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Tale of Two Cities

At 7:30 a.m. on the morning of November 21, 1980, Charlie Wright and me were drinking at the Barbary Coast, a midsized casino adopted by locals on the corner of Flamingo and the Strip. Caesars Palace was out the front door and the MGM Grand was out the side entrance.

We'd been up all night, started 50 miles southwest of here in the Pioneer Saloon, a biker bar in Goodsprings, and worked our way back in. We were tending to our second beers when a middle-aged man walked by and said to no one in particular "The MGM is on fire."

I asked, "Really?"

"Yeah," the guy said.

"Big one?"

"Can't tell."

We ordered another round. There was one blackjack table open, no craps, no roulette, and less than a dozen people feeding the slots. Ten minutes passed. Tourists began to rush in through big, double-wide glass doors. I say "tourists," but that's not quite right. The clothes, the lost look are tourist enough, but they had a dazed "Where am I?" refugee countenance. First, Vegas doesn't do refugees. Second, people in a casino always look like they know where they are. They may be bored, they may be laughing, they may be drunk, but they always look like they know they're in a casino. These people looked like aliens had just tossed them onto the sidewalk.

We got up and walked outside. There was more fire department than I'd ever seen. I stopped counting fire trucks at 40. There were units from every firehouse in Southern Nevada. Utah, Arizona, and California would be here shortly. This would be the second most deadly hotel fire in America's history: 84 people died, 679 injured.

Police lines were set up, and we were told to stay behind them. Flamingo Boulevard was closed, and hundreds of people (probably a lot more -- 5000 workers and guests were in the hotel when it went up) were zombie-milling around. Clean-cut young men wearing navy blazers (I take them to be employees of the Grand) worked the crowd, offering clothes, plane tickets home, hotel rooms.

Charlie said, "Any place you want to go?"

"Naw." The Runnin Rebels were playing that night, and I had seats. The team had become a Las Vegas fascination, the hottest ticket in town. Finally, Las Vegas had something legit to be proud of. Plus, coach Jerry Tarkanian fielded Vegas teams, beautiful teams, greyhound-fast, with great defense. "No, I like it here."

* * *

In November 1976 I wintered in Eugene, Oregon. My habit was to work in Alaska springs and summers, take the winter off, and travel. I had good friends in Eugene, so I decided to stay there that winter and see if I liked the town.

It was good to be in Eugene in 1976 and be a fan of Ducks basketball. Richard, an old friend, had pushed me to attend a game at McArthur Court, then a 50-year-old basketball facility referred to as "The Pit." The court holds 9000 fans, still the best place I've ever seen college basketball. When students stomped and shouted, they made the building shake, not metaphorically, but actually.

Since forever, the Ducks have played UCLA twice a year. The Bruins won ten national titles between 1964 and 1975. That record will never be broken. Oregon might as well have played basketball against the Los Angeles Lakers during that time. One good thing -- UCLA's dominance made for a first-class rivalry, although I should say the rivalry was a one-way street, intense on the Oregon side, unnoticed by UCLA.

On a Thursday night in November of 1976, I was walking down 14th Avenue toward campus. Hunter Thompson was doing his college tour, appearing at the student union that evening, and I was eager to see him. Also, the Ducks were playing UCLA, thereby presenting me with an agonizing entertainment decision.

And I was late. I'd stayed home to listen to the first half of the Oregon/UCLA game on the radio (no TV coverage), and by the time I got going, I was one and a half hours late, which I judged to be about right; Hunter Thompson could not possibly be on time.

I walked along a winter-dark residential street. I slowed. And now slower. Slower still. Yes, that's it! I could hear the game from somebody's house. I walked a few more steps and picked up the game again, this time from a radio in the next house. There was a parked Datsun pickup truck near the end of the block. Four men stood around its hood. The game was on the truck's radio. And in this manner I was able to follow the game, uninterrupted, all the way to the student center.

Oregon won.

Oregon and UNLV have made it to the Sweet 16 and will play each other in the regional semifinals on Friday at 6:40 p.m.

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At 7:30 a.m. on the morning of November 21, 1980, Charlie Wright and me were drinking at the Barbary Coast, a midsized casino adopted by locals on the corner of Flamingo and the Strip. Caesars Palace was out the front door and the MGM Grand was out the side entrance.

We'd been up all night, started 50 miles southwest of here in the Pioneer Saloon, a biker bar in Goodsprings, and worked our way back in. We were tending to our second beers when a middle-aged man walked by and said to no one in particular "The MGM is on fire."

I asked, "Really?"

"Yeah," the guy said.

"Big one?"

"Can't tell."

We ordered another round. There was one blackjack table open, no craps, no roulette, and less than a dozen people feeding the slots. Ten minutes passed. Tourists began to rush in through big, double-wide glass doors. I say "tourists," but that's not quite right. The clothes, the lost look are tourist enough, but they had a dazed "Where am I?" refugee countenance. First, Vegas doesn't do refugees. Second, people in a casino always look like they know where they are. They may be bored, they may be laughing, they may be drunk, but they always look like they know they're in a casino. These people looked like aliens had just tossed them onto the sidewalk.

We got up and walked outside. There was more fire department than I'd ever seen. I stopped counting fire trucks at 40. There were units from every firehouse in Southern Nevada. Utah, Arizona, and California would be here shortly. This would be the second most deadly hotel fire in America's history: 84 people died, 679 injured.

Police lines were set up, and we were told to stay behind them. Flamingo Boulevard was closed, and hundreds of people (probably a lot more -- 5000 workers and guests were in the hotel when it went up) were zombie-milling around. Clean-cut young men wearing navy blazers (I take them to be employees of the Grand) worked the crowd, offering clothes, plane tickets home, hotel rooms.

Charlie said, "Any place you want to go?"

"Naw." The Runnin Rebels were playing that night, and I had seats. The team had become a Las Vegas fascination, the hottest ticket in town. Finally, Las Vegas had something legit to be proud of. Plus, coach Jerry Tarkanian fielded Vegas teams, beautiful teams, greyhound-fast, with great defense. "No, I like it here."

* * *

In November 1976 I wintered in Eugene, Oregon. My habit was to work in Alaska springs and summers, take the winter off, and travel. I had good friends in Eugene, so I decided to stay there that winter and see if I liked the town.

It was good to be in Eugene in 1976 and be a fan of Ducks basketball. Richard, an old friend, had pushed me to attend a game at McArthur Court, then a 50-year-old basketball facility referred to as "The Pit." The court holds 9000 fans, still the best place I've ever seen college basketball. When students stomped and shouted, they made the building shake, not metaphorically, but actually.

Since forever, the Ducks have played UCLA twice a year. The Bruins won ten national titles between 1964 and 1975. That record will never be broken. Oregon might as well have played basketball against the Los Angeles Lakers during that time. One good thing -- UCLA's dominance made for a first-class rivalry, although I should say the rivalry was a one-way street, intense on the Oregon side, unnoticed by UCLA.

On a Thursday night in November of 1976, I was walking down 14th Avenue toward campus. Hunter Thompson was doing his college tour, appearing at the student union that evening, and I was eager to see him. Also, the Ducks were playing UCLA, thereby presenting me with an agonizing entertainment decision.

And I was late. I'd stayed home to listen to the first half of the Oregon/UCLA game on the radio (no TV coverage), and by the time I got going, I was one and a half hours late, which I judged to be about right; Hunter Thompson could not possibly be on time.

I walked along a winter-dark residential street. I slowed. And now slower. Slower still. Yes, that's it! I could hear the game from somebody's house. I walked a few more steps and picked up the game again, this time from a radio in the next house. There was a parked Datsun pickup truck near the end of the block. Four men stood around its hood. The game was on the truck's radio. And in this manner I was able to follow the game, uninterrupted, all the way to the student center.

Oregon won.

Oregon and UNLV have made it to the Sweet 16 and will play each other in the regional semifinals on Friday at 6:40 p.m.

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