Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Like so many longtime Las Vegans, I brought my own favorite pro sports team with me when my family moved here 30 years ago. Larry Bird had just stolen a shot at the NBA Finals away from my Detroit Pistons when I arrived in the desert, but my all-time favorite player Isiah Thomas would get his revenge when the Pistons won back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990. That second title was particularly sweet for a hoops-obsessed teenage me, because my new hometown team—the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels — won the NCAA Championship the same year. Las Vegas somehow became basketball heaven.
I came from Eugene, Oregon, another city that leaned on the local college team in the absence of a major league pro sports franchise. I never thought Vegas would get any kind of team, let alone two — the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights and the NFL’s relocating Oakland Raiders — in a relatively short period of time. The sports excitement is suddenly overwhelming, but I’m holding out for a new Vegas basketball heaven, something that seemed impossible for the three decades this city has been my home: An NBA team.
Isiah is with me. He thinks it can happen.
“Vegas is a great city for an NBA team,” said the Pistons legend at the Bellagio on Friday, where he was launching an exclusive partnership with MGM Resorts and his Cheurlin Champagne brand. “I’ve had a chance to meet the executives at the highest levels at MGM, and they understand entertainment and sports, and if a team was to ever come here, they would be great partners.”
MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren is said to be actively pursuing an NBA franchise to play in T-Mobile Arena, where the Golden Knights will launch their first-ever hockey season this fall.
“Vegas would definitely support an NBA team, a WNBA team, or any kind of sports entertainment piece that’s coming in,” continued Thomas. “One thing you know they have here is the expertise to put on an event, to put on a show.”
Thomas was in town to talk about Champagne, not basketball, but he did happen to visit during one of the biggest sports weekends in Las Vegas history. The Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor battle captivated the sports world from T-Mobile, but the Big3 Basketball championship took place on the same Saturday night, at MGM Grand Garden Arena. The first-year league features former NBA stars in a three-on-three format, and the Trilogy took the title, a team featuring Al Harrington and Kenyon Martin and coached by Thomas’ fellow Pistons “Bad Boy” Rick Mahorn.
Thomas said on Friday his Champagne would be poured in the victorious locker room. “Sports, entertainment and Champagne … can you believe this is my job?” he said with a laugh.
Thomas — who retired in 1994, has coached in the NBA and college and worked at the executive level in the NBA and WNBA — got into the bubbly business after selling his stake of the Popcorn Indiana company. “My only experiences with Champagne were celebratory reasons, championship moments. When I got done playing, like every other athlete I was still looking for something to drink, and I was trying to find something that wasn’t so loaded with sugar. The more I kept looking, this became my drink of choice, and then I realized this family of Champagne makers was creating a product with very little of what they call dosage [the addition of a mixture of reserve wine and sugar]. For us former athletes and people who are fitness or health buffs, that makes [a difference]. So I’m proud and honored to bring this to the United States.”
Thomas was named Champagne Producer of the Year at this year’s New York International Wine Competition. His Cheurlin Flagship Collection portfolio of Champagnes is now available in Las Vegas only at the Bellagio. “It’s been selling itself through word-of-mouth. We’ve done very little advertising,” he said. “My economics teacher told me a long time ago, a good product sells itself. The best way to sell a product is to make a good one, and people will tell other people about it. And that’s what happened — MGM heard about it and wanted to taste it, we sent some out, and here we are, and we couldn’t have planned a better place for it.”