Photo Credit: Michael Huey via Flickr
This is something I wrote for my Creative Writing class. The idea was to write about a place you found compelling, so naturally I picked the one place I could relate back to basketball in some way: NBA Summer League 2013 in Las Vegas.
Laptop bag in one hand and a duffle-bag suffocating my wrists, in an awkward fit I paused to check my phone: 2:47 PM. Beside the time, an airplane symbol indicated I wouldn’t be under the sanctuary of my devices this week. Disoriented from five hours of half asleep dizziness, I looked around in search of a saving grace. Lo and behold, there it was: the elusive conveyer belt.
Oddly enough, I ran into a friend from Edmonton who I used to play high school basketball with. Chantel and I, both first-timers, shared our awe at the surplus of VLT machines lined up 50 feet from our gate and the pronounced artificial chill of the air conditioning.
“So, what brings you here?” she asked, likely remembering I was a few years younger than her, ill-equipped to do in Vegas the things people did in Las Vegas.
“I’m writing about the NBA’s Summer League circuit. You should come watch. Sometimes the stars show up.”
I paused, already knowing the answer, “what about you?”
“Well, it is Vegas.”
We exchanged pleasantries as I headed outside to meet my editor. Andrew was a connoisseur of all things Vegas. Between my amazement at the sheer size of the airport, the gust of bolstering heat and the outlandish luxury visible even during the daytime, Vegas didn’t allow for many pauses in conversation. Before I knew it, we were in the arena with notepads in hand.
* * *
I took my seat in media row, although I likened it to death row. In the battle of wayward athletes auditioning for minimal roster spots and flaunting their excess athleticism, myriads of laptops took a volatile trip to technological heaven. These players were at odd with their dreams, 300 of them clawing for 40 roster spots and the desert sun being the only palpable spotlight they’d shone under since their illustrious college careers or foreign stints. It made sense for them to display exuberance, to attempt to showcase an impressive montage of their maneuvers and tricks but it came at an expense.
Three nights in, I’d made a realization: these weren’t basketball players, they were entertainers. No longer were they teammates hustling for loose balls, they were vultures hustling for loose scraps. With the trajectory of a basketball—a phenomenon uniquely affected by fatigue, arena temperature, faith and muscle memory at every rotation— determining their future, the trained professionals within the parameters of the court were not so different from the hopeful yuppies I’d seen populating the world-famous strip; here, luck takes precedence over journey.
The parallels didn’t end there. In the gym, we were a group of writers observing player idiosyncrasies that would make them factors at the professional level. On the strip, we were a group of writers— analyzers by profession— observing the luxurious sightseers, the high-rollers and the enamouring lights. In this way, we shared the unique experience of being foreign among foreigners. In the backdrop of our collective minds was one unifying question: how can a place like this exist?
* * *
Everyone I’ve talked to said they’d never spent more than four nights in Vegas. By night five, I was in shambles; the existential droll almost ready to unravel. We were at the Vdara. It was an opulent skyscraper, a suave headquarters draped with businessmen and service workers alike. A five-star hotel among five-star hotels, I remember thinking of it as a symbol of excess amid already unbelievable excess.
200 feet below me were 2,000 people underneath seductive neon lights rocking out to the most dubstepped top-40 music I’d ever heard. It was a f***ing Monday. No, I wasn’t looking down at the strip. It was a Las Vegas pool party, as enamouring as they are infamous.
Suddenly, I wasn’t confused anymore. Of course this place exists. How could I expect anything less from the human race? Here’s an economy, a world-class economy nonetheless, that functions under the pretence that 365 days of the year, rain or shine, hoards of people will willfully find more adventurous, exciting ways to hamper, if not ruin, their lives. It’s on this basis that seven miles of a strip in the middle of the most uninhabitable portion of the United States employs tens of thousands of people and generates millions of dollars per day.
* * *
The over-indulgences are disturbing, in part because they allude to the harrowing reality right under our feet. Literally.
A few nights earlier, Andrew asked me if I’d heard of the tunnel people.
“So… no. Anyway, they’re a bunch of homeless people that live in the tunnels in Vegas. Most of them worked on the strip and got laid off during the recession.”
“They’re… underneath the strip?”
And here I was. In a room at the Vdara, literally on top of it all. I didn’t intend for that troubling imagery— in fact, I almost wish I never discovered it— but in that moment, it hit me like a tonne of bricks. Never before has a city so closely resembled Fitzgerald’s tale of the roaring 20’s while at the same time alluding so accurately at the turmoil in decades to come.
The artificial fulfillment begets a new kind of primacy: The court was a jungle of flying limbs and undisciplined potential but this is the jungle of modern-day capitalism. And it pulls no punches. More sadistic than it is lavish; more compelling than anything you’ve ever seen and wildly extreme. In reality, it’s a disturbingly perfect rendition of the American Dream. This was Las Vegas and, for better and for worse, we were its patrons.