All of America got a chance to witness an amazing event on television last night that had been recorded in Las Vegas the week before.
It was a dual occasion. The celebration of Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday. And a fundraiser for the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.
The take-away moment came when Ali was called on stage and Stevie Wonder sang “Happy Birthday” to him in a way that only Stevie Wonder could. It was an emotional and enduring moment, and it was made even more profound for me in real time when my eyes shifted from Ali to the man who had made the evening possible: Larry Ruvo.
Larry’s face in that instant was the definition of joy. He had just pulled off a little miracle. He had honored Ali in a way that raised millions of dollars to help attack Parkinson’s (the disease that Muhammad is fighting) ALS (the disease that took Lou Gehrig) and Alzheimer’s (the disease that had struck Larry’s father, Lou).
As “Happy Birthday” chorused on, my eyes kept shifting back and forth from one of the world’s heroes to one of my local heroes. Everybody knows the story of Muhammad Ali. But it seems to me it would be good for all of us in this town to pause for a second and look at what Larry Ruvo is accomplishing.
With boxing greats George Foreman, Evander Holyfield and Sugar Ray Leonard in attendance that night — to say nothing of The Greatest — it might seem a stretch to call Larry Ruvo a fighter. But that’s exactly what he is.
Look at these numbers. Nearly once a minute, somebody in America is developing Alzheimer’s. If things keep going the way they’re going, by mid-century, one American will be debilitated by Alzheimer’s roughly every 30 seconds. Larry is trying to knock down this disease. If research and medicine can delay it for five years in those who would otherwise be diagnosed, it will cut the number of people afflicted in half. But that’s not all. Larry is trying to knock this disease out. If research and medicine can hold it off for 10 years, Alzheimer’s will be counted out.
A good part of the battle is taking place right here in Las Vegas — on 888 West Bonneville Avenue — at the center named for Larry’s dad, and established with the Cleveland Clinic. The center was designed by one of the world’s finest architects — Frank Gehry. Years from now architecture students will still be coming to study it. I hope what nobody loses sight of is that this building was erected during the worst economic slump in America since the Great Depression.
At a time when people wonder if Las Vegas has been overbuilt and can sustain itself only through gaming and entertainment, Larry Ruvo has been pointing us down another path: the way of diversification. Gaming and entertainment will always be at the heart of Vegas. But Vegas can be so much more. Larry is showing us how to pull this off by bringing medicine into the picture. He’s showing us how to pull this off through his support of Andre Agassi’s academy, which is changing the way we look at education. He’s showing us how to pull this off by attracting renowned chefs, so that a city once known for its all-you-can-eat buffets is now one of the world’s culinary capitols. He’s showing us how to make Vegas better by putting together people who’d never otherwise be in the same room.
This is only natural for Larry, because it’s been in his blood since the day his mother and father started what would become one of Las Vegas’ most beloved restaurants. Frank Sinatra came to The Venetian Ristorante for the neck bones. Deliverymen came in for Angie Ruvo’s meatball sandwiches. It was the place where an entire city could come together. So it was not surprising to see UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta bidding $750,000 for a pair of Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves while boxing promoter (and, in effect, a competitor) Bob Arum backed up the bid by saying he loved the UFC.
Through his connections as general manager of Southern Wine and Spirits of Nevada, Larry has figured a way to take the spirit of togetherness and generosity at the heart of his parents’ restaurant to an exponential level. I turned my head at the event and saw Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google, wearing a tee shirt that he could’ve worn into The Venetian Ristorante. Sergey and his wife were in Las Vegas to support Larry.
As my wife, Vanessa, and I walked away at the close of the event, we wondered how we could even dream about making the kind of contributions to this city that Larry is making. It’s almost overwhelming to try to grasp. There’s only one Larry Ruvo. But if we all found some way to follow his lead, what a city this would be.
Tom Breitling is former owner of the Golden Nugget and currently a partner at Fertitta Interactive.