02/16/2007 12:00AM

Vegas all in for NBA weekend


LAS VEGAS – Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has made his intentions clear for a long time: one of his top priorities is to bring a professional sports team to Las Vegas. He believes it's a marriage made in heaven.

The past five years, Goodman has flirted shamelessly with every pro sports franchise that has shown an intention to relocate (Vancouver Grizzles, Montreal Expos, Florida Marlins) and met with the commissioner of each major sports league to see what needs to be done. The most visible courtship was the one that landed this Sunday's All-Star Game in Las Vegas, the first non-league city to host the event.

Since the date was set 18 months ago, Las Vegas has been planning for the weekend-long extravaganza, and primping and preening. A look around town shows that Vegas is trying to give a great first impression.

NBA commissioner David Stern has publicly maintained that the NBA would never put a team in a city that allows gambling on the league. He coyly has said that this weekend is just a one-time fling and that it wasn't to be seen as leading to a more meaningful relationship. But Goodman has always seen it as more than that.

Goodman's persistence appears to be paying off. On Wednesday, which was Valentine's Day ironically enough, Stern asked Goodman to come up with a proposal regarding the gambling issue prior to the NBA board of governors meeting on April 23 so the league could consider a compromise that would allow Las Vegas to have a team in the future. Stern also said that, despite his spoken stance, the decision is primarily up to the board and the league's owners.

Goodman said he will meet with casino owners, sports book directors, and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to come up with the best plan. No one in the industry is in favor of completely taking the NBA off the betting boards, but there is plenty of middle ground. Conventional wisdom says that Goodman will dust off the so-called "UNLV rule" that used to forbid local sports books from taking bets on college games involving the state's universities. That rule was in effect until 2001 when Congress was trying to outlaw college sports gambling and said that Nevada - despite arguing that sports betting wasn't harmful and that the regulated books actually protect the integrity of the games - was being hypocritical by taking bets on teams all over the country but not on its local teams. So, the state's Gaming Control Board conceded that point and has booked UNLV and Nevada-Reno games ever since without incident.

It would seem odd to bring that rule back, but if that what it takes to make the NBA (or another pro league) comfortable enough to consider putting a team here permanently, it's something that has to be considered.

And with the softening of its stance, it appears the NBA could live with such a compromise. The league is coming here this weekend despite the city still booking NBA games.

A little background: When the subject of hosting the game first came up, Stern said the league would consider it only if Las Vegas took the game and its related activities off the board. Palms owner George Maloof, whose family also owns the Sacramento Kings, called around to the other casino owners to make sure they would agree to that if the city were to host the event.

On June 23, 2005, the Gaming Control Board passed an order mandating that no wagers be taken on the 2007 NBA All-Star Game if it were held locally, and on Aug. 5, 2005, the league officially awarded the game to Las Vegas.

Vegas knows how to throw a party

New Year's Eve started the year with a bang as usual. The Super Bowl was, well, the Super Bowl. But as extravagant as those celebrations were, they don't match what is coming this weekend when Las Vegas rolls out the red carpet for the NBA.

The 24 all-stars themselves will be housed at the Palms, where they have nearly 8-foot-long beds made especially for the tall crowd, and a good portion of the league will also be in town for the festivities. Nike is renting the $25,000-a-night Hardwood Suite at the Palms for its party, and many of the sports' biggest stars will be hanging out there, but they'll also be all over town. And the parties are off the charts. Most of them have cover charges in the $100 range, unless, of course, you happen to be on the VIP lost to begin with.

Probably the best deal for an open-to-the-public party is the Pure Slam Dunks party at 10 p.m. Saturday at Pure inside Caesars Palace. It's hosted by Tony Parker of the Spurs (and his significant other, Eva Longoria) and it's only $30 for men and $20 for women. Of course, unless you're already in line while reading this, you might not get in because it probably will be the longest line in town with those prices.

For those who can't afford the parties or don't have tickets to the other events, the All-Star Jam Session opened Thursday with more than 400,000 square feet of interactive basketball activities at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center. Fans will be able to meet NBA players and legends, collect autographs, shoot hoops on more than 10 courts, dunk on shorter baskets, and other activities. The cost is $20, with a children's price (ages 3-12) of $12. The Jam Session runs through Monday.

Tickets to the Celebrity Game on Thursday and the All-Star Practice on Saturday are sold out. Also on Saturday, at the Orleans Arena on Tropicana Avenue, the Harlem Globetrotters will play a doubleheader, first game vs. the New York Nationals at 11 a.m. and then vs. the Dennis Rodman All-Stars at 2 p.m.

The weekend wouldn't be complete without the skills competition, 3-point shooting contest, and dunk contest on Saturday night at the Thomas & Mack.

Oh, yeah, and then there's the actual NBA All-Star game on Sunday. That is also sold out, with ticket brokers asking at least $1,500 for nosebleed seats in the rafters to $25,000 for courtside seats.