Every sports narrative you’ve ever been truly in love with somehow always comes back to you. And this one, of the Golden Knights, starts for me with an all too familiar thing for those of us who ever lived anywhere else. We’ve all laughed about it.
When you tell people you’re from Las Vegas — as in, was born there, grew up there — you’ll get, without fail, the same kinds of reactions:
- Did you grow up in a casino? (No, dumbass.)
- How far did you live from The Strip? (Like most people, 10-15 minutes, give or take.)
- Do you know how to gamble? (Sure, but moreover, I know not to.)
- What was that like?
It’s always been weird, trying to answer it. Or at least answer it simply. It was both completely normal, and also, totally fucked up and bizarre. If you’re from Chicago, or LA, or Miami, or Portland, nobody asks you what that was like. Even native New Yorkers, when revealed, aren’t looked at like they just told people they were from the sketchiest moon of Mars.
Because on the one hand, it’s like growing up around so many other big cities: There are suburbs and strip malls and schools. Mom was a teacher, dad was a lawyer, stepmom worked in HR. I went to Sunday school. I played some sports. I went to high school house parties. I did Normal American Kid shit.
On the other hand, our grocery stores have slot machines in them. Remember the scene in Ocean’s Eleven, when a stripper pulls a keycard off a security guard for Brad Pitt? He tells the dancer to tell her mom he says hello, and she says that he can say it himself (“she’ll be on stage in five minutes”). My friend’s mom danced at that same club.
Another friend’s mom was a cocktail waitress at the Mirage. One dad was a pit boss at the Hard Rock. Another mom was a magician at Caesar’s. Our debauched after-prom party was in a suite in the Mandalay Bay. Our city’s first exposures to high art were Cirque du Soleil, and, later on, Steve Wynn’s private Picasso collection (most famous for the time he put an elbow through one of them, when giving Nora Ephron a personal tour). The most notable, memorable museum Vegas ever had was the Liberace museum, which closed up shop a few years ago (at least until the Neon Boneyard took its place).
And if you grew up here, you might’ve yearned for some sense of normalcy. As far as things to take pride in from our hometown, there haven’t been a ton that are truly ours. What things we could, theoretically, brag about, most were for other people. These are the same ones who make up a not-insignificant portion of the population week-to-week — bodies in, bodies out, pockets emptied, next.
There’s not a Las Vegas accent, or a Las Vegas-born food. There wasn’t a cool Vegas neighborhood. And so many of the acts that got famous off of Las Vegas got famous because they came here. Brandon Flowers of The Killers? Lived in Utah for middle school. One of those guys grew up in Iowa. Flowers, like whatshisname, the lead singer from that other Vegas-bred band, Imagine Dragons, doesn’t exactly reflect the town’s hedonistic spirit (both are members of the LDS church).
Sinatra was from Hoboken, his most famous song was about New York. Whereas Memphis made Elvis, Las Vegas made Elvis fat. And the most impressive politician Las Vegas ever produced wasn’t former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (who grew up in Searchlight, a place most Las Vegans couldn’t hit on a blank map), but Oscar Goodman, a former mob lawyer who once told a class of schoolchildren that, if stranded on an island, the one thing he’d bring is a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin. He was a spokesperson for them. It led to a now-classic Las Vegas Sun headline: “Mayor endorses gin to fourth graders.” Perfectly Vegas. And the most iconic cultural icons Vegas has forever had on offer have been simulacra of actual cultures, elsewhere. A fake New York skyline. A fake Eiffel tower. A fake Roman sky; fake Venetian canals. A fake Egyptian pyramid, replete with elevators that move on diagonals.
So, no: Born-and-bred 702 expats haven’t had all that much to go off of when talking about things from or in Vegas they’re truly proud of, or fond of, or things that make them yearn for home, or celebrate it from afar. Our city’s most perpetually impressive feat has, with few exceptions, been the way we’re able to repeatedly and reliably separate people from their money before they leave.
Until this last year.
But there have been exceptions. I lived in Vegas for almost 19 years. I remember Gucci Row. I saw Siegfried and Roy come to town — watched them perform, watched a giant dragon crush Roy in a magic can before he popped out unharmed and brought out the white tigers that’d, years later, maul him. I remember Cirque, when they first showed up, in a giant yellow-and-white striped tent behind the Mirage, right near the hotel and casino’s dolphin habitat, where I went on elementary school field trips. Or when the Circus Circus mounted a giant, pink-glassed dome atop a theme park with animatronic dinosaurs alongside rollercoasters, or when the Luxor (and its giant light that could supposedly be seen from space) first lit up the sky. I’ve seen the city during fight nights with Mike Tyson, when you know not to go on the Strip, because traffic would be a mess. You’d take Industrial, or Koval — the back-of-Trop artery ‘Pac was shot on, on one of those very same fight nights.
I remember the first weeks the volcano in front of The Mirage erupted, and how it was a sight to behold; same with the first ship-sinking pirate battle in front of the Treasure Island, and the opening of the Stratosphere Tower (which, if you’re really from Vegas, you remember being built as the Stupak Tower). I remember when they blew up the Dunes to make way for the Bellagio (which coincided, of course, with a show at the Treasure Island, where they “hit” the Dunes with a cannon from one of the pirate ships to destroy it). Shit, I remember the made-for-TV NBC kids special about it too, aired to commemorate the short-lived era of Vegas As A Family Destination (hard lesson, learned fast: people who bring kids to Vegas don’t gamble — they scrapped that idea pretty quickly).
I remember the only two times the lights went dim on the Strip: 9/11, and when Sinatra died. And I remember in fourth grade when my mom took me to see Ol’ Blue Eyes himself at the Crystal Ballroom at the Desert Inn. He closed with “New York, New York,” and left cherry Life Saver wrappers all over the stage. The city itself is an anomaly. It’s sustained human life in the middle of the desert. Our city is the Mos Eisley cantina, writ large.
All of which is to say:
I know from spectacles and shitshows. And if you grew up in Vegas, you’ve never seen anything remotely like what’s happened to the city since the Golden Knights showed up.
And that’s before you even get to the game.
Right off the plane at McCarran, Knights gear is being hawked, and purchased much in the way typical Vegas swag is picked up on the way out of town. Except: People were buying it on their way in. On Russell Road, where cars streamed out of Terminal 3, Knights logo stickers adorning the backs of every fifth car threading their way to Eastern. At Trader Joe’s, where my brother stopped after picking me up from the airport, I watched a frazzled father paw at a carton of strawberries, which went rolling over the floor. He gathered them, and uprighted himself — wearing a Knights shirt, of course. Some outlets of Vegas’ unlikely (and Delaware-born) local sandwich chain of choice, Capriotti’s, has temporarily changed their names to Knightriotti’s. The article, from the local ABC affiliate, is written entirely using lowercase letters (#nocaps, get it?), as were several others about the playoffs.
And then there’s the Strip. Forever iconic, sleazy, glittery, and generally unalterable, the only times I can remember the Strip ever truly adjusting its facade are in moments of tragedy, with the aforementioned dimming of the lights. Even Christmas doesn’t quite light the city up in green and red like you might think it would. The Strip strays from its trademark kitsch rarely, if ever.
The faux Statue of Liberty at the New York, New York faces east down Tropicana, wearing a massive Knights jersey. Across the street, Leo the Lion, who guards the facade of the MGM Grand, is now sporting a Knights logo on his chest. Julius Caesar, in front of his namesake Palace, Hotel & Casino, rocks a hockey stick and a Knights pennant. Not far from the Emperor, they smashed a giant Knights logo-adorned puck into a pedestrian bridge on the corner of Flamingo and The Strip, because why the hell not?
Celine Dion got on stage inside the Colosseum theater at Caesar’s the other night, wearing a Marc-Andre Fleury jersey. A read of one local gossip column includes the Chippendales, Gladys Knight (of course), and the guy who plays Lucky the Leprechaun at O’Shea’s all getting in on some Knights action, too. Penn & Teller did the pregame intro for Game 1 on NBC; Lil Jon, who’s perpetually in residence at clubs across the city, screamed “Turn Down For What” in front of the gathered crowd on Toshiba Plaza, where the Monday afternoon madness was comparable to The Strip on New Year’s Eve. You could even get a free tattoo with the Knights logo, right there, if you wanted. Many did.
As noted: There’ve been exceptions.
The Knights are of a phenomena Las Vegans have previously seen flashes of, from time to time. They aren’t the first foray the national sports spotlight for Las Vegas. We’ve had a handful of semi-pro teams, and of course, where there are tennis fans from Vegas, there are Andre Agassi acolytes.
This wouldn’t be a story about Vegas sports without mention of the briefly-lived pro-wrestling-as-football XFL’s Las Vegas Outlaws, one of the league’s more popular teams. Maybe that was by default, as there were already pro sports teams in most of the XFL’s other markets, or maybe it’s because the Outlaws’ Rod “HE HATE ME” Smart was the league’s sole breakout star and best-selling jersey (pretty sure I’ve got one of those shirts in a box, somewhere). But I can attest to having been to an XFL game, and having watched several games on TV. We wanted a real team.
And we’ve had one, too.
The Tarkanian era of UNLV Runnin’ Rebel basketball — with all of its requisite madness — is for many Las Vegans, the last time something on a scale of the Knights happened. There was the aforementioned star-studded Gucci Row (immortalized forever in verse, thank Drake). That was around the era of the 1990 championship team lineup, a motley murderer’s row of misfits who played such transcendent basketball that they flummoxed the seemingly unbeatable, unbearably straight-laced players of Duke, to the tune of the greatest NCAA finals point deficit ever. Final score: 103-73.
Their unlikely general, Jerry Tarkanian, was a towel-chomping Armenian guy who was the unwieldy albatross and bane of the NCAA’s pencil-necked bureaucrats’ existence. He even somehow made an enemy out of casino magnate Steve Wynn (more on him, shortly). They hated Tark and called him a “rug merchant.” They tried to cast him out, and did. He sued. He won. Years later, we immortalized him in bronze, and he’s spoken of like a sacred, sage college basketball whisperer who, in his prime, was an unstoppable, magic force. But at the time, in 1990, Las Vegas was far from the metropolis it is today, and UNLV was seen as a cesspool team that happened to have, unbelievably, a higher education institution.
When they won that year, there was a parade. It’s the only parade in the city I can remember. Maybe there have been others, but I doubt it. And those men involved remained city legend: Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony, George Ackles, Anderson Hunt. Tark’s son, Danny, is a local politico. Sydney Green, who went on to a respectable career with the Spurs, used to host a basketball camp every summer at Green Valley High School.
But that ended in a slow fade — it’s hard to keep national attention on a college basketball program, even one in Las Vegas. The losses mounted. The fandom dwindled. Gucci Row abdicated.
Which brings about a common question, where the Knights are concerned: Is this improbable season the outlier it appears to be, for the fandom above all? What happens if the Knights’ golden luster starts to fade?
Before I got to T-Mobile Arena yesterday, I rang up Charles Bock. Charlie, who now (like me) lives in Brooklyn, grew up in Vegas. Went to Clark High, and then, somehow, got out of town, went on to write a critically-acclaimed novel about Las Vegas, Beautiful Children. Charlie’s parents owned a pawn shop downtown (that Steve Wynn once wanted to be razed.) He’s the real artifact, as far as the rare breed of Esteemed Vegas-Born Writers are concerned. And he also, like me, still improbably owns XFL Outlaws paraphernalia. He’s a tried-and-true Vegas Sports Fan, inasmuch as such a thing has existed before now — in our conversation, he told me about a CBA team, the Las Vegas Dealers, I never even knew existed. And he remembers the heady days of UNLV Basketball, and all that’s happened since.
“When Vegas went to the Final Four in ‘87, the roof of Valley National Bank had ‘GO REBELS’ on it. Every window of every store: ‘GO REBELS.’ The dealers wore UNLV shirts and hats. And I looked on the RJ website, and saw what was happening now — for 25 years, the city’s been waiting to root for something that’s truly a Vegas thing.
“And I think” he mused, “that there’s a feeling that Vegas is a different place now from what it was then,” he said. “That it’s a city beyond the Strip. That the people are not tethered to the old ideas of what it was.
“We have our own identity, and it has nothing to do with Tark The Shark. We’ll take the light show.”
As for #DesertHockey, this isn’t our first time, either. From 1993-1999, there were the IHL’s Las Vegas Thunder, which had a respectable local fanbase. They played at UNLV’s arena, the Thomas & Mack Center, and during their first year in town, had the best record in the division, 52-18-11. In the Thunder, we also had a memorable mascot (Boom Boom, a polar bear), and for a brief spell, the first female pro hockey player, French-Canadian goalie Manon Rhéaume, which for young, hockey-playing men of a certain age (me, then 10 or 11, having recently seen D2: The Mighty Ducks too many times to count, and wanting nothing more then to be awesome at hockey and play on a team with Julie “The Cat” Gaffney) was the absolute shit.
Really, desert hockey’s always been around. I played youth hockey for a year at the first decent ice rink in town, which was built at the Sante Fe Hotel & Casino, all the way north. It’s the most local of locals places. The ice rink was an odd curio for Vegas, let alone northwestern Vegas, that felt imported directly from the Midwest and dropped into an off-strip, locals-heavy casino. It bookended a pro shop with a bowling alley, behind which, of course, was a full casino floor.
Why hockey, here? You can ask Coyotes fans the same thing, but it was always obvious to any of us who were fans. For one thing, in Las Vegas, there are two seasons: “Hot” and “Cold.” Hockey spoke to other places — places that were normal. With four seasons. Where people wore things like scarves, because they needed them. Hockey, as a sport, was a microcosmic cosplay mimicking a distant suburban American normalcy you could only dream of having a piece of. Of course, the grass is always greener, but that’s besides the point. Some people got stars at night. We got neon.
So, yes: There’s always been a hunger here for a professional sports team, something for the city to rally around and put it on par with the rest of America, that shows that this is a real place where people live, not just a place people drop into and then escape, only having left behind the actions of their worst inhibitions.
But if you’re looking to track a narrative for the Golden Knights, there are four major points to track. The first one goes back exactly a decade, to when the financial crisis started to have the largest impact on America. Consider: When jobs start to dwindle, what’s the first kind of expendable income to go out the window? Gambling money.
Mid-city neighborhoods were abandoned, and our sprawling suburbs became contemporary western ghost towns made up entirely of McMansions. It looked like an economic nuclear event bombed out every middle class enclave, including one I grew up in. And if you’re going to argue that this is what’s happened (or: is happening) in every American city, know this: In the lead up to the crash, Vegas was one of the fastest growing cities in American history. And at various points since, it’s held the depressing distinction of hosting the highest unemployment rate, bankruptcy rate, and foreclosure rates in the country. We almost lost Detroit? We almost lost Vegas.
A lot of people left. Those who stayed had to hold on for dear life.
The economy started to creep back. Vegas started to get back on its feet. But three more things have happened since that recovery, that track to the Golden Knights narrative. The End of the Valet Era, The Downfall of Steve Wynn, and The Shooting.
Start with the seemingly dumb one: We lost our free valet. In January 2017, MGM Mirage resorts started to charge for parking. The free valet was sacrosanct, a seemingly untouchable perk built for locals, that created a microeconomy of its own. Being a valet at a strip casino could net you a decent income in tips, up to a couple grand a month, especially if you were quick on your feet and never dinged anyone’s ride. I know some teachers who worked valet on summer breaks.
Moreover, it signaled to Las Vegans (who had the majority of the cars being parked) that the casinos were still for them, too. But MGM Mirage’s stock was hurting, and it was another way to squeeze a dime out of a nickel, or really, a dime where a dime never was. It created more of the Us vs. Them divide in Vegas: The faceless corporation that feeds Wall Street more than it does a city, and the city that works for it.
Cut to: Steve Wynn, who went down just a few short months ago in a series of sexual harassment and assault allegations. Wynn was the singular force in turning modern Las Vegas into the spectacle you know it as today — those aforementioned tigers, dolphins, Picassos? The Bellagio Fountains that dance at night to “Clair De Lune” in front of a fake Lake Como, that set the scene for the iconic denouement of Ocean’s Eleven? Cirque? Siegfried and Roy? All him.
The man was a notorious perfectionist and involved himself in day-to-day operations in all of his properties. When his daughter was kidnapped in 1993, Vegas time stopped. The man wasn’t a kingmaker — he was a king, a seemingly invincible entity who put a face to a gambling fortune and literally put his signature on his hotel.
Wynn was a pitch-perfect caricature of an old-school Vegas magnate living in modern times. As far as people who were the architects of Las Vegas, as known by all the people who visit every year, he can reasonably lay claim to a lion’s share of that credit. In 2000, Wynn’s Mirage Resorts was acquired by MGM Mirage, creating what’s essentially become the dominant, behemoth, faceless casino holding monopoly in Vegas. And in 2018, Wynn was accused of harassment, several times over, and had to resign not long after.
It wasn’t surprising to anyone who isn’t surprised by powerful people abusing their power, and for the most part, people at home were scandalized, but shrugged. A billionaire got taken down; the casino won’t go anywhere (for now). But the bigger story — a long overdue reckoning of Vegas’s selling of sex, and the line-drawing over it — has only just started. The city that’s always sold sex as an accoutrement of money (or, if you’re being poetic, vice-versa) might have to get with the times. That’s not such a bad thing.
Meanwhile, MGM Resorts — who first took down Wynn in their hostile takeover bid in 2000, who yanked the free valet from Las Vegans — are in a far worse world of problems than Wynn. Because now we know: The corporatized cost-cutting of MGM Mirage may well have set the stage for the hotel policies that enabled a guy to keep a DND tag on his door at the MGM Mirage-owned Mandalay Bay for several days, as he stockpiled an arsenal in his room. And you know where that goes from there. The group now faces the threat of crippling lawsuits, and a far darker stain on their hands than Wynn.
And about that shooting, and the city’s reaction to it: There are mixed feelings. On the one hand, yes, plenty of people in town saw the #VegasStrong campaign as a trite exercise in gauche hashtag branding. On the other, it was ubiquitous, effective, and brought the city together. Many indeed found it helpful in the aftermath — I’ve even got one of the buttons, on my fridge, back in Brooklyn.
The shooting made me sad for home; but it didn’t make me yearn for it. It was a mixed bag. The places you could go pop off an AK for a few bucks as part of your Vegas Bachelor Weekend? They haven’t gone anywhere. But there is a deep pride in the way this city came together to volunteer, donate, give blood, and so on. My Lyft driver on the way to last night’s Knights’ game? She was taking a break from her previous gig as a trauma counselor at the Mandalay Bay in the aftermath of the shooting (she was, of course, pretty excited by the game).
If you’re to take away anything from these three things, let it be this: Las Vegans don’t take pride in their casinos these days, if they ever did. They always have been, and still very much are, who they work for. Now more than ever. This is an inherently oppressive circumstance, and in my experience, this city isn’t easily rallied. But it wants for a cause. Given the worst kind, it persevered.
Given the best kind? It’s prospered.
You see it in the way you roll up to Toshiba Plaza, tucked behind the New York, New York, where there’s a sea of grinning fans in black, silver, and gold. You see it inside T-Mobile Arena where, throughout the entire game, the lines at merch stands will outnumber any other line in the house — for beer, for Shake Shack, for whatever. Or in the way “Go, Knights, Go!” chants will break out at random. These are things you’d probably see at any other sporting event where a team’s going far, and has fan momentum behind them.
But then, during the game, the Jumbotron projects three giant slot machine reels, that, when they hit their inevitable jackpot, prompt the crowd to scream. During the “Star Spangled Banner”, the crowd screams during “gave proof, through the NIGHT! that our flag ...” Vegas’s famous feathered showgirls skip around the concourse. You might catch a glimpse of one of the local Vegas social media celebrities who’ve since emerged over the course of the Knights’ season (though Bark-Andre Furry was nowhere to be found).
Or an actual Vegas celebrity, who tied his name to the Knights early on.
Every city has their local injury lawyer, a Saul Goodman of their own, with the requisite face-on branding. Vegas’s has always been Ed Bernstein, or Ed Bernstein & Associates, if we’re getting technical. “Eddie” has his face on billboards all over town, and was once called by the Review-Journal a “pioneer of local advertising.” The man’s hosted a local TV show for 28 years. And he was the first, he claims, to have purchased sponsorship with the Knights, when he picked up the branding on the penalty kill. While we’re talking, a random fan — again, of a local personal injury lawyer — comes up, and introduces himself.
“I can’t even get gas without someone rolling down their window and yelling ‘GO, KNIGHTS, GO’ at me,” he laughed. “I’ve lived here for 42 years. This is the single most important thing that’s ever happened to our city.
“People finally realized we’re something other than the Strip,” he noted. “When they’re watching television, and see 15,000 people outside and 19,000 people inside, they see there’s a real city here. Unlike the Raiders, which is an existing team, [the Knights] were built from the ground up.
“The city had a hand in forming how this team was gonna be. And the team had a hand in forming, post-October 1st, how the city was going to be.”
And I can tell you how they formed it: Remember those aforementioned spectacles?
Watching the Golden Knights opening to the game, there hasn’t been an old-school shitshow like that in years. The pre-game Jumbotron reel featuring Gwen Stefani, Carrot Top, Jimmy Kimmel, the Backstreet Boys, Wayne Newton, Bryce Harper (!), Lil Jon, the Blue Man Group; the pounding-loud, building-shaking Game of Thrones-style opening drama of archers and drumlines and a string section accompanying Imagine Dragons; the flames, everywhere; the ceremonial lowering of the helmet, the players coming out of the helmet, the puck drop, the crowd — dear God -- that crowd. They went apeshit.
Nobody ever lost their minds over that stupid, fake volcano. Nobody ever teared up at those dumb fucking pirates. And nobody has ever seen the place they are from articulated so perfectly in a stunning display of what can only be characterized as intense, unapologetic flamboyance, with that many people watching.
There’s an old Vegas adage: This town wasn’t built on winners. And then there’s that Bruce Springsteen line: “It’s a town full of losers, and we’re pulling out of here to win.” I used to think about these two things, together, a lot.
I was asked to answer a question about whether or not Vegas will become like Any Other Sports City. The answer is pretty simple: How could it ever?
Yes, Las Vegas is a shitshow, and as the city’s first true born-and-bred pro sports team, the Golden Knights have wholly embraced this. It may be my hometown’s most reliable product and its defining quality. And yes, if it does happen, there’s a huge upside to Vegas winning the Stanley Cup — a complete defiance of the House Odds of the universe, to say nothing of the odds Vegas’ bookies gave their city’s team: 500:1. This potential outcome could rob the aforementioned core mechanisms that power Las Vegas of an unthinkable amount of a single-day cash loss it never imagined itself parting with. The entire thing is so, so rich. There’s an Ocean’s Eleven-esque feel for it: How can you not root for the guys, who are so patently of Las Vegas, about to rob the casinos, eyes wide open? Yeah, we’ll take any fairweather fans. Anyone who wants to root for that? They’re one of us.
After a recent round of talking shit on each other’s teams, a friend from D.C. went there: But seriously, the Caps losing would be so the Caps thing to have happen. And yet, I answered: Going almost all the way, pushing all your chips in, and losing? That’s what Vegas was made from.
And right there, yes: I found the silver lining in a potential Knights’ loss. I’ve been through the ritual of preemptively cursing my own team, because of some personal narrative I’d assigned to them, the city they were from, all of it. Vegas, after these long, hard, exhausting years, and this last one in particular, has finally won something, which may be both as small and as massive as the ability to do just that.
I was born and raised in Las Vegas, and the entire time, I couldn’t wait to get out. For one of the first times since I’ve left, I’ll miss it. I kind of can’t wait to get back.
But I really can’t wait for the next time I tell someone I’m from there. I’m hoping I’ll get a new question this time:
How ‘bout those Knights?