Las Vegas Sun

April 19, 2014

NBA weekend: When cultures clashed

The stories were legion.

A body hits the ground after falling from a Strip casino parking ramp in front of a hotel employee. Lines of men "wash" the sides of the MGM Grand with their urine. Scores of people get cab rides, then run out on the fare.

True or not, all week the stories rumbled across Las Vegas, from casino bartender to floor supervisor to cabbie to cop.

Las Vegas was edgy and uncomfortable for last weekend's NBA All-Star Game, a weekend in which a confluence of events drew one of the largest number of out-of-towners ever to the city for a single weekend.

The subtext in all of this - generally spoken in code - is that many of the visitors were black.

Las Vegas was flooded with a crowd that merged the culture of hip-hop with a four-mile stretch of casinos that, until last weekend, almost certainly had never seen so many blacks.

"It was comparable to the National Finals Rodeo when you see all those cowboy hats," said one man who walked the Strip Friday and Saturday night. "Except, they were all black."

So was that it? Cowboys can act out, fail to tip (which many do), and swagger like they own the town. The Strip considers them boors, a term that is mild compared to the descriptions overheard in Las Vegas about last weekend's crowd. Is it that Las Vegas held a mirror up and saw, as 1954's March issue of Ebony magazine suggested, a place where "Negroes Can't Win"?

Alan Feldman, MGM Mirage spokesman, watched with disquiet one local TV news report of the e-mails being written to the station from viewers talking about "these people, being glad 'these people' were gone."

"These people," Feldman said, "are our customers, these people are our guests. Which people are you glad are gone? I think people have to sit back and think, get some perspective.

"I remember them saying in the early '90s that they couldn't wait for the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) crowd to leave, because all they wanted to do was go to the strip clubs and they were bad tippers.

"The truth is we have people misbehaving all the time for NASCAR, the rodeo, CES. It's the nature of what happens when you get a lot of people in the town. So, I'm not at all clear what this is but let me say, if it is racist, then I'm really disappointed for our community."

Jason Whitlock, too, is disappointed about what happened in Las Vegas. But he comes at it from the other side.

A sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, Whitlock flew here with fellow former Ball State University football players to celebrate a buddy's 40th birthday. Whitlock is black, and he says his pedigree includes "being very experienced with the 'hood,' and certainly very comfortable with black people."

Still, he couldn't get off the Strip fast enough.

"I don't care if you were black or white, it was an intimidating environment," he said. "You always felt like anything was a possibility. And I don't think white people saying that is an expression of racism. There was loud cussing, they were loudly using the N-word, smoking lots of marijuana, talking disrespectfully of anybody they felt like. You just felt like anything could happen."

One of Whitlock's friends was a Florida police detective. His take on the police presence was that officers were there to prevent disaster, but also mindful not to provoke it.

"Because there were just way too many people who looked like legitimate thugs or were legitimate thugs," Whitlock said. His friend thought police "just came to an agreement that, 'we're not going to bother each other.' And that was probably the best game plan. I mean, the arrest numbers could have been astronomical - but if they had been? You'd have had a riot."

For the record, 403 people were arrested from Thursday to Monday night, more than half in relation to prostitution. Also for the record, there were many unconfirmed shootings. That body that fell off a Strip hotel parking ramp? Neither the Metro nor the county coroner's office had a record of that.

Associate professor Rainier Spencer, director of Afro-American Studies at UNLV, says a direct connection can be made between the violence and uneasiness felt on the Strip and the decadeslong joining of hip-hop music and culture with the National Basketball Association. Hip-hop culture can entail a "very machismo attitude. It is a culture that demands respect in a machismo kind of way."

None of what transpired surprised him.

"You can't bring this thing here and be surprised about what happened," Spencer said.

What really tipped the scales, said Damon Hodge, a black journalist who grew up in West Las Vegas, is Las Vegas' proximity to Los Angeles.

"If you had the Super Bowl here, you'd have had the same thing," said Hodge, who strolled the Strip over the weekend. "Probably not with Major League Baseball, but hip-hop and the NBA and the NFL, they are all wound together. And people underestimate, you have all these L.A. guys, these thugs, coming up here. Then you have the local thugs who say, 'You know what? We're going to show them this is our town.' And then you get what we got."

On the Strip, he recognized that some "thugs" were definitely there to get into trouble.

"And I just knew, from talking to the guys at the barbershop, that there were all these guys coming into town from Cali, talking about what they were going to do to people."

He didn't want to see another weekend like it in Las Vegas. Neither did Whitlock nor many of the Strip workers interviewed this week.

"I don't put this on Vegas," Whitlock said. "I'm black, I love black people - but this thing, the amount of disrespect I saw, this was ridiculous."

Not that a professional basketball team wouldn't be welcomed here.

But forget the All-Star Game.

In a scant 72 hours, even Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman stopped talking about hosting the game annually.

"The All-Star Game, as far as I was concerned, was a vehicle to get the commissioner to come to Las Vegas and talk with me," he said Friday. "Now we're in a position to see an NBA franchise. We've had no other discussion about a continuous All-Star Game."

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