Friday, June 14, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Steve Stallworth had lived in Las Vegas for two days when he got his first taste of how over-the-top the city could get for a major sporting event.
Stallworth, just 17, worked as an usher for a Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney heavyweight title fight at Caesars Palace in June 1982. Whether it was the big crowd of well-dressed people or the indescribable anticipation as both fighters entered the ring, the kid who came to play football at UNLV from small-town Yuma, Ariz., was instantly hooked in the heart of the action.
“I got $50 and a T-shirt,” Stallworth said. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is the greatest city in the world.’ ”
Little did Stallworth realize at the time, but this wouldn’t be his last involvement in a memorable Las Vegas sports night. He’s made a career of bringing big-time events to Las Vegas, most notably a college basketball game between Kansas and Florida in 2006 at the Orleans Arena that paved the way for Las Vegas to become a college basketball landing spot.
Stallworth, the general manager at the South Point Arena, where’s he credited with developing the property’s equestrian center into the nation’s premier facility, will be inducted today into the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame. Here’s how he got there.
Helping Garth Brooks
Stallworth’s office walls are lined with photos and memorabilia to document his lengthy career in the industry. Each item has a story, and to hear Stallworth tell it is downright entertaining. Take the time he played basketball with Garth Brooks.
Brooks, in town to perform at T-Mobile Arena, started his day each morning for about a week playing pickup basketball at South Point. Stallworth had seen photos of Brooks at Cox Pavilion and invited him to bring his morning game to the resort, which caters to the rodeo and riding crowd.
Brooks is a capable 3-point shooter and takes his basketball seriously, Stallworth says. After the Las Vegas tour ended, Stallworth got a call from Brooks with a request: He was building a new house in Nashville and wanted the South Point basketball floor for his homecourt.
Stallworth and his team spent three days installing the court — complete with the South Point logo — at Brooks’ house. Brooks paid for the transportation and installation, and for a new court for South Point.
“That’s the thing about Steve, no matter who you are, he treats you with the same respect,” said Harvey Hyde, Stallworth’s former football coach at UNLV. “He’s the type of guy who always has a smile and never seems to have a bad day. The guy knows everyone; everyone likes him.”
When Stallworth helped open South Point in 2008, he expressed concern to owner Michael Gaughan that plans to include an equestrian center may not be well received because Las Vegas was too far from where other events were staged on the circuit and too hot for the animals.
Turns out Gaughan was right, as the facility has grown to host events in virtually every week of the year, finding its niche in catering to the clientele — indoor and air-conditioned stalls for the animals, easy access from the hotel to the facility and closed-circuit feed of events to the hotel rooms, among other luxuries. One event awards $13 million in prize money.
“This guy, he has vision,” Stallworth said of Gaughan, for whom he previously worked at the Orleans Arena. “He said, ‘You guys go and figure it out.’ ”
A ‘true Rebel’
Many refer to Stallworth as “Strip,” a nickname he got as a freshman living in the Tonopah Hall dorms at UNLV. Stallworth had a picture of Joe Namath hanging above his bed when another student pieced together the “Strip” nickname.
“Strip” Steve didn’t turn out to be UNLV’s version of “Broadway” Joe, though. Stallworth’s football career had a few noteworthy moments, none of which padded his hall of fame resume. He backed up the greatest Rebel of all-time in Randall Cunningham, took a knee to close out the 1984 California Bowl victory and passed for 23 career touchdowns.
Once his playing career ended, Stallworth didn’t stop caring about the program. He’s active in the UNLV Football Foundation, helps coordinate alumni events and is considered one of the team’s biggest backers.
He maintains an email group of former players, frequently sending them updates with a message that begins with “Rebel brothers,” Hyde said.
“He’s a true Rebel, man,” Hyde said. “He keeps that group together. He genuinely cares about every one of those guys.”
His biggest contribution
Sooner than later, Las Vegas will be selected to host a postseason NCAA Tournament site or Final Four. Stallworth will deserve part of the credit.
He spent two years working the phones to get college basketball to the Orleans Arena in the early-to-mid 2000s, despite the NCAA’s anti-sports-betting stance. He finally talked university officials from Kansas and Florida into playing here in 2006, and it turned out to be a hit. Florida was the defending national champion and Kansas was ranked No. 1, bringing a standing room-only crowd for a back-and-forth game that went into overtime.
“I knew we could do college basketball and do it well,” he said.
It was the first college game contested on a property with a sports book. But not the last.
By 2009, the West Coast Conference moved its tournament to the Orleans Arena. Now, the Western Athletic Conference (Orleans) and Pac-12 Conference tournaments (previously MGM Grand Garden Arena, now T-Mobile Arena) are also in Las Vegas and close to sports books.
Stallworth, whose career included working in sales and marketing for a decade at the Thomas & Mack Center during the peak of the UNLV basketball glory days, is still in awe of where his venue management career has taken him.
“I’ve from Yuma, Ariz. I didn’t know what an arena was,” he joked.