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Las Vegas has a new connection to a classy NBA franchise

Las Vegas’ new connection to the Dallas Mavericks jump-started a flashback for me.

Las Vegas Sands Corp.’s top shareholder, Dr. Miriam Adelson, is buying a majority interest in the NBA team from billionaire Mark Cuban. Even before Cuban was connected to the franchise, I followed the Mavericks because of an obscure footnote in basketball history that I personally witnessed.

Early in my career, I was managing editor of the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff, Arizona. I volunteered to serve on the statistics crew for football and basketball for my alma mater, Northern Arizona University.

I could type quickly and accurately, so I was asked to type the play-by-play summaries for Lumberjack basketball games. This was before computerized play-by-play programs, so I’d sit courtside and record every shot made, every foul and free throws at all NAU games.

As the college basketball season was getting started, the NBA’s Phoenix Suns were holding their annual fall training camp in Flagstaff, using NAU facilities. The Suns usually played one or more preseason exhibition games in Flagstaff to give local fans a taste of the NBA.

Hopi hoops

One year, the Suns made arrangements to start their NBA preseason with the first game ever played on an Indian reservation.

Plans were made to play at the Hopi Tribe’s Civic Center in Kykotsmovi, Arizona. The opponent: the Dallas Mavericks.

The Suns’ usual play-by-play typist couldn’t get to Kykotsmovi from Phoenix, so the Suns called me to serve as a freelance fill-in. The Suns invited me to ride the team bus from Flagstaff to the reservation.

It was remarkable.

On Oct. 9, 1986, I boarded the bus with veteran players Alvan Adams, Walter Davis and James Edwards, and rookie shooting guard Grant Gondrezick, younger brother of UNLV Runnin’ Rebels favorite Glen Gondrezick. (I had actually played high school sports against the Gondrezick brothers, who were from Boulder, Colorado.)

The Mavericks were led by Mark Aguirre, James Donaldson, Derek Harper and Rolando Blackman.

When the bus arrived at Kykotsmovi, both sides of a dusty driveway leading from a highway to the civic center were lined with young fans who came out to greet the arrival of the team before the game.

It was later reported that people came from as far away as Window Rock, Arizona, on the Navajo Indian Reservation, to catch the Suns in person.

Autograph session

When we got off the bus, young fans swarmed us with pens and paper, seeking autographs.

“Uh … I’m not one of the people you really want an autograph from,” I said, pointing to the players, who happily complied.

About 3,300 people crammed into the gym, and the public address announcer pleaded with the crowd to squeeze a little closer to each other so everybody who had come from miles away could get in.

Mavericks coach Dick Motta said after the game that he wasn’t sure about the idea of playing a game in tiny Kykotsmovi, but after it was over he was delighted to have participated.

At halftime, there was a gift exchange between the teams and their hosts. The players offered team T-shirts for representatives of every school on the Hopi reservation, and several students gave sand paintings, pottery and other crafts to every player.

Hopi Tribal Chairman Ivan Sidney and Vice Chairman Clifford Balenquah gave kachinas to Motta and Suns coach John MacLeod.

Even though Phoenix prevailed 105-97, everybody came away feeling like winners.

On the ride back to Flagstaff, some players slept, others played cards and most of them talked about what they had just experienced.

A pair of professional basketball teams playing in a tiny gym surrounded by mesas and tumbleweeds. Simply amazing.

On the way home, I struck up a conversation with second-year center Nick Vanos, who stretched out his 7-foot-1-inch frame and shared how great it was that the two teams could bring so much joy to the reservation in a meaningless game — meaningless, at least, in the standings, but not to the hundreds of kids who looked up to the superstars.

I was saddened that next summer to learn that Vanos and his fiancée died in a plane crash in Detroit, one of those seldom-remembered tragedies of sports.

But the joy of that night will stay with me, and I’ve found new happiness that there’s now a Las Vegas connection with a classy organization like the Mavericks.

I don’t even care that they’re not moving to Las Vegas.

The Review-Journal is owned by the Adelson family, including Dr. Miriam Adelson, majority shareholder of Las Vegas Sands Corp., and Las Vegas Sands President and COO Patrick Dumont.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on X.

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