In the wee hours of June 2, seven RJ sports department employees posed for a photo in front of the White House. This may not tell all one needs to know about the first season in Las Vegas’ major league sports history, but it certainly provides context and a backdrop.
A soft, warm rain that had been falling had ceased. A humidity more fierce than a Tom Wilson bodycheck was now enveloping the wee hours.
One also could sense a camaraderie among those who had traveled a great distance via planes, trains and Uber drivers to chronicle Games 3 and 4 of the most unpredictable Stanley Cup Final ever, considering one team had not existed the previous year and the other had not won the Cup in 43 years.
It was colleague Adam Hill who spotted the tent, and the man inside, because Hill has this knack for spotting the unusual and the interesting before anybody else.
Inside the white plastic tent was a man named Philipos Melaku-Bello. He had been living in it since the Reagan administration. Melaku-Bello is the White House Protest Guy, and he had been hunkered in that tent 125 hours a week for 37 years. And with all respect due the Dos Equis beer guy, Melaku-Bello was more interesting.
He was sporting a graying beard, a Bob Marley tuque and a placard that said FREE TIBET. But since we were there and it was the wee hours of the morning, we felt compelled to ask about the Capitals and ice hockey, though these were topics we thought would be foreign to the White House Protest Guy.
“I’m gonna say this: Ovechkin, the one thing he’s missing to be considered the greatest Russian player who played in the NHL, is the Stanley Cup. There will be a lot of drunks who will come here,” Melaku-Bello said about the anarchy in the streets that would ensue should Washington beat Vegas.
“People who never talk to me about hockey, now they’ve got Caps’ caps, Caps’ jerseys, sweatbands, backpacks. Every single thing, Caps. Where I go shopping at Trader Joe’s, you probably only see about five people in the whole store who are not wearing Caps’ stuff.”
Yes, the White House Protest Guy said he shops for groceries at Trader Joe’s.
Had the Knights gone on to put the cherry on top of the sundae, Philapos Melaku-Bello, who claimed to have aided the movement that disarmed 11,225 nuclear warheads and shuttered four nuclear power plants, probably would have been only my second favorite memory of the 2018 Las Vegas sports year.
These are the nine other moments I’ll remember from a year that was truly golden beyond the Knights:
He made us proud
He was the greatest quarterback Las Vegas produced, and after he died and was being eulogized there was an ice carving honoring him at South Point. Which David Humm might have thought a bit much, unless it were used to ice down a case of beer.
Raiders owner Mark Davis, the NFL team for which he played, called him the “original Las Vegas Raider.” Dr. Tom Osborne, his coach at Nebraska, said he had had a great life despite battling multiple sclerosis for about half of it. His buddy Steve Stallworth said although Hummer was confined to a wheelchair, he was never defined by it.
But I think what I will remember most about David Humm is the joy in his voice whenever you called to talk football (or anything else). And what his high school coach, Frank Nails, said at his service, recalling a conversation with Hummer’s father, Clair:
“David’s feet are too big, and he’s too slow. But I think he’s going to make us all proud.”
Going the distance
Her name was Dee Dravnieks, and in April she traveled 9,538 miles from Perth in Western Australia to watch the Golden Knights play hockey in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and in Canada — no ordinary walkabout. She even brought her hockey skates. On the last day she was allowed onto the ice at her favorite team’s practice arena.
She didn’t fall once.
“I think I’ve picked up quite a bit, but sometimes when they wave off icing, I don’t get exactly why it has been waved off,” she said about her hockey I.Q.
After the story appeared, Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt made a little video on my cellphone thanking Dravnieks for coming all that way, and for rocking his No. 88 jersey at Staples Center.
If there was one place I never expected to find myself at baseball’s Winter Meetings at Mandalay Bay, it was on a patio overlooking an empty swimming pool watching Wally Backman smoke a cigarette.
Backman was wearing cowboy boots and a hunting vest, and reading glasses that hook together with a magnet. That’s about as high-tech as Wally Backman gets. But he never forgets a face and calls you by name, as if you were his best buddy or could come out the bullpen and get a couple of outs with runners on base. And so although you are not wearing a hunting vest, you do not feel the December chill while watching him have a smoke. Or two.
I believe that if more ballplayers were like Wally Backman, baseball would be a better game.
A few days after his home burned to the ground during deadly California wildfires, new Lights FC coach Eric Wynalda pulled out his cellphone in the restaurant above the soccer pitch at Cashman Field. A video showed an angry red fireball moving toward his home in the hills above Ventura County, California. Another, from TV news, showed his home engulfed in flames.
Inside the inferno was the jersey Wynalda wore when he scored on a free kick against Switzerland in the 1994 World Cup.
The emotion still was raw, so he put on dark glasses.
Wynalda said his family made it out alive. He said there was a portrait of his wife, Amanda, and their son, Braden, hanging on the wall of his stark Las Vegas apartment — it was the last thing he had grabbed with the fireball approaching.
He said it meant a lot more to him than scoring that goal against the Swiss.
Calling her shots
Before a girls’ 16 softball tournament in St. George, Utah, Jordyn Ebert and her teammates drew a No. 3 in the dirt in front of their dugout to honor the memory of Quinton Robbins, her brother’s best friend who was killed by the Mandalay Bay sniper. In a few hours, she would drive a ball into the Utah night that landed beyond the fence in left-center field.
It was her third home run of the tournament. As she ran the bases, she raised three fingers to the sky. No. 3 was Quinton Robbins’ favorite number.
On the drive up, Jordyn Ebert had told her mother that she was going to hit three home runs to honor Quinton’s memory. When the wishful thought became reality, she began to cry as she rounded second base. Like Babe Ruth in the World Series, she had called her shot.
Some home runs come from deep within the belly. Others come straight from the heart.
Hearing out Kyte
Before he and his old Las Vegas Thunder teammates were inducted into the Southern Nevada Hall of Fame, the team’s former captain Jim Kyte was talking about having played in the first whiteout game at old Winnipeg Arena when he was with the first iteration of the Winnipeg Jets.
They say you hear a Winnipeg whiteout before you see it.
Jim Kyte really wouldn’t know about that.
Kyte was the first legally deaf player to skate in the NHL, a disability that did not preclude him from playing in 598 NHL games or, perhaps even more impressive, becoming a dean at Algonquin College in his hometown of Ottawa, Ontario, after his playing days.
In today’s NHL, they might have called it an upper-body injury.
Supporting the team
Had he left after the first quarter or at halftime, the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces — who until 2018 were the WNBA’s San Antonio Stars — still would have been delighted that Raiders owner Mark Davis showed up for a game. But Davis showed up for a lot of Aces games, and most times he stayed until the end.
Not only that, he would pose for selfies with anybody who asked, and he would chat with reporters and invite them to sit down.
And if you shared a story about his old man, he would get emotional and thank you for telling it.
During the closing laps of NASCAR Champion’s Week at Wynn Las Vegas, a kid from a little town in Arkansas rolled onto stage via a push button on his wheelchair to introduce Joey Logano, the guy everybody had gathered to honor.
Gavin Grubbs has muscular dystrophy. He and Logano have been pals since meeting at the 2010 Daytona 500 through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Grubbs even served as a groomsman in Logano’s wedding.
You could tell from the NASCAR champion’s expression that he was surprised by the guest introduction. He and Gavin Grubbs embraced as well as they could, given the wheelchair and that Gavin’s arms aren’t conducive to embraces any more. Lumps began to form in throats in the ballroom.
It was just one them racin’ deals.
It was the last baseball game played at Cashman Field, and there were two outs in the bottom of the ninth. The 51s were trailing Sacramento 3-2 and Peter Alonso, the best home-run hitter in the minor leagues, was coming to the plate with a man on base.
You could hear a murmur in the stands and a shriek in the press box — from a reporter who already had written his column, save for a blank space for the final score.
Peter Alonso walloped the first pitch over the America First Credit Union billboard in left field. As he rounded the bases, Cashman Field starting falling apart — literally falling apart: A piece of ceiling tile came crashing down in the press box after Alonso’s prodigious parting shot.
You could be around a ballpark for 36 years and never see anything like it — which is what I swore, also literally, as I held down the erase key and began to rewrite the last baseball column filed from Cashman Field.