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NCAA basketball vision helps put Stallworth in sports shrine

Updated June 10, 2019 - 3:44 pm

He probably knew he was going to be asked about all the Las Vegas sports franchises he has worked for and with. So Steve Stallworth brought a cheat sheet.

“The Posse, the Sting, the Outlaws, the Gladiators, the Thunder, the Wranglers, the Silver Streaks, the Bandits, the Dustdevils, the Flash,” he said without coming up for air during lunch at South Point, where he is general manager of the South Point Arena and Equestrian Center.

That he could even recall all of those teams that have come and gone is reason enough to grant Stallworth’s inclusion to the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame. The ceremony is Friday at Orleans Arena — a facility he operated before continuing as one of casino mogul Michael Gaughan’s right-hand men at South Point.

He said he owes almost all of his success to Gaughan, and the rest of it to those who came and played in Las Vegas for however briefly.

“The pessimist would say keep Steve Stallworth away from your team, because it’s (bound to) fail,” said the fit and genial 54-year-old native of Yuma, Arizona. At 178 pounds, Stallworth weighs less than when he succeeded Randall Cunningham as UNLV’s quarterback during the 1980s.

“But I would say this: those owners, those players, anybody who was involved with those teams paved the way for what we’re seeing now.”

What we’re seeing now is Las Vegas’ advent as a major league sports town.

With the arrival of the NHL’s Golden Knights and the impending arrival of the NFL’s Raiders and the leagues having evolved on the once taboo issue of legalized sports gambling, the city is now being mentioned as a possible Super Bowl and NCAA Final Four site.

If the latter comes to pass, mark down Steve Stallworth for a Bobby Hurley-sized assist.

Paving the way

Stallworth was the one who convinced Gonzaga and the other West Coast Conference schools that is was OK to play basketball in a casino without suffering eternal damnation. The Western Athletic Conference would join the Mountain West in making Las Vegas its postseason basketball home, and the Pac-12 soon followed.

Not only did the teams survive, their fans flocked to Las Vegas in record numbers.

“They didn’t want the games on the (betting) board, and they didn’t want alcohol served except at suite level,” Stallworth said about concessions made in luring the WCC to Orleans Arena. “Every A.D. after their meeting was over said ‘Can I get a pass for upstairs?’”

But the table for big-time college basketball in Las Vegas actually was set by Kansas and its associate athletic director Larry Keating in 2006, Stallworth said.

The Jayhawks had committed to playing Florida in Las Vegas as part of a tournament organized by promoter Chris Spencer, but balked when it learned the game would be at Valley High School. Spencer’s only option was to purchase a court and build an arena at the Las Vegas Convention Center, which would have been cost prohibitive.

Stallworth saw an opportunity and began working the phones. Can’t play in a casino, Keating told him. It’s not in a casino, Stallworth said of Orleans Arena. It’s at the end of a long hallway connected to a casino.

“We finally got Larry to come to Las Vegas, and after he walked down that long hallway and looked at the arena, he said, ‘What’s wrong with this?’”

Kansas beat No. 1 Florida 82-80 in overtime. Dick Vitale was courtside, and about 9,000 Kansas fans and 500 from Florida packed the arena. The atmosphere was electric.

“It not where you play, it’s where you stay,” Stallworth said of convincing Kansas and Florida to double down on Las Vegas. Now the NCAA seems to be coming around, too. Most believe it’s only a matter of time until the city has its one shining moment as a Final Four host.

“I’m sort of proud of that,” Stallworth said before admitting that it was never his intention.

He mentioned an integrated Southern California football team going to Alabama during the racially charged 1970s and soundly defeating Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide.

“The game that changed the South,” Stallworth said, “but like (USC star) Sam Cunningham said ‘I wasn’t trying to change the rules; I was just trying to make the travel team.’

“I was just trying to book the building. I didn’t know it would be such a big deal.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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