Quit messin’ with it, Michael Gaughan finally told Steve Stallworth. Gaughan had hired Stallworth to manage the new arena, inside his Orleans hotel and casino, in 2001.
From day one, Stallworth envisioned staging top-flight college hoops in the spiffy facility, a sticky proposition given its proximity to a casino sportsbook. Stallworth continued his pursuit, despite his boss’s tone, and he belongs among the pantheon of principals that have influenced the ever-expanding acceptance of sports gambling, lifting the industry out of certain shadows.
He had backed up quarterback Randall Cunningham at UNLV and, in September 1986, he led the Rebels to victory over Wisconsin, so Stallworth knew perseverance. He doggedly pursued select individuals bold enough to extinguish a barrier he knew to be mythical.
Even Gaughan, however, had heard enough when Stallworth asked to borrow the boss’ private plane to visit Lawrence, Kan. “And he kicked me out of the office,” says Stallworth, laughing. “He said, ‘Quit chasin’ it! I’m tired of hearin’ it!’ But I knew Kansas was the eight-thousand-pound gorilla. I just focused all on Kansas.”
Ohio travel-agent impresario Chris Spencer had been booking holiday college basketball games in Las Vegas at Valley High School, to avoid the casino-sportsbook factor. He had lured Florida, which had just won its first national title, and perennial powerhouse Kansas for Thanksgiving 2006, but they wouldn’t play in a high school gym. He vowed to build a makeshift court, bleachers and a scoreboard—at a cost of $100,000—at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Stallworth’s vision involved the Orleans Arena. He would not require Gaughan’s plane. In the summer of 2006, a colleague of Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley told him, over the phone, if Kansas agrees to the venue change, “We’re in.”
Stallworth’s attempts to contact Kansas AD Lew Perkins landed in the office of associate Larry Keating. An offer of golf, a nice steak dinner and a tour of the arena coaxed Keating to weave Las Vegas into his travel plans. But when he walked out of McCarran International Airport into a scorcher of a day, in August 2006, Keating canceled the links appointment. Stallworth drove him straight to the Orleans.
In his office last week at Gaughan’s South Point hotel and casino, where he manages its equestrian complex and arena, Stallworth, 55, recalled fidgeting a bit as the two men strolled the 500 feet, over an indoor bridge-hallway, from the Orleans casino to its arena.
Keating surveyed the horseshoe-shaped layout, turned to Stallworth and said, “What’s wrong with this?”
Said Stallworth, “Larry, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell everybody.”
Voilà! On Saturday, Nov. 25, 2006, 10th-ranked Kansas beat No. 1 Florida, 82-80, in overtime at the Orleans Arena. Six other teams partook in the festivities.
Stallworth befriended Keating’s son Kerry, then coaching Santa Clara, which led to discussions with West Coast Conference commissioner Michael Gilleran; the WCC has played its league tournament at the Orleans every year since 2009. The Western Athletic Conference followed suit in 2011. The Pac-12 staged its conference tournament at the MGM Grand Garden Arena from 2013 through 2016, and Mandalay Bay hosted another holiday tourney.
In his acceptance speech at the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in June, Stallworth noted the more than 500 games that have been played at the Orleans and the more than 300 teams, from all collegiate levels, that have participated at the South Point.
That first watershed game could not have been accomplished without the assistance of many people.
“A small role,” Stallworth said. “It would have happened eventually. Don’t you think?”
Selections with projected numbers courtesy of veteran Vegas oddsmaker Kenny White:
Arizona vs. Pepperdine, Total 152.5: At the Wooden Legacy in Anaheim, the angry Wildcats play a Waves squad whose five of its first six games sailed over the Total by 10.2 ppg. OVER
Chicago State vs. Jacksonville State -20: The Cougars are brutal on offense. On defense, foes sport an effective possession ratio higher than anybody else’s “opponents.” They are rated 352nd, out of 353 D-I programs, by one metric. JACKSONVILLE STATE
Arkansas -13.5 vs. Northern Kentucky, Total 135.5: The Razorbacks absolutely suffocate foes, which allowed them to cover big numbers in their first five tilts. Eric Musselman’s team figures to do it again against the Norse in North Little Rock, providing us with a rare dual play. ARKANSAS and UNDER
UNLV at Cincinnati -16.5: The Bearcats will have last played five days earlier when they face a Rebels team rated 134 KenPom spots (Nos. 42 to 176) below them. It will not be close as UC takes care of the visitors. CINCINNATI
Last week: 2-2