The shopping list hit my inbox four days ahead of the crew’s arrival last year:
24 Bud Lights; 24 Coronas; 24 Coors Lights, pint of Jack, case of water, 12 Gatorades (mixed)
And with that, our March Madness weekend was officially, finally, back on. It had been three years since the boys had assembled for the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament. What had been an annual tradition for nearly 10 years went off the rails because of forces beyond (the economy) and within (siring children) our control. Sure, the posse shrank from a peak of about 10 to a half-dozen, but it was still a solid group that—as the shopping list suggests—knew how to do a weekend in Vegas.
I guess now is a good time to pause and mention that we’re all over the age of 35 (and a couple of us need a telescope to see 35). And that the impetus for our gathering was to spend roughly 20 hours over a Friday and Saturday drinking beer while watching men half our age play basketball.
Not just watching, of course, but wagering on them.
Yes, at its core, I’m describing the typical male-bonding Vegas trip, a bachelor party minus the wedding, if you will. Except if you’ve ever been in Caesars Palace’s overflowing sportsbook on a Friday afternoon in mid-March … with a betting slip in your pocket on Long Island University plus-18 points … and the Blackbirds are down 20, with the ball, with 10 seconds to play … and the point guard launches a not-so-meaningless 3-pointer at the buzzer … and everyone in the room either rises to his feet or moves to the edge of his seat—half the crowd screaming for a make, half screaming for a miss—you know it’s so much more than that.
These raucous end-of-game moments occur throughout the three-week NCAA tournament, when Las Vegas sportsbooks double as cocoons of electricity. But the main action happens during the opening Thursday-Sunday stretch, when 48 games shrink the tourney field from 64 to the Sweet 16. For these four days, the energy generated in a sportsbook makes a Saturday night at Tryst seem like a book-club meeting.
And now you know why March 15-18 is certain to be one of the busiest weekends in Las Vegas this year—and why, more than three weeks in advance, it cost a buddy nearly $400 for a round-trip flight from San Francisco. Why did he pay the inflated freight? Because he knows you can’t replicate this experience anywhere else. See, you can find five-star hotels, world-class restaurants, high-end shopping, even casino gaming, in a bunch of American cities. But there’s only one American city where you can legally wager on the athletic pursuits of college kids (unless you count Reno, but who counts Reno—for anything?).
The betting element is only part of the reason we always end up here for March Madness. Quick story: Several years ago, a friend in San Diego tried to convince us to forgo Vegas and head his way to attend tournament games at San Diego State’s arena. Hmm, we thought, pay outrageous ticket prices to watch six games—none of which are guaranteed to be thrilling—in a 12,000-seat dry venue (because alcohol is verboten at NCAA-sponsored events). Or park it in a Vegas sportsbook, watch a few dozen games on HDTV projection screens for free, drink to our liver’s content in an environment that’s just as frenzied—if not more so—than any arena, and maybe actually win a few bucks? (Unless, of course, you bet both sides of the same game, which a friend did last year in a drunken haze.)
It took us about .00003 seconds to choose what was behind door No. 2.
Look, I realize we’re treading into “creepy old guys hanging in a young man’s world” territory. Just like nobody wants to see a 50-something man in a nightclub getting his EDC groove on with glow sticks around his neck and Deadmau5 ears on his head, nobody wants to see a group of similar relics high-fiving after a college sophomore drains a shot that wins a $22 bet.
Indeed, we’re rapidly approaching the expiration date on this ritual. (Hell, some—namely our wives—would argue that the expiration date came and went long ago.) Then again, if the 25 e-mails sitting in my inbox with the subject “Vegas Weekend” are any indication, nobody in our crew is in any hurry to admit it. And so, as the lone local resident, I’ll make my traditional Friday-morning liquor store run, fill the ice chest, pick up the boys at McCarran and deftly find a killer parking spot in the Caesars Palace garage—one that allows us to make quick beer trips so as to avoid paying $5 for a bottle of Bud Light (with age comes wisdom!).
We’ll stand in long lines to wager on a bunch of college basketball powers (North Carolina, Kansas, Syracuse, UNLV) and a bunch of schools we couldn’t pinpoint on a map (Iona, Drexel, Davidson, Bucknell), then scramble to find some open chairs (or, more likely, swipe a few from the nearby food court). We’ll settle in for 12 of the most exciting hours of the year, and when the final buzzer sounds, we’ll depart and continue the party elsewhere, then lather, rinse, repeat on Saturday.
And come Sunday morning, shortly after we awake looking (and feeling) like we’ve been to hell and back, someone will inevitably mumble these two words: Never again! The declaration will be met with a chorus of barely intelligible Amens!
On the inside, though, we’ll all be saying the same thing: Can’t wait till next year!