Familiar faces back in spotlight

January 15, 2002 7:05 AM
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By Chuck Di Rocco

WELCOME BACK! The cries of “atta boy” were loud and clear New Year’s Eve at the Las Vegas Club sports book when its long-time leader returned.

“I’m up again, feeling like a pup again and I’m happy to be here, if only for a visit,” Mel Exber said.

The veteran bet shop manager underwent serious brain surgery and has been involved in a long recovery.

Accompanying him on his visit was his son, Brady Exber.

A VOICE FROM THE PAST. Not long ago I heard an old friend on the radio, Lee Pete, who was once the undisputed king of sports talk shows in Las Vegas. On this afternoon, Lee was hawking cigars, probably like the huge Nicaraguan ropes he used to chain smoke.

I first met Lee at the Frontier, where he did his Laydown Lowdown radio show. I was interviewing Lee for a California newspaper, and was impressed by the quiet activity of the sports book ”” tellers transacting at the betting windows, odds being changed on the big boards, players hunkered down over tout sheets and Racing Forms ”” it was a couch potato’s Valhalla.

But the main attraction was always Lee Pete, the tanned, silver-haired man sitting behind the large wooden counter set up in front of the betting windows. In the final minutes before air time, Lee would chat with the engineer and his guest handicappers, who would systematically dissect the weekend’s football games.

Besides offering betting tips, Lee’s show hosted sports stars and other celebrities. And listeners could join in by calling Lee and discussing any topic (“except sex, religion and politics”) with him or his guests.

Whatever the topic, Lee’s show was spiced with fun and good-natured ribbing. He especially enjoyed kidding his guest handicappers, such as Larry Ness or Dave Cokin.

“When Larry had his pants tailored, they put felt in the back pocket ”” there’s never a wallet in there.”

Or, “When Larry eats at the buffet, we call security.”

Lee was just as quick to turn his cutting-edge barbs toward himself.

“East Carolina versus Miami? That’s like me dancing with a 6'-4" girl who wants to dip.”

Or, “These teams started their rivalry in 1896. I was there. It rained the whole time.”

Always entertaining, Lee was probably at his best when interviewing guests. With a vast knowledge of sports, especially baseball, he kept a conversation lively, probably because he wasn’t afraid to ask the question everyone really wanted to know about, rather than the contrived moronic questions today’s talking heads spew forth.

For instance, Lee wouldn’t flinch in asking Nolan Ryan why he brushed back batters (“So they knew I could take their head off”), or Tom Brunansky what it was like to be traded (“It’s always a surprise”).

Perhaps Lee’s most endearing talent was his honesty about sports.

“In my generation, the only drugs was beer. We were harmless people, unsophisticated, dedicated and loyal. Not like today’s athletes.

“There’s no loyalty in sports today. Dollars took care of that. They don’t play for the team or the city anymore. It’s an individual effort. Which is probably why you don’t find any heroes in sports.”

Lee Pete would qualify as a sports hero. During the 1940s, the 6'-1", 220-pounder was a standout quarterback at the University of Toledo, where he lettered four times and once finished second in total offense to Charley Conerly, the Mississippi All American who later starred with the New York Giants.

Lee was drafted by the Detroit Lions and traded to the Green Bay Packers. But early injuries ”” a blown-out knee and broken shoulder ”” ended his playing career early.

With his playing days behind him, Lee bought a saloon from a friend in Toledo. He tripled the business, bought another one and later opened a successful restaurant.

Lee broke into broadcasting when he substituted for a color man who did Ohio State football. He stayed 10 years, during which time he did his own talk show. He followed that gig with eight years doing Toledo sports shows.

Lee retired from the restaurant business at the tender age of 44 and came to Las Vegas in 1972. “I was out here visiting my daughter. My wife must have sensed something because she looked at me and said, ”˜You like it, don’t you?’ It was 105 degrees and I loved it. She said, ”˜That’s good enough for me. I like the slots. Let’s go.’”

After nearly 30 years, Lee probably hasn’t changed much. He lives in a nice house with a beautiful backyard and a big pool, where he can dangle his feet and talk on the cordless phone. “I really enjoy it. I can do just about anything I want.”

Lee often admitted to being kind of corny. “It’s not my nature to know it all. And I’ve never had an ego. Plus, I’m never embarrassed or nervous. I suppose I’m good at the small talk.”

Small talk? The radio would benefit with a lot more like it.