Credit Stallworth for turning Orleans into hardcourt hub


Last Wednesday, its floor witnessed the 56,147th perfect execution of the confetti-in-the-water-pail routine during the Harlem Globetrotters' annual Las Vegas appearance. The next night, Manogue shocked Gorman in a showdown of battling Bishops during the Nevada boys prep basketball tournament.

On Friday, Gonzaga, the Fighting Samhans of Saint Mary's College and six other teams will begin hooping it up in the West Coast Conference postseason basketball shindig; the following week, their Western Athletic Conference counterparts will decide who gets to cut down nets on the very same court, before the WAC is torn asunder by Craig Thompson and his merry band of Mountain West home-wreckers.

So how did Orleans Arena, originally drawn up as a hockey rink and penalty box, become the focal point of so much March and February madness?

It was mostly a visionary thing.

Steve Stallworth used to direct the 9,500-seat multipurpose (now, anyway) facility that opened in 2003. A former UNLV quarterback from Yuma, Ariz., Stallworth had never before been on ice skates, although you'd never know it from some of his bootleg runs.

It was Stallworth who rented a basketball court and brought the 'Trotters to town; it was Stallworth who had the idea that if Meadowlark Lemon's descendants found the Orleans to their liking, then why wouldn't, say, Kansas' Jayhawks or Florida's Gators?

So for like the 38th time he approached his skeptical boss, Michael Gaughan, about purchasing a basketball court. Only this time, Gaughan said yes. "Now will ya' leave me alone, kid?"

Stallworth needed a serviceable 94-by-50-foot slab of hardwood that could be had for a decent price; what he got was the WNBA Seattle Storm's old court from KeyArena.

Then all it took was a few rolls of that gray electrician's tape.

During the first state basketball tournament held in Las Vegas in more than 20 years, the old KeyArena court literally began chipping away. It looked like the dinner table at a woodchuck banquet.

The Thomas & Mack Center was too big for the state tournament; Valley High, or some place like that, was too small. Orleans Arena and its 7,471-seat basketball configuration were like baby bear's porridge. It was just right. Except the court was falling apart.

So it took another 94-by-50 slab of hardwood to fulfill the vision.

Stallworth got a deal on the floor that had been used for college basketball at the Metrodome. The baselines were painted maroon, for the University of Minnesota. Maroon is the same color of the seats at Orleans Arena. More porridge for Goldilocks, and Dick Vitale.

Larry Keating, a senior associate athletic director at Kansas, flew to Las Vegas to check out The Orleans, the new floor, the long corridor separating the arena from the casino, and said, "What's not to like?" If he noticed the cocktail waitresses, he didn't let on.

Florida said if Kansas is in, we're in, too. The Gators had won the NCAA championship the year before. When they met Kansas here on Thanksgiving weekend 2006 in one of Cincinnati promoter Chris Spencer's holiday tournaments that have become an Orleans staple, a frenzied game went to overtime. Dick Vitale told a national TV audience what a great game this was, what a great atmosphere, what a great venue for college basketball The Orleans was.

Joakim Noah. Brandon Rush. And no hardwood splinters in their shins.

"That was it, that was the one," Stallworth said.

Three years later, the WCC had the vision. This year, the WAC has it, too.

Stallworth and Gaughan have reunited at South Point, where they are proprietors of smaller-scale college basketball tournaments and equestrian events. Darren Davis has assumed Stallworth's duties at The Orleans; he recently told his mentor he now books more basketball games than hockey games.

People around here dream of these bazillion-dollar domed stadiums and arenas and I say, fine, let 'em dream.

The reality is Orleans Arena is here now. It has succeeded in attracting the kind of events that these bazillion-dollar domed stadiums and arenas will need to steal to pay the bills, on the long shot that shovels ever break terra firma.

Sometimes when one lays his head on the pillow at night, he dreams of Salma Hayek. And sometimes when one wakes up only to find the same little woman lying there, he comes to the realization that she ain't so bad, at least for college basketball.

Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

 

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