Las Vegas Bypass

Pulling off to the side of the curving road to take in the Hoover Dam is a great way to forget that today’s high temperature was 106 degrees. It’s 8:30 p.m., and it’s still pushing ninety outside, and there’s a slight breeze coming in over the orange hills above, so that the shirt I’m wearing unsticks itself from uncomfortable skin as a digital camera snaps. The dam, concrete upon concrete, stretches as far as the eye can see, in all directions, provoking all sorts of questions from nearby tourists, none more common than, “Where’s all the water?” The canyon walls are marked white by decades of current flow but today the actual water line is at least fifty feet below the white marks. Can an entire river evaporate?

The ride from McCarran Airport to the dam was pleasant and quick, a thirty-mile burst through the desert, pickups with gargantuan off-road tires kicking up dust alongside us. “I always slow down going through Boulder City,” says my travel companion as we approach the dam. “The cops here are pretty ambitious.” It appears that they are quite successful, too; seconds later, I spot a shiny red SUV with BCPD tattooed on the side pulling out of a driveway, sirens blaring in hot pursuit of a minivan that must have, somehow, exceeded the posted thirty miles per hour speed limit. Boulder City police, and the citizens they protect, don’t have many concerns. The small town, with a perfect view of Lake Mead, is dotted with million-dollar residences. It wasn’t always this way.

Smoking crack, apparently, is a great way to forget that today’s high temperature was 106 degrees. It’s 1 a.m., it’s still almost ninety degrees, and there is heavy foot traffic in all directions along Swenson and Twain. It’s a people potpourri, yes; hookers, tourists, swing-shifters, partygoers, cops, and, of course, corner boys and their customers.

The corner boys here sell it all, or so I am told. “Meth for white people, rock for blacks, but everyone seems to agree on one thing,” says my travel companion, “the quality of drugs here is shit.” I nod, taking in this information slowly, my eyes peeled to three o’clock where two LVPD squad cars have pulled into a gas station, sirens blaring as Young Black Men drop instinctively to their knees, hands in the air, the universal code for “I’m not resisting, please don’t shoot.” Earlier today, at this same gas station, I saw a woman beating the heat by not wearing any pants. The oversized T-shirt as dress look had been in full effect. She looked like a hurricane evacuee but there was no hurricane. I had tried to laugh it off. I had tried to forget about her.

I look across the street to a concrete strip of check-cashing places and convenience stores and I lock the car doors. We are waiting at a stop light, just trying to get home. At this moment, this isn’t where I want to be. It wasn’t always this way.

Watching Jerryd Bayless’s cesarean section entry into the National Basketball Association is a great way to forget that today’s high temperature was 106 degrees. It’s about 7 p.m., and it’s a cool seventy-two degrees inside the Thomas and Mack gym, and the crowd of thousands is hyped up. Jerryd Bayless cannot be stopped.
Jerryd is the newest Portland Trail Blazer, type A from head to toe: precise haircut, precise wardrobe, precise movement. When he steps into the gym, he glares. When he warms up, he glares. When he cuts to the basket, his body glares at the defense, offended by their weak attempts to stop his advances. When he jumps, his body glares at gravity. He is the best player on the court and he knows it. He glares to let you know that he knows it.

The impact of his entry into the minds of the assembled basketball intelligentsia is forceful and it levitates in the gym air. Ooh. Aah. Scouts, coaches, and general managers are not an excitable bunch, especially not in Las Vegas in July. Usually, they can be picked out of the crowd because they do not react to spectacular plays and they furiously jot notes when the casual observer might wonder, “Did I just miss something?” But the bounce to Jerryd’s swag is very real, his dribble is emphatic and effortless, his body control borders on mind control. He is drawing new maps to the basket, he is absorbing contact, and he is brushing his shoulder off. Everyone is taking note. Even the scouts are smirking, which is as close as they get to smiling. Jerryd’s parents, both his mother and his father, cheer him on; Jerryd is the younger son, his brother works on Wall Street. An investment banker and a professional basketball player, they couldn’t be prouder. One suspects that, in lighter circumstances, his parents get to see a nice young man behind the glare.

His coach for the summer, Monty Williams, former professional player, tall, dark, handsome, bald, still in game shape, stands courtside, arms folded, watching along with the rest of us. Bayless hits an impossible game winner. The gym erupts. It feels like playoff basketball in early June for a moment, not Summer League in the middle of July. Monty, a deep-thinking devout Christian, is old enough to have enjoyed last-second wins before but still young enough to get excited by the thrill of that moment, the pulse of victory. Dressed in his red coach’s polo shirt, Monty wipes his brow, trying hard to contain a big smile. He is at ease.
His boss, Blazers head coach, Nate McMillan, former professional player, tall, dark, handsome, bald, not quite in game shape anymore, makes his way down from high in the stands, looking comfortable and serene, but not overjoyed. This is just another buzzer beater for Nate, one of hundreds if not thousands that he has seen in his lifetime. Nate doesn’t allow himself to display happiness. Nate knows basketball and he appreciates great shots. Below the hardened exterior, he’s probably ecstatic. It wasn’t always this way.

In recent years, Las Vegas Police groups have resisted efforts to track traffic stops by ethnicity and age, a measure proposed by Nevada legislators in an effort to cut down on rampant racial profiling. Las Vegas and Nevada, underneath the mafia legends and strip club debauchery, still have a very real problem with race. How many remember that Las Vegas was once known as the “Little Mississippi of the West?” How many know that corrections officers at the High Desert State Prison recently stated that prisoners were being segregated on the basis of race? How many know that in October 2007, just a few hundred miles from Vegas, Esmeralda County school district officials approved a policy that prohibited Spanish from being spoken on school buses?

Riding shotgun at 1 a.m. I didn’t know. I had no idea. When I thought of Las Vegas, I thought of lobsters in Hawaiian shirts gambling away their childrens’ college savings. I thought of standing in line after line at trendy nightclubs and overpriced shows. I thought of conventioneers with colored name tags. I thought of never-ending marketing: what happens here stays here. I thought of idyllic poolside pictures on Facebook. I thought of middle class white America. I thought of escape.

Riding shotgun at 1 a.m., I thought different things. I looked out the car window and saw a figure darting across the street corner in front of us and thought, “Something isn’t quite right with that boy.”

He was, to my best guess, seventeen years old, his jean shorts almost prototypically baggy, hanging to his ankles, his bright white high-tops visibly shiny even at this late hour. He crossed the street from our right to left, his demeanor paranoid. He kept looking back at the gas station, at the cops, and, I assumed, at his friends who were still kneeling. As he neared the sidewalk he cut the corner heading west, stepping outside the marked pedestrian walkway in a manner seen on every Manhattan street corner one million times a day. He stood no more than fifteen feet away from our car. In a flash visible in his eye, those brief, horrifying seconds of recognition, two rollers were on him, screeching to a stop just behind us, doors flying open, guns drawn. His motion ceased, stunned, as a cop approached, grabbing him by the cuff, detaining him. My eyes must have look confused. “Jaywalking,” my travel companion explained. “It’s the perfect excuse.”

I didn’t see anything else. The light turned green and we continued through the intersection.

The Hoover Dam was built during the Great Depression, the last time the American economy was this bad. This humongous public works project to redirect the Colorado River was seen as a beacon for destitute folk across the country. Thousands migrated to the desert in hopes of employment. It was arduous work and the struggles that went into creating the dam remain a part of local lore to this day. The shantytown in which many workers lived, dubbed “Ragtown,” was straight out of Thomas Hobbes, unbearably hot during summer, unbearably cold during winter. But, you are apt to hear the story told, “The Hoover Dam was completed two full years ahead of schedule.” And this is true.

It is only partly true, though, because as bad as things might have been for whites working at the Hoover Dam site, conditions were significantly worse for blacks. Life and workplace were fully segregated. Blacks were not allowed to live in the mythic Ragtown and were excluded from Boulder City entirely. With no other choice, they made a long commute from Las Vegas each day. Once on site, they were forced to drink from separate water sources and work in the heat of the Arizona gravel pits. Given the economic conditions, they had no alternative.

Viewing the dam last week I didn’t see any of this. I took my digital pictures, hopped back in the car and returned to Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas Summer League, conceived in recent years as a showcase for draft picks, international players, and other professionals trying to make an NBA roster, is both a tremendous opportunity and a graveyard for the hopes and dreams of the nearly good-enoughs. The off court scene is breathtaking: Hall of Famers, owners, general managers, scouts, national media personalities, and fans, black and white, mingle harmoniously. It is the one place that diehards with foam fingers can backslap with the millionaires, or billionaires, that run their favorite team. Even the stodgiest basketball executives seem to agree that this is healthy for everyone.

On the court there is no harmony. There are players who have spots assured. They loaf. There are players who need their names printed on the back of their jerseys, otherwise no one would know who they are. There is a young man, O.J. Mayo, looking to make a highlight film; there is another, Nick Young, looking at the fly honeys. There is a mountain man, Steven Hill, whose beard inspires more cheers than his play; there is a play the game the right way plodder, Josh Davis, who has every white scout over sixty years old wishing him the best.

Importantly, the racial divide between the players and the fans that exists in many places does not exist here. The racial divide that seems to exist everywhere else in this city—the ancient divide between the haves and the have-nots—is replaced by a different, more meritocratic divide: can he ball?

“How is he playing?” I hear this a lot from new friends and strangers, curious to know the fate of an otherwise-forgotten career or an unproven up-and-comer. I soak this up as the gym empties, leaving only a few of my fellow writers pecking away at keyboards. I wanted to stay all night but, at the same time, I wanted to get out of there immediately.

In 2005, the Hoover Dam Bypass project was undertaken to alleviate heavy traffic that is caused by the many switchbacks that lead to the Hoover Dam. The bypass will ensure uninterrupted traffic along Highway 93, a NAFTA route. Expected to be completed in 2010, it will consist of a two thousand foot long bridge that crosses the Colorado River, spanning a mountain gap between Nevada and Arizona.

Looking at an unfinished bridge sitting high above a nearly empty dam, one formidable engineering project piled on top of another, a new route literally, intentionally, bypassing American history, I watch that history evaporate with the water. I imagine international commerce proceeding more efficiently and I take heart knowing that less will be sacrificed during the construction process this time around.

But I can’t help but look down and wonder where all the water went. If the Dam ends up completely empty one day will the exposed riverbed tell the old stories? Probably not. Will people look down from the bridge and wonder?

The narcotics arrest I witnessed is now available as a data point in the Las Vegas Police Department’s Crime View online service, which tracks incidents citywide. In the week since the boy jaywalked at Swenson and Twain, there were a number of calls for police assistance at that very same corner: a report of a stolen vehicle, an assault with a deadly weapon, and others.

It had been just another night, just another arrest, just another data point at the corner of Swenson and Twain.

There is no glamour in this scene. Those living nearby, including my travel companion, are resigned to the reality. In a divided city, and country, I see the Thomas and Mack as a bypass from the thousands of corners like Swenson and Twain. As an outsider wishing for more than the false security of a locked car, the thought of the gym, that artificial enclave, is comforting. I want that bypass. Take me there. Anywhere. Out of here. Go.

The last Sunday of Summer League is an afterthought. The refs have traded in the quick whistle for the let ’em play; the coaches have traded in micromanaging for air it out; even the players who are looking to make a roster realize that their fates have probably already been sealed.
After the final game, another last-second win, Monty Williams looks relieved. His broad shoulders relax. Summer League is a hectic time for a young coach. Monty pulled off a winning record and although Summer League records are supposedly meaningless this seemed to mean something to him.

His boss, Nate McMillan, now prepares to check out of the luxury hotel he was staying in as coach of the Trail Blazers. He will cross the street and check into a luxury hotel that he will be staying in as an assistant coach for the United States Men’s National Basketball Team, which is in final preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Coach McMillan, the only African-American coach on Team USA’s coaching staff, has recently admitted in interviews that he is tired, that he can’t wait until the next off-season so that he will finally have time for a much-needed vacation.

The obvious pressure to perform as a coach, the underlying pressure to serve as a pillar of a city, the forgotten pressure of having succeeded against a stacked deck, to an observer, is unimaginable. To do it despite the fatigue, with the eyes of younger black men like Monty Williams and Jerryd Bayless trained upon him, is grace bigger than any basketball court.

For professional basketball players, particularly the best players in the game, one heart is simply not enough. There are more tattoos of hearts on NBA bodies than there are NBA bodies. As the game has integrated and globalized, heart has emerged as the defining measure of a basketball player’s worth. Does he possess the ability to perform phenomenal acts under extreme pressure? If so, a player is clutch— with ice water in his veins. If not, the player is a choker—his heart pumps Kool-Aid. Stars talk serenely about finding a zone, where their pulse slows down and the rest of the world hesitates just long enough for a path to victory to unveil itself. After big plays, whether in the NBA or on the playground, it’s not uncommon to see a player pull at his jersey and bang his exposed chest, as if to say, “See, I told you I had heart. It’s right here. Look at it.” Often, this is accompanied by a glare.

Some months before Summer League, I sought out Monty Williams because I had read that while in college at Notre Dame, he had overcome a strange heart condition. I was recovering from open- heart surgery at the time and was looking for inspiration or diversion or conversation—all of the above, I guess.

Heart surgery had broken me down. I had wrapped my head around what it would mean to be dead at twenty-four. I had reminded myself constantly that the risks of the procedure were relatively minimal. I had pictured my chest pried open with people looking down into it. It’s the kind of trauma that I avoid talking about at all costs. It’s easier to just move on and pretend it didn’t happen, even if the scar stares back in the mirror every morning. But it’s also the kind of trauma that makes my ears perk up if I find out someone is similarly afflicted.

Monty told me that when he found out about his heart condition in 1990, at age nineteen, he was forced to come to terms with the fact that his career was over. Doctors couldn’t fully explain the condition so they couldn’t in good conscience let him continue playing. “We prayed, went to church, prayed some more, the church elders laid hands on me,” he told me. Then he waited.

Almost two years later Monty’s symptoms completely disappeared. Again, the doctors had no answers for him. He told me that his unexpected recovery was an act of God, unexplainable by science. “A miracle, there’s nothing else to call it,” he said, looking directly into my eyes, as serious as a person can be.

The doctors agreed to let him return to the court but the mysterious condition had tarnished his reputation, costing him millions of dollars as team after team passed him by in the NBA draft. And, in those days, there was no Summer League to help jumpstart a career. He put his head down, listened and learned from his veteran teammates, paid attention to details, and became a serviceable role player. He went into coaching immediately after retiring as a player. Those two years spent away from the game during college had been enough.

By chance, Monty and I were on the same Sunday night flight out of Las Vegas. As I passed by his seat in first class, I smiled broadly and offered a fist-pound, both of which Monty returned graciously. I attempted to joke, “You know, I’m going to have to interview you about your thoughts on this flight.” Monty laughed a short, easy laugh, and quickly said, “I’m off the clock.”

“You earned it, coach,” I mumbled to myself as I shuffled down the aisle looking for my seat. Stretched out comfortably, with the winning Summer League record, with a young roster that is the toast of the league, and with home in Portland just a two hour flight away, the last thing Monty needed, from me or anyone else, was validation. For Monty, there had been raw ability, hard work, luck, and, in his mind, the grace of God. In his ten year playing career and three seasons as an assistant coach, there had been a lot of heart. There had not been any shortcuts or end-arounds. There was no bypass.