05/09/2006 11:00PM

Team USA hoops: Only in Vegas


LAS VEGAS - This city doesn't have a pro basketball team and it has been 15 years since UNLV won the NCAA championship, but over the next nine months Las Vegas will be a major player in the basketball community.

For one thing, on Feb. 18, 2007, the NBA All-Star Game will be held at the Thomas and Mack Center. If you haven't heard about that yet, you soon will. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is planning a very ambitious marketing campaign.

But that's just the capper.

On Tuesday, tickets went on sale for the Team USA vs. Puerto Rico exhibition game at the T&M on Aug. 3. This is the U.S. national team that will be playing in the FIBA World Basketball Championships in Japan from Aug. 19 through Sept. 3.

The 23 players invited to the U.S. training camp includes LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, rookie of the year Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Gilbert Arenas, Paul Pierce, and Elton Brand. The final roster will be between 13 and 15. Duke's Mike Krzyzewski is coaching the team.

With several recent failures in international competition, including a sixth-place finish in the 2002 tourney held in Indianapolis, U.S. organizers have vowed to take training more seriously this time around (though it's interesting they chose the city with the most distractions as their training base).

The team will practice at the Cox Pavilion - which is adjacent to the T&M - from July 19-25 and July 31 through Aug. 4. The Aug. 3 game is the only chance to see the team play in the States as the players leave Aug. 4 for China to continue practicing and playing exhibition games before the tournament.

The U.S. team's training camp will come on the heels of the Vegas Summer League, which will be held July 6-14 at the Cox Pavilion. The league includes players from 16 NBA teams, which use it to get a look at their picks from the June 28 draft as well as other young hopefuls. Tickets for those 40 games are already available at unlvtickets.com

When you add in all the high school summer basketball leagues and camps that are held here, plus the Lakers-Suns and Lakers-Kings exhibition games held here in October, and college preseason tournaments around the holidays, this city is fast becoming hoop heaven.

Sports book notes

The Las Vegas Gladiators are 5-10 in the Arena Football League and just fired their coach, but they still have a shot to make the playoffs. A longshot, yes, but a shot nonetheless.

Six teams from each conference in the AFL make the playoffs, and the American Conference only has three of its nine teams above .500. So, if the Gladiators win their season finale Saturday night at Los Angeles - they're 2 1/2-point underdogs to the 4-11 Avengers - and the Utah Blaze and Chicago Rush both lose their final games, the Gladiators would sneak into the playoffs.

The Gladiators will know if they're still alive by the time their game kicks off at 7:30 p.m. as Utah hosts Kansas City on Friday night and Chicago travels to Grand Rapids on Saturday afternoon. Utah is an 11-point favorite while Chicago is favored by 3.

* Station Casinos has Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle as the 7-1 co-favorites in Saturday's Dodge Charger 500 Nextel Cup race at Darlington Raceway. Jeff Gordon is the third choice at 8-1, followed by Kasey Kahne at 10-1, Tony Stewart at 11-1, and Kurt Busch, Mark Martin, and Kevin Harvick at 12-1.

Changing face of Vegas

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, the Boardwalk Casino was imploded on the Las Vegas Strip to help make way for the $7 billion Project CityCenter, which is being built by MGM Mirage between the Monte Carlo and the Bellagio.

Whenever a building is blown up here in town, I think of the World Trade Center for all the obvious reasons and for another more local reason.

Hotel implosions used to be public spectacles, with thousands of people gathered on the Strip to watch them in prime time. That was the scene when the original Aladdin, the Sands, and the Dunes were imploded.

Since Sept. 11, with the visions of the twin towers collapsing after the terrorist attacks, implosions have no longer been seen in the same light and have been held late at night with minimal advance notice to keep crowds away.

The El Rancho, the Desert Inn, and now the Boardwalk have been imploded since then. The implosion of the World Trade Center Hotel, a convention hotel that was located at 901 E. Desert Inn Road, just east of the Las Vegas Convention Center, came, eerily, shortly after Sept. 11.

Most exciting 3 seconds in sports

Last Thursday, I did a radio interview previewing the Kentucky Derby. The co-hosts, who don't follow horse racing, asked if people actually devote their whole day to just watch a race that lasts two minutes.

A few hours later, I was on hand to watch three-time X Games gold medalist Mike Metzger attempt to jump his motorcycle over the fountains at Caesars Palace, with a backflip thrown in for good measure. Broadcast live by ESPN, it was called the "Impossible Jump" to promote the new "Mission Impossible III" movie.

Standing in a crowd of an estimated 10,000 people, I marveled that very few could actually see the runway that Metzger made his approach on or much else for that matter. Yet, they were there for the spectacle.

Except for the few hundred that were in the grandstands that were set up by the fountains, very few people saw more than what happened in the three to four seconds that Metzger was actually in the air.

It made the two minutes of the Derby look like the NBA and NHL playoffs in terms of the "wait vs. action" quotient.