Four years and 164 home games after moving from New Orleans, the Utah Jazz finally got to play in a city that remotely fit the nickname they stole from Louisiana. Far removed from Salt Lake City, the Mormon Church and the Wasatch Mountains, the Jazz lost last week to the Chicago Bulls 128-117 in the first of 11 home-away-from-home games to be played in Las Vegas' new Thomas and Mack Center, just a short roll of the dice from the Strip.
However, the evening was not all gold and glitter. Sure, the Jazz's cheerleaders were as nifty as any chorus girls in town, but many in the crowd of 13,186—the largest in Utah Jazz history and the largest ever to attend an indoor sporting event in Vegas—didn't know whom to root for: the "home" team or the home boys, Reggie Theus and Sidney Green, University of Nevada, Las Vegas products now playing for the Bulls.
Even without the matter of divided loyalties, there was some question as to how welcome the Jazz would be, a result of the NBA's ban on legalized betting on the 11 games to be played in Vegas. The operators of the town's 22 legitimate sports betting parlors weren't happy about that. In fact, as a sort of protest to the NBA, half a dozen of the sports books are not accepting bets on any Jazz games.
"It was the league's concern that anyone coming to these games should just cheer about what's happening out on the floor," says David Checketts, the Jazz's executive vice-president. "The league didn't want a situation where Darrell Griffith hits a three-point shot at the buzzer to win a game for the Jazz and people boo him because they have money on the other team."
The gamblers, of course, live and die for just such situations. "I'm completely disillusioned with the NBA over this," says Lem Banker, a Vegas gambler. "There are more illegal bookies in New York's Madison Square Garden than in the whole state of Nevada. This is a league full of guys renegotiating contracts and sniffing coke, but they say they're worried about their credibility. If it wasn't for gambling, the NBA wouldn't have made it."
When Utah co-owner Sam Battistone announced last summer that the Jazz would set up shop in Las Vegas, his idea was to generate extra revenue for the team and help an old friend, Irwin Molasky—one of UNLV's biggest supporters—fill some dates in the new building. But all his Vegas move has done is to create ill will in Las Vegas and among the team's Salt Lake City fans. "The first thing I would have done was to take all the season-ticket holders and fly them into Vegas for the opening game, put them up in hotels and give them free tours of the city," says Checketts, who joined the team on Aug. 4. "That way it wouldn't have seemed only like something was being taken away from them."
The NBA's Board of Governors approved the Jazz's junkets to Vegas, but only after calling for a prohibition on betting in Vegas on the team's full 82-game schedule. The operators of the local sports books objected, claiming that the NBA was trying to take away the town's livelihood. The Nevada Gaming Commission struck the 11-game compromise, and even that brought howls of protest from the sports books, who felt, according to Vic Salerno, the president of the Nevada Association of Race and Sports Book Operators, that "the Commission sold us out to a bunch of carpetbaggers."
To the contrary, says Dave Fredman, a Jazz official who believes that the ban will actually help the gaming industry; "What they'll find," Fredman says, "is that there wasn't a lot of money being bet on Utah games anyway, but with us here people will be more anxious to place bets more often on other NBA teams that have either been here or are coming here."
In any case, there is precedent for the betting prohibition. UNLV football and basketball games have officially been off the boards since 1972. Games of the Las Vegas Stars, the Triple A farm club of the San Diego Padres, can't be wagered on, either.
Salerno admits that the money bet on Jazz games "isn't relevant," but he says, "I just wonder what happens next. Will the hotels that these NBA teams stay in have to close their casinos? If they're concerned about a fix, the books are the best police the NBA could have because we have the most to lose. If any unusual amount of money came in on the Jazz or any team, we'd know something was wrong, and the game would be taken off the board."
As an example, Salerno cites a situation early last season involving the Detroit Pistons. Every time the Pistons played at the Pontiac Silverdome, the site of their 41 home games, the final score exceeded the books' over/under line, an estimate of the total number of points that will be scored in a game. To Salerno, this was a "problem." and no bets were allowed on Piston home games until the cause of the "problem" was uncovered.
"We concluded that when a ball went out of bounds or time was called, the timekeeper would snap the clock off, saving a few seconds here and there." Salerno says. "That added three or four minutes to every game, thereby providing more opportunities to score."
Although they didn't show it last week in Las Vegas, the Jazz is a much-improved team over last season's 30-52 squad, which finished 23 games behind Midwest Division leader San Antonio. Through last weekend, they were 7-9, four games behind the streaking Dallas Mavericks. Adrian Dantley, the 6'5" small-forward scoring machine, who missed all but 22 games last year because of torn ligaments in his right wrist, is back and averaging a league-leading 30.4 points a game, including a 47-point explosion (27 for 31 from the foul line) in the Jazz's 126-124 victory Friday over Denver. Forward John Drew played in only 44 games last season, part of which he spent in a drug-rehabilitation program, but now he's averaging 21.3 points a game. Griffith is second in the league in three-point goal accuracy (21 for 44, .477), and is averaging 19.0 ppg. Moreover, the team is getting help from unexpected sources. Mark Eaton, the 7'4", 290-pound center who seemed to be a bust last year, had 17 points and 12 rebounds and blocked six shots on Nov. 16, when the Jazz beat the Boston Celtics 122-109. And rookie Forward Thurl Bailey played a big hand in the Jazz's win over the Lakers in Los Angeles last week, tipping in the shot that ensured the 130-126 overtime victory.
That was a notable success (the Jazz hadn't won in Los Angeles since December 1978), but the team was flat in its Vegas debut the next night. Utah Coach Frank Layden said after the game. "The Bulls would have beaten us in Chicago or at Niagara Falls."
Maybe, maybe not. But in Las Vegas all bets were off.