.


But I can't help but look down and wonder where all the water went. If the Dam ends up completely empty one day, if this is even possible, will the exposed riverbed tell the old stories? Probably not. Will people look down from the bridge and wonder?



VIII.

The narcotics arrests I witnessed is now available as a data point in the Las Vegas Police Department's Crime View[3] online service, which tracks criminals incidents city-wide. In the week since the arrest I witnessed, on the corner of Swenson and Twain alone, there were a number calls for police assistance, including a report of a stolen vehicle and an assault with a deadly weapon.


It had been just another night, just another arrest, just another data point at the corner of Swenson and Twain.


There is no glamor in this scene. Those living nearby, including my travel companion, seem resigned to this reality. In the weeks leading up to summer league, the internet was abuzz with light-hearted jokes about Javon Walker, a wealthy professional athlete, being mugged and left beaten on a Las Vegas street corner, one not too different from Swenson and Twain. Just another data point, I realize.


In a country and a city divided in so many ways, I see, from the safety of a locked car, a bypass that runs the two miles between the Thomas and Mack and Swenson and Twain. I was riding it right at that moment, with the doors locked. And, sadly, I'm really glad it's here.



IX.

The last Sunday of Summer League is an afterthought to almost everyone. The refs have traded in the quick whistle for the let 'em play; the coaches have traded in micromanaging for air it out. Even the players who are looking to make a roster realize that their fates have probably already been sealed.


After the final game, another last-second win, Monty Williams looks relieved. Summer League is a hectic time for a young coach. Monty had succeeded in balancing a number of interests: showing off Bayless, allowing a Finnish import some run, and integrating a young, fragile Frenchman into the big-dog American game. Monty pulled it off with a winning record, and although Summer League records are supposedly meaningless, this seemed to mean something. To him, to the franchise, to me.


His boss, Nate McMillan, is prepared to check out of the luxury hotel he was staying in as coach of the Trail Blazers so that he can check into the luxury hotel he will be staying in as an assistant coach for the United States Men's National Basketball Team, which is in final preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Coach McMillan, the only African-American coach on Team USA's coaching staff, has recently admitted in interviews that he is tired and can't wait until next off-season so that he will finally have time for a much-needed vacation. The obvious pressure to perform as a coach, the underlying pressure to serve as a pillar of a city, the forgotten pressure of having succeeded against a stacked deck is unimaginable to an observer. To do it with such grace, despite the fatigue, with the eyes of younger black men like Monty Williams trained upon him, is something like greatness.



X.

Upon first meeting Coach Williams some months back, he told me about overcoming a strange heart condition during his basketball playing days at Notre Dame; confronting the fact that his career might be over; how health questions dropped his draft stock, costing him millions of dollars; and about how he firmly believes that his unexpected return to complete health was an act of God. A miracle, in his words.


By chance, I was on the same Sunday night flight back to Portland as Monty Williams and the rest of the Blazers' assistants. As I passed by his seat in first-class, I smiled broadly and offered a fist-pound, both of which Monty returned graciously. I attempted to joke, "You know I'm going to have to interview you about your thoughts on this flight." Monty laughed a short, easy laugh, and quickly and plainly said, "I'm off the clock."


"You earned it, Coach," I mumbled to myself, appreciatively, as I shuffled down the aisle looking for my seat. Stretched out comfortably, with the winning Summer League record, a young roster that is the toast of the league, and home just a two-hour flight away, the last thing Monty needed from me, or anyone else, was validation.




[1] http://www.hooverdamstory.com/blacks.htm

[2] http://www.hooverdambypass.org/

[3] http://www.lvmpd.com/crimeviewcommunity/

 
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