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|| News Item: Posted 2007-02-27

When The Circus Comes To Town
By Sam Morris, The Las Vegas Sun

Photo by Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Photo by Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

With each facelift, Mr. Las Vegas, also known to locals as "The Wayner," gets closer and closer to becoming the modern day visage of Liberace or The Joker. You decide.
Come see the comical clown
Turning himself upside-down
Come and purchase a photograph
Of the freaks and the big giraffe
Open your dining room and start to laugh
The circus is coming to town.

- Irving Berlin

Yes, indeed, the circus did come to town. And I'm not talking about Barnum, Vargas or that low-rent, pink and white property near the Stratosphere. Nope, I'm talking about the biggest circus Vegas will see until the Democratic caucuses next year: David Stern and his NBA All-Star Extravaganza.

If anyone saw both nights of the All-Star game done Vegas Style, they would know how prescient Irving Berlin was. Comical clown Charles Barkley turning himself upside down after showboating during a 40-yard dash against a 150-year-old referee. Freaks? One look at Carrot Top a couple rows back and you knew they were in attendance. Giraffes? Pretty obvious.

But let me back track a bit. As one of the "full time" stringers for the San Francisco bureau of the AP during the 90's, I had my hand in many large sporting events and I loved every minute of it, even if all I was doing was souping 140 rolls of film during a rain-soaked drubbing the 49ers took at the hands of Brett Favre in the 1998 NFC Championship Game.

The planning involved, the chaos that would ensue, the inevitable malfunction that would have to fixed with gaff tape and baling wire, the deadlines, the long hours, the feeling that everything was conspiring against you - but then you got it done, did a good job and went out for a pint with a fellow photographer you haven't seen in years. Some may not like having to work these big events (especially after years and years of doing them), but I loved them just because they were so different from everyday work.

Fast forward a little and I find myself married with my first daughter and looking for a newspaper job because of "contractual difficulties" with the AP. After about a year of working at the Las Vegas Sun, I finally buried my emotions about missing "big time" sporting events and resigned myself to shooting second-rate college and third-rate hockey and baseball. Sure, there is the PGA and LPGA stop, NASCAR, the NFR and an occasional NCAA tournament, but it isn't the same. And in fact, I found it better because there is better access and a lot more leeway when you don't have your coverage dictated by television. Or at least it isn't dictated as much as when coverage of an event is owned by TV.

Photo by Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Photo by Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Dorothy, we are not at prep basketball anymore.
So it was with excitement tempered by trepidation that I shot a news conference with David Stern and Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman announcing Las Vegas as the site of the 2007 NBA All-Star game. I knew it could be fun, but I decided to play curmudgeon and not care because it was just going to be a big tease about getting a pro sports team and it was going to really screw up traffic.

Besides, The Sun changed format a year-and-a-half ago from being a daily PM to being a daily AM section of analysis and commentary (ostensibly a daily "magazine") that is delivered with the Review Journal. I knew we wouldn't be doing daily coverage of the weekend but we would be shooting more to illustrate what was going to be written.

My first taste of what was to come happened the week before when heading to an assignment at Mandalay Bay, I found that my "secret" parking spot which allows me quick access to Mandalay Bay was taken up by a bunch of tents set up for the All-Star Jam. Grumblegrumblegrumble…

Things were bound to get worse. And they did Wednesday afternoon of All-Star week when trying to get to the MGM for an assignment, I found myself stuck in traffic on Tropicana for half an hour, almost making me late. The next day was credential pick-up day and with closed eyes and clenched teeth, I dove back into the fray of the Strip and Tropicana. My fears were alleviated when everything was fast, efficient and friendly, even for some guy from a paper the NBA PR team had never heard of. Maybe it wouldn't be as bad as I thought it would be.

As it turned out, it wasn't. Arriving a couple hours before the start of the skills challenge, I saw the AP's Mark Terrill and Kevork Djansezian (I have no idea how after 10 years I can still spell his name) setting up remotes and dozens of black clad TV types running around looking important. And then, there they were: Pippen and Lambier shooting baskets, Bill Russell and Kobe chatting and laughing on the bench (where's one of those dish monkeys when you need one? Oh, to hear what was being said). OK, so this is pretty cool.

As it turned out, the skills challenge one of the most contrived things I have seen in a long time, even by Vegas standards. With the exception of the Barkley incident and a couple other moments, it could have, should have, been boiled down to 15 minutes. But then TNT couldn't have sold as much advertising and I wouldn't have gotten to see SI's John McDonough's insane, bazillion remote cameras and strobe rig. Or so it seemed.

Photo by Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Photo by Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Those without strobes have to make do with available light and the chance that your best photo is taken at the same time as a strobed photographer. Mess around with levels and curves and turn it in for an art photography project.
When he realized that one of his strobes was only firing once every five frames, I was almost expecting him to explode. But the urgency on his face belied his calm as he called for one of the assistants in his coterie, told him about the problem and that "we" had to get fixed. It's nice to see photographers at the top understanding it's a team effort. At least sports photographers.

When the Sunday All-Star game rolled around, the Thomas & Mack was in full tilt Vegas cheese. While most cities hate their stereotype, Las Vegas embraces and celebrates itself and every stereotype it has. >From the showgirls and "Mr. Las Vegas" Wayne Newton (who, after his 40th face lift, looks like an escapee from Madame Taussaud's at the Venetian) to Elvi doing dunks off trampolines, it was an All-Star weekend that only Vegas could do.

Much of what Vegas was able to provide happened off court, with seemingly every nightclub hosting a party with some player and a rapper/DJ. With those days 20 years in my past, I only knew of them because of the billboards all over town and full page ads enticing the throngs to stop by, drop $300 on a bottle of vodka and maybe, just maybe get a glimpse of their favorite player.

As for the game itself, I was feeling a little guilty about having a shooting spot on the floor given that the photo I needed for the next day was a scene setter to go with a column on Monday.

Why does Bryan Patrick from the Sacramento Bee get relegated to the bench behind me while I get a floor spot? If someone would have asked, I would have happily traded. But until someone did, I was content to enjoy the spot. Which I did. While not interesting as a basketball game, it was a lot of fun seeing these players I only read about goofing around, playing loose and jawing at each other. "Watch yo' head!" says Shaq before a dunk. After Kobe split the lane with lapidary precision, an East opponent yells, "Ooooo, you in there like swimwear." Shaq giving Amare Stoudamire a kiss after dunking on him. The crowd roaring with laughter when Mehmet Okur decided to actually defend someone (must be some crazy form of pro ball they play in Turkey).

So how was the invasion of photographers, media and the NBA circus? It wasn't as bad as I feared and it was pretty cool to see the evolution of photography and remotes that has happened in the past 10 years. Where one or two photographers would be running a remote a decade ago, it seemed like everyone was running at least a couple. It was good seeing photographers I hadn't seen in a while and it was nice being able to see the box scores come to life.

As for the question of whether or not Las Vegas will get a pro team, I'm not holding my breath. There's that gambling thing commissioners have an aversion to. Add to that the fact that Las Vegas is a very fickle sports town and people tend to identify and support teams from where they are from, it would be a stretch to get a minimum of 15,000 seats filled for a game. But, with the force of his personality, our Mob Mayor may actually get it done.

Would I welcome another All-Star game? Definitely, but it's not going to happen until the Mickey Mouse setup of the Thomas & Mack gets replaced. Would I welcome a pro team? I would love having that environment back.

Except for the three years of taking photos of an arena being built.

(Sam Morris is a staff photographer with the Las Vegas Sun. You can view Sam's work at his member page:

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