My East Coast fantasy football league celebrated its 20th draft in Las Vegas last weekend, an event that doubled as a 40th birthday bash for our pal Grady. We have been buddies since high school. We shared a prom limo together. We were longtime shuffleboard partners at Sam's in Port Chester. We saw "Rocky V," "Fletch Lives" and "Another 48 Hrs" together (undoubtedly my three biggest movie disappointments). We were once nearly attacked Artest-style by Mel Hall at Yankee Stadium. We have shared every level of blood-alcohol from 0.1 to 2.7. And now we're turning 40 less than four weeks apart.
Translation: I'm old.
I'm really, really, staggeringly old. And so are my friends. Did that stop us for putting on a throwback 48-hour show of gambling, drinking, smoking, ball-busting, eating and (fill in every other verb that ends with "ing" except for the ones that would get us divorced)? Of course not. When aging married guys go to Vegas, it's like aging baseball sluggers doing a few HGH cycles: suddenly we're putting up Bondsian numbers for two days as everyone else wonders, "Wait, how are they doing this?" Adrenaline, comedy, nicotine, alcohol and plentiful casino oxygen can turn anyone into a superhero. Even washed-up family guys.
Take me, for instance. I woke up at 6 a.m. on Friday morning in Los Angeles, about 75 minutes before I wanted to wake up, when my baby son strolled into our bedroom saying, "Wiggles? Wiggles? Wiggles?" (Translation: "Can you turn on those four effeminate Australian singers for me? The ones with the big red car who like fruit salad?") I passed out at 2 a.m. in Las Vegas to the refreshingly familiar sounds of Grady puking up six pounds of beer and pizza. Has the sound of vomiting ever made someone nostalgic? I swear to God, I was nostalgic. It was like flipping channels and seeing Bird on ESPN Classic, but better. And smellier.
Grady's birthday trip came together in less than two weeks, and only because the preferred plan (a college football weekend in October) couldn't work because of scheduling issues. But the crappy last weekend of August before Labor Day when it's a kajillion degrees outside? Absolutely, that one worked!!! As amazing as this sounds, we hadn't done a draft with everyone in the same room since 2000. That's what happens when you get old. People move, people have kids, and it's not uncommon to go 18 months without seeing one of your best friends. If somebody told you this would happen when you were 25 or younger, you would punch them in the face. You would refuse to believe it. But it happens to everyone. It just does.
The trick is to find dumb reasons to get together. You know, like a 20th anniversary fantasy football draft combined with a 40th birthday party. And so five of my East Coast friends kidnapped Grady early Friday morning with the blessing of his wife. We had a surprise plane ticket and gave him five minutes to pack a bag. It took him a few seconds to believe he was really going to Vegas -- after all, we're talking about a guy with four kids who hasn't been exposed to extended sunlight since 2005 -- and then, according to multiple witnesses, the room got a little dusty. Just a tiny bit. He hadn't embarked on a full-fledged Vegas weekend in eons, a shame because once upon a time there was no better 5 a.m. drinking/smoking/stuttering blackjack wingman than Grady.
That same morning, I drove down from Los Angeles to meet everybody. Just for old times' sake (and I mean, OLD), here's a running diary of what transpired:
11:30 a.m.: My fourth favorite thing about driving to Vegas in the morning? Trying to shatter my own personal record of 3:31 for the 270-mile trip (and always failing, but still). My third favorite thing? Making annoying cell phone calls to friends at work and keeping them on the phone as long as possible as they say things like "I really have to run in a second" and "Look, I HAVE to go." My second favorite thing? Making an iPod playlist for the trip that only features songs that make me want to drive 105 miles per hour. (I thought about putting this year's version on iTunes before deciding against it; I don't want someone's death on my hands because he tried to gun a 1987 Fiat to 130 mph while hearing MGMT for the first time.) And my favorite thing? The Barstow food stop.
As far as I can tell, Barstow, Calif., (halfway between L.A. and Vegas) was created solely to serve hungry people who need to pee and refuel as fast as humanly possible. Every fast food chain and gas station is represented; it's almost like a Food and Gas Convention. This trip, I have a hankering for Arby's and end up re-enacting the "Wild Things" threesome with a medium roast beef cheddar sandwich and a big thing of curly fries. Mmmmmmm. In last week's mailbag, I talked about Press Box Hot and all the different variations (somehow forgetting Prison Guard Hot and Golf Club Drink Girl Hot). Well, there's a cousin to Press Box Hot: Highway Hungry. If you're on the highway for more than two hours, seeing food signs for long enough, any food suddenly becomes six times as good. This Arby's sandwich tastes like Wolfgang Puck and Adam Perry Lang made it. We're off to a good start.
12:30 p.m.: Drive by a cop going more than 100 miles an hour while listening to my "Drive 105-115 mph" playlist. Heart sinks. Jam on brakes a little too late. Glance in rearview mirror while wincing. Cop never budges. No ticket. I am up $600 for this Vegas trip and haven't stepped in a casino yet.
12:45: Spend the next 15 minutes wondering if my missed ticket was (a) a great sign for the weekend, or (b) a terrible sign and that God would decide I should give that $600 back to the casinos for driving too fast and endangering lives. These are the things you think about as you're driving to Vegas.
1:30: When I used to fly to Sin City, it always gave me a rush when my plane descended and we could glimpse the casinos for the first time. (For one March Madness trip coming from Boston, we were landing at night and someone screamed out, "VEH-GAAAAAAAS!!!!" and started applauding. Half the plane started clapping with him. Name me another city that causes this reaction. You can't.) On the drive to Vegas, you get the same rush as you get from that "Swingers" moment when the casinos make a sudden appearance on I-15 to your right: first Mandalay, then Luxor, then everything else on the Strip. If there's someone else in the car, by Nevada law, you're required to scream out "VEH-GASSSSSSSSSSS!" like Double Down Trent. When you're alone? You just start fidgeting in your seat. Like right now. Vegas. Vegas. Vegas.
2 p.m.: The majority of the group (Grady, Camp, Russ, Mahady, Wiker, Andy, Lev) beat me by 20 minutes, leading to man hugs galore at the Palms (our central location for the weekend). They recount the Grady/dusty morning story in full detail and show me digital photos. Another conversation piece: a fake "The Hangover" poster that Andy made up with my face superimposed on Bradley Cooper and Grady's face in Zach Galifianakis' baby Bjorn. Now that's funny. It took 13 years, but I think another comedy finally passed "Swingers" as the go-to pop culture reference for "being in Vegas" jokes. I keep waiting for Grady to call everyone onto the roof so he can read a letter he wrote to us on the plane in a monotone voice. "Hey guys. Wow. [Pause.] How 'bout that flight in ...?"
3:00: We dump our bags, head to an outdoor Mexican restaurant, order Margaritas and try to make sense of the weird mating ritual that doubles as the Palms' Friday pool scene. Between the weather (a crisp 108 degrees) and clientele (put it this way -- there should be a game show called "Stripper, Hooker or Vegas Pool Customer"), you can actually see the STDs forming like mushroom crowds. Camp sums up everyone's feelings: "If my daughter ever calls me 12 years from now and says she's hanging out at the Palms' pool, I'm going to kill myself."
(Important note: Twelve years ago, we would have checked out these girls and decided, Let's do some shots, then start going up to these girls and tell them that we own a startup Internet company until two of them believe it. Now? We think about our daughters and wonder if single guys wear three condoms during sex just to be safe. I keep telling you: We're old.)
4:15: I'm ashamed to report how long it took to execute the seemingly simple question, "Why don't we use a casino game to determine our 2009 fantasy draft order?" We settle on roulette, then everyone throws in $10 and we have a mini-fantasy draft to pick three numbers apiece. Yup, the previous sentence took 25 solid minutes. Once the ball starts zooming around the roulette wheel, it's all worth it. The winner of the Adrian Peterson Sweepstakes? (Hold on, it's rolling around, and rolling, and rolling ... and ... ) Lev gets No. 1! That was fun. We decide on roulette for EVERY pick. Why not?
4:30: I draw No. 6 and would describe my excitement as somewhere between "tepid" and "the crowd's electricity at a Ray LaMontagne concert." Also, we blow $10 apiece by stacking our bets. "We shoulda just picked names out of a hat," Wiker grumbles. Some people aren't quite meant for Vegas. We spend the next five minutes ridiculing him for his cheapness. He's "That Guy" who goes to a casino with $25, keeps claiming that he needs to hit an ATM and never does, never pays for a drink and somehow leaves with $350. Doesn't every extended crew have a guy like that?
4:35: Time for another staple of any Vegas trip: Friday afternoon's "we just got here, we haven't gotten our gambling legs yet, we're not drunk or even buzzed ... let's grab this open craps table and throw dice together!" group decision. In the history of gambling, nobody has ever won money under these circumstances. One new wrinkle: Andy teaches me how to "buy" a number, something I had never fully understood. Basically, you put $25 down on 4, 5, 9 or 10. If it hits once, you double your money. If it hits twice, you triple it. Or something. The best part is when you look at the craps dealer and say, "I'd like to buy the four," which leads to stupid jokes like, "I'm also in negotiations to buy the seven" and "I own a house, two dogs and the 10." Yes, I'd like to buy the four.
(Note: I love every single thing about craps -- seriously, everything, and especially throwing -- except for the little-known rule that white people can't consistently win unless they're over 50 years old and standing next to a trophy girlfriend 25-plus years younger. Then, and only then, can a white person consistently win at craps. And I guess what I'm trying to tell you is this: Ten more years to go and I'm there, baby!)
5:20: Repeatedly buying the four turned out about as well as investing in luxury condos in Greenwich. Already down $110 for the trip. (Thanks, Andy.) One highlight: With our craps circle falling apart faster than the 2009 White Sox season, I led a charge to bet on the "Don't Come" line against our unlucky dice-throwing friend, Wyman; three of us won when he crapped out. The unlucky friend's reaction is always funny afterward -- a game smile that barely masks complete betrayal and humiliation. It's just like how Timberwolves GM David Kahn looks every time someone asks him about Ricky Rubio.
5:30: Time for blackjack. I almost hesitate to tell you this, but here's why I love the Palms: it's the best place in Vegas for blackjack. Why? First, it only has old-school six-deck shoes (no evil automatic machines). Second, it's off the Strip and everyone goes there for clubbing, so blackjack is almost an afterthought. (Hence, cheaper tables that are always open -- great if you're with a group and want to have a blackjack marathon, or if you want to hop tables until you find the right dealer.) Third, right around 2:30 or 3 a.m., drunks pour out of the clubs to play blackjack and the unintentional comedy quintuples. If you ever want to watch a cocktail-dress wearing, "X"-taking bimbette double down on a 9 against a 9, try to play cards as she's getting groped by someone who looks like Sasha Vujacic, adjust her thong right before splitting 6s or nearly set the table on fire with a Marlboro Light, well, the Palms is the place for you.
5:35: My drink of choice tonight: Patron on the rocks with a lime. Can't be hung over for tomorrow's 10:30 a.m. draft and this won't leave me hung over. Unless I drink 20 of them. Which is possible. "I remember the days when you drank beer," Camp says wistfully as he nurses a Bud. Yeah, I know. (Thinking.) Wait, did I just get insulted? I fire back by asking Camp why he's wearing Matthew McConaughey's hair from "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past."
Which brings me to an important point. As friends hit their late-30s, their hair goes one of four ways: Bye-bye, exactly the same, gray (I'm headed there), or in rare cases, it assumes an entirely new identity and becomes a full-fledged mane, something that looks like it's been professionally done and was possibly purchased from a fading celebrity on eBay. There is one of these guys in every group. And every time, that person's hair becomes one of the running jokes of any get-together. Our group's guy? Camp. We spent the weekend breaking down his hair in detail like it was the upcoming 2009 NFL season. I even took digital pictures of it from various angles. I wish I was making this up.
6:25: To mix up a spiritually sagging table, I split 10s against a 6. My feeling here: If I am supposed to split aces against any card, why shouldn't I split 10s against a 5 or 6? Who decided this was a terrible idea to double my amount of money on the table against an unfavorable dealer hand? Drives me crazy that splitting 10s always causes a riot if you try it unless (a) you have the right crew, and (b) you have permission first. By the way, I won both hands. So there.
7:05: Ten minutes later and our table is debating 10-splitting the same way "The Sports Reporters" would argue about whether Barry Bonds should be in the Hall of Fame. (I am the most passionate about it, which makes me the Mike Lupica of this argument. Could somebody get me a 6-inch seat cushion and some eyeglasses?) We decide that, yes, 10-splitters shouldn't be regarded like child molesters entering a penitentiary. As long as they ask the table for permission first.
7:20: Time for my first cigarette of 2009. Grady bought some and I couldn't resist. I feel like the crowd should applaud like when a no-hitter ends. Bronchitis on Wednesday, here I come!
7:45: We will refer to it in 2039 as "The Sneeze."
Here's what happened: I stood up at the end of a shoe right as Grady's cigarette smoke nailed me in the nose and mouth, causing me to abruptly sneeze. Unfortunately, my mouth had water in it, which ended up ejaculating (and really, that's the right verb) all over our unfriendly female dealer's hands and arms. In the history of my life, I don't think I have ever bummed anyone out more. It's a new record. I could have attacked her with a bat Juan Marichal-style and she would have been happier. She took an exaggerated step back, frowned, grabbed a napkin and wiped the sneeze juice off her hands with a record amount of disdain ... and then, to make it more awkward, refused to accept my sincere/mortified apology, which made my friends laugh even harder, which made her hate us even more, which in turn made us dislike her again because she'd been killing us for an hour, which suddenly made me feel happy that I accidentally sneezed all over her.
"We will be talking about that sneeze 30 years from now," Russ says, wiping the tears from his eyes.
The dealer glares at him. She's in Eff You Mode. If you know anything about blackjack, you know this ain't ending well.
8:00: We just got whupped for the last 15 minutes like Ali whipped Ernie Terrell. The only thing missing was the dealer screaming, "What's my name??? What's my name???" As she leaves for a break, we decide that (a) my sneeze was worth it, and (b) the only way it would have been better is if I told her afterward, "Did I mention I just got back from Mexico?"
(Screw it, I'll say that when she gets back from her break. No city brings out your evil side quite like Vegas. Why do you think they based "CSI" there?)
8:15: Mahady and I realize we need a food base or we're going to be the wrong kind of drunk later. Time for two slices of heavy pizza. That's veteran Vegas savvy -- you definitely want to be buzzed/drunk at the end of the night because it loosens you up and that's when you go on card runs, but you never want to be lightheaded drunk or sloppy drunk. Some possible signs of this happening without you realizing it:
1. You say the words, "I guess cigarettes and liquor will be my dinner tonight."
2. You spill a drink all over the table.
3. You fall off your chair, or even worse, tip your chair over backward.
4. You accidentally light the table, yourself or the guy next to you on fire with a cig.
5. You start overtipping the cocktail waitress or dealer to the point that they are overthanking you like you just donated them a kidney.
6. You spent 10 minutes trying to get more money out of the ATM machine before realizing that you had been repeatedly putting in your Costco card.
7. When the lady that you've been flirting with in the seat next to you leaves to go to the bathroom, everyone else at the table says, "Hey, you know she's a hooker, right?" ... And you react with more shock than you did when you found out Jerry Ferrara was dating Jamie-Lynn Sigler.
Here's the point: Nobody wins when they're sloppy drunk. Nobody. The Gambling Gods hate you for disgracing the tables and act accordingly. That's why you need food.
8:20: Mmmmmm ... pizza. (Somehow I am Highway Hungry for the second time today.) Mahady and I talk excitedly about possible shirts that our friend Stoner (arriving shortly) might be wearing. He wouldn't wear the same blue velour shirt that he's been wearing every time he goes out for the past 10 years, right?
"I think he will," Mahady says. "It's like his calling card."
"Like when Carrot Top brings out a suitcase of props," I say, then nod.
Now we're a little too excited to see Stoner's shirt selection. Wish we could bet on this. Can I have $500 on 3 to 1 odds on the blue velour shirt please?
8:45: And the winner is ... blue velour!!!!!!! Stoner preempts our barbs by saying, "Everyone else already made fun of me." It's scary how well you can still know your old friends even if you only see them once or twice a year.
9:25: More losing. Even Grady can't get his patented "Bammo!" going. In the old days, when he had an ace showing, he would scream "BAMMO!" right as he was getting his second card ... which always ended up being a 10, of course. The Power of the Bammo was almost mystical. During the last few years, when Grady was sorely missed in Vegas, there was one trip where someone else tried to get "Bammo!" going; everyone else quickly decided it couldn't work. Like when Kobe tried to steal MJ's game-winning fist pump/clench. Just ... no. There's only one "Bammo!"
And now, he can't get it going. We just had an ugly premature "BAMMM-ohhhhh" that ended with Grady getting a 6.
"I don't know," I tell him. "Maybe this was too long of a layoff. Maybe this was like MJ coming back with the Wizards."
"I am not drunk enough yet," Grady reassures us confidently.
These are the things you say in Vegas.
9:30: More losing but I'm still having fun. I am fine with steady, minor bleeding as long as jokes are flying and I'm not hemorrhaging like Clint Malarchuck. We've become fascinated with the line for the Playboy Club, which stretches past our table and features people carrying various STDs that, frankly, I'm not even sure have been diagnosed yet. "Can I get a cold sore just by looking at these people?" I wonder. Nobody knows.
(By the way, note to the female readers: Not everyone is meant to wear a tight cocktail dress. It's OK. You don't have to force it. Actually, this should be the new "Just Say No" PSA to replace the old drug ones -- just a montage of overweight women crammed in cocktail dresses four times too small as innocent bystanders repeatedly look into the camera either wincing or saying "No." We need to get the word out. This has to end.)
10:30: Three amazing things from the last hour. First, we're still losing but having fun. That's how much we missed each other. Second, Stoner is gambling despite being cheaper than Donald Sterling and -- gasp -- enjoying himself. (This renews my faith that gambling can corrupt anyone on the right night. Even the Jonas Brothers.) Third, the fact we were grandfather clause'd into a $10 table that's now $25 has prompted an engaging "where does the grandfather clause rank among society's most underrated rules?" argument. We need more grandfather clauses. That leads to this moment ...
Me (joking): "There should be a law that every pre-marriage hookup can be grandfather clause'd into your marriage so it's not adultery if it happens again."
Dealer I Sneezed On (still seething): "Do you want a hit or not?"
11:15: The first wave of guys trickle to bed. We're three down, four if you count Camp's hair. The good news: Grady is stuttering a little bit. Back in college, Commissioner Camp named Grady's fantasy football team "The Stuttering J's" because of his penchant for drunk stuttering. Now it's back. Like seeing MJ's patented fallaway again. I point this out.
"Stop it," Grady says. "I-I-I'm not stuttering."
11:35: A pivotal moment. We're fading (especially the East Coast guys). I just plowed through nearly $600 without breaking a sweat. Same for Grady, who's starting to get an "I wouldn't mind going to bed soon glow to him." Somehow I find a second wind and give a speech more inspiring than Pacino in "Any Given Sunday." Come on! It's Vegas! WE GOTTA SUCK IT UP! WE GOTTA FIGHT FOR THAT INCH! VEGAS!!!! I get $300 more in chips and bet $100 on the next hand, hoping this will inspire Grady to hit the ATM. A second passes. You can feel the tension. And ...
"I-I-I-I'm going to the ATM, I-I-I-I'll be right back."
12:15 a.m.: Big run. Big, big, big run. Big run. The turning point? We finally realize that the Palms had Playboy chips featuring bunnies, Playmates and, especially, Hef. We start stacking the chips for our bets accordingly. Grady puts the same Playmate chip on top of every bet. I go with a system where Hef's chip is always upside down on top of a chip with one or two playmates, leading to jokes like, "Hef Chip feels like having a threesome" and "Hef Chip, you haven't had your way with this blonde yet, go to it, my friend." It's working. All of it.
12:20: Here's where you know the stars have aligned: Lots of money on the table, multiple double-downs and splits (I have four hands worth of money going alone), dealer showing the 6, flips over the 5 (NOOOOOOOOO!), flips over the 4 (COME ONNNNNNN!) ... flips over the 7 (NOOOOOOO! WAIT, THAT'S 22!!!! YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!) ... followed by complete and utter table chaos. Any good or bad night comes down to that ONE hand and that ONE hand alone. You know either way. Now? We know.
(But can we stay awake and coherent?)
12:40: Just had the old drunken blackjack epiphany in which you have only green and black chips; the green stack looks like the Leaning Tower of Pisa; fifteen solid minutes passed before you realized that you had this many chips; and you end up thinking, "Wait ... all right!" and debate whether you want to point out the giant stack of chips to your buddy next to you (and whether this would jinx everything that's happening). Also, I am talking to Hef Chip the same way Chuck Noland talked to Wilson the Volleyball. We're having actual conversations. I am only using him for certain hands and Hef Chip can't lose.
12:45: Crap. Just lost Hef Chip. Watching him get snatched away was like watching Wilson floating away in the ocean. "HEF CHIP! HEF CHIP! I'm sorry ... (sobbing) ... HEFFFFFF CHIP!!!!!!"
1:00: Still winning. Also, I can't see out of my right eye; I'm betting $125 a hand; I'm 99.9 percent sure we just saw Barry Bonds; and I just screamed "CIGARETTE LADY!" and caught her attention even though she was 550 yards away. This is where blind luck kicks in. I should go. Right now. Nope.
1:20: We have the obligatory "we should have packed it in after the last shoe" hand where everyone (me, Grady, Mahady, Wyman) gets crushed. Had to happen. My chip cash-out yields two black chips ($100 apiece) and one yellow chip ($1,000). Does it get any better than a Yellow Chip Night? Instead of cashing our chips out for money, we pocket them and opt for the 10-minute walk from Palms Casino to Palms Place (where we're staying) just in case Grady ... well ... just in case he pukes. You never know.
1:25: This has turned into the most exciting moment of the night. We're wobbling back to our rooms as Grady openly looks for plants to puke in. Some people (Grady being one) just throw up when they're drunk and feel much better the next day. I would kill to be one of these people. Instead, I'm the guy whose body shuts down almost like the MacGruber countdown. Like, if I don't get into a bed within 25 seconds, things will blow up and I will just sleep wherever I am. Then I feel horrible the next day. I wish I could buy the abilities on eBay to (a) sleep on airplanes, and (b) puke when I drink too much. Alas.
Anyway, Mahady and I know Grady is a puking threat, only we're not saying anything because we don't want to reinforce any vomiting inclinations that might be lurking. He somehow stumbles into the elevator. Our 10-second elevator ride becomes the most exciting 10 seconds of the night. Can we make it? All we need is Verne Lundquist narrating this moment like it's one of Tiger's long putts in Augusta ...
"Can he get there ... yes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
And we do. We somehow make it to our room. Grady collapses on his sofa bed like he's been assassinated. I scrape my contacts off my eyeballs, cough up my left lung, brush my teeth, climb into my bed and start to pass out ... only I can hear the faint, familiar sounds of Grady puking his guts out. Like the sounds of the waves in Malibu, only more relaxing. And you think I'm kidding.
**COMING FRIDAY: PART TWO**
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos and more, check out Sports Guy's World.