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Thomas & Mack Center: Where’s the Las Vegas glitz?

By Dave Wright

The NBA All-Star Game has always been a glitzy, star-studded affair. Like Major League Baseball, the NBA has understood for a long time that the players doing individual exploits — not the game itself — are the only selling points of the weekend. So, they set up a format in which players can do what excites the crowd the most (the Slam Dunk contest) and work the actual game in almost as an afterthought.

This year’s All-Star Weekend takes place next weekend in the glitziest city of them all – Las Vegas. Never mind that the NBA’s link to Sin City is a bit tenuous. The Jazz played ten games there in 1983-84 and the Lakers went there to play a playoff game in 1991 due to the L.A. riots. Outside of that, there have been a grand total of 18 pre-season games. (When the Lakers played a pair of games last October, it was the first games since 2003.)

hose games were all played in the same arena that will host the All-Star Game — Thomas & Mack Center. As a public service (after all, this is what we are all about here at Arena Digest), here are a few notes for those of you coming to town.

As an arena, Thomas & Mack is more like the Four Queens Casino than, say, the Bellagio.

(For those of you who aren’t Vegasphiles, here’s a quick explanation: The Four Queens, a downtown standard, is a very functional casino that will gladly take your money and smile while doing so. Its casual restaurant is a Burger King. The Bellagio can best be described by the wording on one of its brochures: “Where beauty meets luxury.” Its casual restaurant is called Sensi. Got the idea now? )

But I digress.

I dropped in on “The Mack” (as locals love to call it) last week to watch the local team, UNLV, host Texas Christian. The NBA may try to ratchet things up a bit on the weekend but on the night I dropped in, there were no scantily clad girls walking around with trays of cocktails – even for the lucky folks sitting at courtside. (Indeed, even the UNLV cheerleaders were dressed rather modestly and rather traditionally in basic black outfits. The danceline wore pantsuits that prompted one guy near me, clearly a fellow tourist, to remark, "My wife dresses sexier than that.")

But I digress.

Thomas & Mack was built in 1983 with a lot of things in mind besides basketball. (Its history includes a variety of events such as concerts, minor-league hockey, arena football, boxing and a current fave in town, rodeo.) It offers comfortable but not overly cushy seating with an unobstructed view of the floor. The aisles are a little narrow and some of the rows seemed a bit long but this is a minor inconvenience. Unlike a lot of arenas from that era, there is a wide walkway to travel around for food and souvenir choices. (The food choices are surprisingly varied with everything ranging from the staples — hotdogs, pizza, etc. to some unusual choices such as tacos, subs, a Sweet Shoppe and a Coffee/Smoothie booth. It made up for the fact I saw only one vendor in the stands the entire evening.)

I didn’t make it to the upper deck the night I was there. (Neither did many other people. Attendance that night was listed was listed as 10,097 in a building that has 18,776 seats for basketball. The bottom half was about three-quarters full with a few hundred folks scattered upstairs. Many of them joined us lower-half types for the second half.) If your tickets are up there next weekend, you should be able to distinguish Kevin Garnett from Kobe Bryant. (If not, the big scoreboard hanging over center court doesn’t offer stats but does have a nice picture.)

The end scoreboards offered an amenity I had never seen before. Not only did they update the scoring numbers of the players on the court, it added their current totals of assists, rebounds and fouls. On the flip side, team timeout totals were nowhere to be found. If one must make an electronic trade, this seems like a good way to go.

In the finest Vegas tradition of customer service, the ushers were fairly helpful. (One actually grabbed an elderly fellow’s arm and walked him about 10 rows to his seat, Later, this same usher came back to check on the fellow, who was waving his arms frantically. Turned out he was just mad at a referee’s call. But it was the thought that counts.)

So what you have is a not very fancy but perfectly acceptable building inside. If you’re coming to the All-Star Weekend figuring you are headed for an oasis of luxury, you’ll be disappointed. Like a lot of things with Las Vegas, it’s all is how you set your expectations.

There is one thing you really need to know in advance. Parking — and getting out of T & M after the game — can be a royal pain in the rump. The Las Vegas papers had been telling people for days in advance to be prepared for parking problems at the TCU game. Sure enough, when we arrived 45 minutes before gametime, there were already signs indicating the small arena lot had filled up. One of the reasons for the building is on the edge of campus and the students’ parking spots were filled up. And that was on a night when the arena was half-full at best.

So, here’s a bit of advice for your limo driver after you get dropped off: I came to the game with a pair of friends who were well versed in T & M’s parking woes. They turned off Highway 15, zipped past the parking lots on Tropicana Blvd. and found a side street two blocks away. After the game, they merely headed away from the arena to I-93 and weaved back to Highway 15 en route to my downtown hotel. The trip went perhaps an extra three miles down Tropicana away from the arena but avoided a massive parking jam and took just 25 minutes. 

One other tip: Unless you feel like Rocky, try to avoid running the long set of steps up to the arena. I watched one young guy try to impress his gal pal by taking them two at a time. This worked fine for the first flight but the second flight of stairs damn near killed him. His female companion had taken the nearby escalator (which works fine, by the way) and then had to come back down the steps to help the guy finish.

As with a lot of things in Las Vegas, it’s all about knowing your limits.

Dave Wright is an editor at August Publications.

If You Go
Thomas & Mack Center is located near the corner of Tropicana Avenue and Swenson Street, west of the Strip and close to McCarran International Airport. Ignore the published addresses on Maryland Avenue; the arena is hard to miss, with the main entrance located on Swenson.

The closest hotels are north of the arena on Paradise Road, including the Hard Rock Casino and Hotel, Amerisuites Las Vegas, St. Tropez All-Suite Hotel and the Comfort Inn. Despite how the arena sells itself, it’s not that close to the Strip, and certainly not within walking distance.

The arena opened in 1983 as the home of UNLV athletics. It was named for E. Parry Thomas and Jerome Mack, two local bankers who worked on the original land acquisition and donated $500,000 to launch the design process. In addition to hosting UNLV sports, the facility also hosted the Las Vegas Thunder of the International Hockey League between 1993 and 1999. It also hosted the Las Vegas Gladiators (AFL) through the 2007 season. Besides the 2007 NBA All-Star Game, the arena also hosted the AFL Arena Bowl in 2005 and 2006.