I went to Las Vegas this week because of two primary reasons. One was to hook up with old friends who live in Vegas and southern California. Good friends.
There’s something just a little peculiar about being a 3-hour flight from Iowa and spending an afternoon in a Vegas race and sports book with three fellow native Iowans, betting on horse races at Prairie Meadows.
The other reason was to attend the World Series of Poker. I had hoped to play in the WSOP Media event, in which the prizes were cash donations to the charities of the players’ choices, but that event was pushed back to July 7 this year, and I couldn’t stay for it.
However, there is good news on that front. The Golf Channel called me, having seen my recent column about The Boys and Girls Club in Cedar Rapids, which would have been my chosen charity. That organiation is Zach Johnson’s Birdies That Care beneficiary this year, fortunately. It needs money badly to rebuild or relocate, whichever turns out to be the case. Looking at the place this week, rebulding seems very optimistic. But the club will stay on the West side of town in one form or another.
The Golf Channel is coming to Cedar Rapids Tuesday to film something for on the club and Cedar Rapids’ flooding in general Tuesday for its telecasts of the John Deere Classic Thursday and/or Friday. So maybe that national attention can raise some awareness and cash for The Boys and Girls Club, a truly worthy entity.
Back to the WSOP: I attended the Ante Up for Africa tournament Wednesday at the Rio. It was a second-year event, held to raise money for victims of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. It was the brainchild of actor Don Cheadle and poker star Annie Duke.
The event had a “red-carpet” deal before the tourney, where its celebrity players paraded in front of cameras and microphones representing a spectrum of media outlets, from People Magazine to Entertainment Tonight. OK, the spectrum may not have been all that wide.
I got in with my media credential – mucho thanks, WSOP – and saw one Hollywood type after another preening. Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Shannon Elizabeth, George Lopez, Ray Romano, Jason Alexander and several more posed, signed, and answered weighty questions of the day.
Affleck and Damon got the most love from the media. But the celebrity who got the largest share of the adoration from the fans who ringed the poker tables (albeit from a safe distance) for the tourney weren’t those two or Adam Sandler, who seemed truly uncomfortable. Rather, it was Charles Barkley, who is as large, outspoken and approachable in person as he is on television, and perhaps moreso.
Barkley no longer gambles in Las Vegas after a much-publicized deal where he was late paying a debt to a Vegas casino. He blames Associated Press for making more out of it than it should have been, in his opinion, and told an Associated Press reporter at the Ante Up that her bosses can kiss his behind. He didn’t say it like that.
He told someone else “I love poker. I like all forms of gambling, to be honest with you. Right now I can’t gamble because the Associated Press is worried about my business.
“In the NBA, we were playing poker before it took off on TV. It’s nothing new to us.
“I think most people like to gamble. If people didn’t lose money, If you didn’t lose money, I think everybody would gamble.
“The media is monitoring me. Only the idiots monitor me. I should be able to gamble, but I stopped to take the pressure off of TNT. They are afraid of the media.”
I sidled up to Sir Charles and told him I enjoyed and appreciated the way he approaches his job as a halftime and post-game commentator on TNT’s telecasts of NBA games. It wasn’t fawning. It was a simple statement of truth. The only way to watch an NBA telecast is to get some of the give-and-take between Barkley and his broadcast partners included. They make it fun.
“It’s not brain surgery,” Barkley told me. “(New Los Angeles Clipper) Baron Davis is getting $15 million a year. His life can’t suck. I try to make sure the person at home can laugh and have a good time. It’s just basketball, and I’m never gonna forget that.”
Then someone else came along and asked Barkley what he thought about his mother calling him “a mama’s boy” on HBO.
“I fired her the next day,” he said. “No, I didn’t fire her but I did tell her if she said anything like that again I would fire her.”
Barkley busted early in the Ante Up tournament. But instead of ducking out of the ballroom and hanging out in a special lounge for the players who paid $5,000 each to participate, he hung around for hours afterward to enjoy the surroundings and converse with other celebrities and the fans.
There are stars, and then there are people everybody wants to see, hear and be around. Charles Barkley is in that second category.