As the Airbus 320, flying as Jet Blue Flight 611, made its way over the Utah mountains, banking towards lower Nevada, the lights down below finally came into view.
With every drop in descent, they grew brighter and brighter until right before landing when the city below became clear as day, even in the darkness of the hot desert night.
When the wheels touched down at McCarran International Airport, I had no idea what to expect from the next four days.
I was at the whim of myself, which is exactly what started this journey almost two weeks prior to landing.
• • •
It all began with a tweet, believe it or not.
“Taking a loaded squad out to Las Vegas July 20-23 for the BigFoot Live event,” read the words of @douglasrscott, boys basketball coach at Greens Farms Academy. “This crew = me being popular w/ scouting horde there #ctbb”
I quickly shot Coach Scott a text message asking why I wasn’t invited.
A tongue-in-cheek follow-up tweet asking if anybody had room in their carry on for me got me thinking.
Why couldn’t I go to Las Vegas?
To be honest, Vegas had never been a bucket list item for me.
If Kenny Rogers is “The Gambler” … If Darrell from Storage Wars is “The Gambler” … then I am the antithesis of that.
I lose money playing solitaire, so wasting money at any casino has never been high on my list of fun nights out.
But the more I thought about it – Las Vegas – the more I thought, “Why not?”
It might not be a bucket list moment, I figured, but as a full-blooded American male I should visit Sin City at least once, right?
I hopped online and booked my trip within minutes.
I was going to Las Vegas.
• • •
The Luxor, where I stayed for four days.
The first thing you notice is the heat. Sure, it’s a dry heat, but even at 11:36 p.m., PST, it was toasty hot.
I was staying at The Luxor, which is located on the south end of the infamous Las Vegas Strip – a stretch of land I would get to know very well a few nights later.
The second thing I noticed is taxis are expensive. More expensive than New York City, believe it or not.
Trying to make the trip as inexpensive as possible, I wasn’t renting a car until the final day. Uber, I found, was much cheaper and would be a key mode of transportation for me.
Checking into the hotel shortly before midnight was another big key to enjoying Las Vegas.
The team, its parents and its coach were all staying at The Luxor, so that’s where I chose to stay.
For those of you who don’t know Vegas, it’s the big pyramid hotel/casino nestled between Mandalay Bay and The Excalibur.
During day light hours, there was a long, twisting line of people waiting to check in and, sometimes, eight to 10 workers waiting to check them in.
At midnight, I was able to walk right up to the clerk and get pointed to my room.
Considering it was 3 a.m., Eastern Time, my body was ready for bed and nothing more.
• • •
Four members of the Greens Farms Academy boys basketball team joined forces for a summer AAU basketball tournament in Las Vegas.
Those who know me know I love basketball, especially at the high school and college level.
After all, four boys – four members of the GFA basketball team who joining forces to play on a make-shift AAU basketball team – were the big reason I flew almost coast to coast.
They had already played one game against an opponent from Houston while I was flying west on Thursday.
On Friday, at 8 a.m., they were to tip-off against a team from Montana and I would be there. After all, since my body was still on East Coast time, it was closer to 11 a.m.
And, they won again.
The game on Friday afternoon should have provided a different ending. After all, the “Dragons” as the team dubbed itself was squaring off against a team called the Las Vegas Prospects.
To put it simply, the Prospects are sponsored by Nike. They play in the EYBL, which stands for Elite Youth Basketball League.
This is big time AAU basketball, but our eight players – seven Connecticut bred and one out of New York – were more than worthy.
In fact, they were victorious, 57-53.
It gave them the No. 1 seed from their pool and a berth in the Sweet 16 of the tournament, where they would face a team from Chicago on Saturday.
Finally, after Friday’s second game, I was able to experience a little bit of Vegas.
I had made plans for Friday, to go see Hall & Oates and Tears for Fears in concert at the T. Mobile Arena.
The T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
It would be my 103rd concert, albeit first west of the Mississippi River.
Tears for Fears didn’t disappoint. I enjoyed them.
Hall & Oates, however, was the opposite. They sounded like a bad karaoke band trying to sing Hall & Oates.
I left early.
The highlight of Friday night, though, was the fact T-Mobile Arena wasn’t that far from The Luxor so I was able to go on foot patrol to get there.
I made a dry run in the early afternoon, picking up my ticket from the will call window.
I only had to be outside for about 200-meters of time.
The Luxor and The Excalibur are connected through a series of hallways and conveyor belts. From The Excalibur, I only needed to walk 50 yards across a bridge – and below a rollercoaster – to get into New York, New York, which literally looks like New York, New York.
The T-Mobile Arena was located just behind New York, New York.
Before the show, I decided to grab a bite to eat at a little Irish Pub located within New York, New York.
The great thing about each and every casino in Las Vegas is each one is a city onto itself.
In addition to the slots and table games there are a bevy of restaurants, bars, stores and other things to fill a day.
This particular bar had one of the best chicken pot pies I’ve ever had.
Thankfully, I didn’t vomit it up after Hall & Oates’ yak-job.
On the way back to The Luxor, I took my time checking out the different casinos.
The time change was catching up with me, though, and I was in bed before midnight – which I later found is when Las Vegas is really picking up.
• • •
Saturday meant another basketball game, against a team from Chicago.
It was the Round of 16, which meant if the boys lost their Las Vegas run would come to an end.
Instead, they again stepped up and won, advancing to Sunday’s final day of games.
I used most of Saturday – which was the hottest day of the trip — to stay local and explore the connected hotels.
First, I explored the rest of The Luxor before making my way over the Mandalay Bay.
Next door to The Luxor.
On the way I found a Guinness Store, complete with a Guinness bar. I was told it was one of just two in the entire world, with the other being located in Ireland.
I bought a t-shirt, saving myself $25 in lost gambling money.
After returning to The Luxor, I also decided to put my money where my devotion is.
I stopped by the Sports Book and put $20 down on the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series. If they win, I get $120 (plus by original $20) back.
I also decided to pick a National League team, opting for the Washington Nationals. They matched the Sox at 6-to-1 odds, meaning $120 would be coming my way.
Needless to say I’m rooting for a Red Sox-Nationals World Series.
I made it past midnight on Saturday, but not by much.
An 8 a.m. quarterfinal game awaited us the next morning.
• • •
Spring Valley High School, Las Vegas, Nev.
I didn’t get up early with the team and parents and arrived at Spring Valley High School by the end of the first half.
The boys were play a team based out of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and with two 6-foot-9 players they were the tallest team we had faced.
Again, it proved not to matter as the eight-man Dragons slayed another opponent, running their record to 5-0 in four days.
Not to switch sports terminology to those who got this far, but a curve ball was thrown into the tournament at this point.
AAU basketball being what it is – let’s face it, it’s about making money for the tournament organizers – the quarterfinals, semifinals and championship games are sometimes held in one day.
Anybody who has played basketball knows three high-tempo games is a lot and injuries are more apt to happen on such days.
With departing flights scheduled to start at 1:40 that afternoon, Coach Scott decided to pull his team out of the tournament.
He brought his team to Vegas so players could be seen by college scouts and that mission had been accomplished. Two of the eight players would be heading off to college soon and Coach Scott wasn’t going to send them off injured.
With that final buzzer, so ended my basketball duties.
My final 36 hours in Vegas were all about me.
During a nap back at the hotel, I received a text from some parents saying they were going to visiting the Red Rock Canyon and go out for some Thai food.
I paused and opted not to answer, but it would be something different. After days of basketball and casinos, nature would be a nice break.
And I’d never had Thai food before.
Red Rock was beautiful. Not to be confused with Colorado’s Red Rocks musical venue, Vegas’ Red Rock is on the western side of town and was clearly visible from Spring Valley High School, which is why a journey there appealed to us.
A 13-mile loop gave us views we simply don’t get here on the East Coast.
I’m glad I went.
As for the Thai food, I was cautiously optimistic.
The restaurant itself – Lotus of Siam – didn’t look like much.
Located inside of a strip mall, it opened at 5 p.m., and by 5:15 it was packed.
And oh my was it good.
We sampled each other’s appetizers and wolfed down our meals.
From Duck to seafood to some sort of spaghetti-esque meal with seafood and chicken on my plate, we gobbled down nearly $200 worth of food which was worth every penny.
I even had a Thai beer.
That night I decided I was going to walk part of the Las Vegas Strip.
Around 9 p.m., I left the Luxor took a Uber up to The Venetian.
I got out and began my journey back, step by step, under the lights and sounds of the Las Vegas night.
• • •
I walked through the Venetian and into The Palazzo, which I must admit I’d never heard of.
Entering The Venetian Casino.
I found a bar and ordered a margarita. When I got the tab, it was $16.
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas and thank goodness that goes from the prices of alcohol.
I paid because … well what the hell, it’s Vegas … and once it was gone I was on the move again, back through the Venetian and outside to the strip where I had options galore.
There was Treasure Island to the right, Casino Royal or Harrah’s to the left.
I opted to cross the road and head to The Mirage, which wasn’t as advertised, but really stood there.
And the air conditioned inside told me I’d be stopping at most of the casinos on the strip to at least cool off.
The $16 margarita.
I had another drink and walk around the casino, checking out the games and those who were playing.
People who go to Las Vegas run the gamut of mankind, that’s for sure.
Old people, young people, families; people both foreign and domestic.
It was the kind of human mash-up that gives New York City it’s unique vibe and energy and you could feel a little of that energy in Vegas.
After leaving The Mirage, I walked to Caesar’s Palace and this is where I became a winner in Vegas.
I had dropped $20 in the slots at The Luxor earlier in the trip.
But sitting and playing black jack I decided to call it quits when I was $13 up.
That way, I figured, I could say I left Las Vegas having lost just $7 in gambling.
Not bad, I figured.
But it was also while walking around Caesar’s that I witnessed another Las Vegas first – the hooker picking up a man at a bar.
She was in her 20s, he was in her 60s and, as odd as it sounds, it was a pleasure to watch them work the back and forth before heading off together.
There were a lot of young woman walking all over Las Vegas, most of them in packs.
This was the only time I saw a pro in her natural habitat, though, going after her prey and successfully taking them down.
With that, it was time to head to the Bellagio.
• • •
If I had my druthers – not to mention the money – I would have stayed at The Bellagio. To me, it’s the cream of the Vegas crop and it looks like it.
I wish I had spent more time checking it out, but I could feel myself growing tired and I was just a little over halfway back to The Luxor.
On the way out, though, I was caught up in the crowd standing by the water that sits in front of the facility and once the song “Hey Big Spender” started, I was treated to the infamous Bellagio water show, which was a lot of fun and brought a lot of joy to a lot of people.
I continued south, hitting a few more casinos in the process.
The Aria and the Monte Carlo were connected without going outdoors and once I realized New York, New York was on the horizon I got my second wind for the finishing lick to The Luxor.
I got turned around in The Excalibur for the second time (casinos are made to confuse people, thus keeping them inside, you know?) but before long I was back on the conveyor belts heading home.
Once I got into The Luxor I found a bar and ordered a rum and coke and some water.
I glanced at the pedometer app on my cell phone and realized I had walked more than 20,000 steps that day.
That’s more than 10 miles to you and me.
It was after two in the morning – which meant people back home in the east would be waking up soon.
I drunk texted a friend back home in Maine who I knew would be asleep, but would laugh when she woke up. (She later responded with “Yay”).
Then, hooker-free (not even hit on … am I that old and ugly?) I made my way back to my room.
I ordered a late check out for $30 more and found myself falling asleep with sore feet shortly before 3 a.m.
The last day in Vegas would come soon enough.
• • •
Again, to cut cost, I took the cheapest flight home and that would be the infamous red-eye, which was schedule to pull away from the gate at 11:56 p.m., Monday night.
That left me all day to find something to do.
I had budgeted a rent-a-car into my trip for Monday and was fortunate enough to get a Jeep for only $49. (They had no small cars left, but gave me a bigger model for the puny cost).
I returned to the hotel, packed up and checked out, hitting the streets of Vegas with no set schedule and only a mini-plan of what I wanted to do.
The first thing was to swing by the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
Keeping up with my basketball theme of this trip, I was a huge UNLV fan back in the day when they were good and winning (and losing) an NCAA title.
The Thomas and Mack Center – the place where UNLV played – wasn’t far from The Luxor, so I drove into the parking lot and took a picture of the place Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon once called home.
I then found the school bookstore and bought a t-shirt.
Then I set my GPS for The Hoover Dam.
Well, why not?
When you have a day to kill in Vegas and not much money left in your pocket or on the credit cards you need free things to do and such a man-made treasure was only 45 minutes away.
Before getting to the damn dam, I was pleased to find out that bridge that runs high over the dam and offers a spectacular view was named after former NFL star Pat Tillman, who left the league to join the armed forces and was killed by friendly in Afghanistan while protecting our country.
I even drove over the dam and into Arizona (technically another state I can cross off my list).
Growing ever more hungry, I decided to find a nice hole-in-the-wall palce instead of a chain restaurant.
I found it in the Boulder Dam Brewing Co. in Boulder City, Nev.
I ordered a Shandy (half-lemonade, half beer) along with some outstanding beer-battered mushrooms and not-so-great Philly Cheesesteak.
Some local talker who had bellied up to the bar proceeded to tell me how he special ordered his Toyota truck (“Cement is the official color,” he said) and was soon to retire from the national park service for which he walks.
With a full belly, I was soon on my way back to Vegas (another $20 poorer since I bought a Boulder City Brewing Company t-shirt), arriving by 7 p.m.
I still had five hours to kill and there was a movie theater on the way to the airport, so I pulled in and shelled out $12 to see Dunkirk.
I give it two thumbs up with the realization that anything that has Kenneth Branagh in it is usually really good.
After returning the rent-a-car, I took the shuttle to the airport and, in my heart, wished I didn’t have to leave.
There was so much more left to see in the valley of Las Vegas.
That means one thing: I’ll have to go back and finish the job.
You can bet on it.