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Top 10 moments in Las Vegas sports history

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LAS VEGAS — Borrowing from that old yarn about a tree falling in the forest and no one being around to hear it, what happens if they hold an iconic sporting night and fans are not allowed to attend? Did it really happen? We’re about to find out.

Because with the newly minted Las Vegas Raiders welcoming the world to Allegiant Stadium, appropriately enough on the corner of Dean Martin Drive and Al Davis Way (“a confluence of Raiders and Las Vegas history meeting at the stadium,” Raiders owner Mark Davis told ESPN.com) for Monday Night Football against the New Orleans Saints, they’ll be doing it sans Raider Nation. Or any denizens from any other football country, so to speak.

When it comes to Las Vegas, it will be one of the top sporting moments in the city’s history. Yes, even if only a few are there to bear witness. Here, then, is one journalist who happens to also be a UNLV alum’s take on the top 10 moments in Las Vegas sports history:

1. UNLV wins 1990 men’s basketball national title

As far as homegrown events go, nothing tops Tark The Shark’s Band of Runnin’ Rebels dominating Duke 103-73 on April 2, 1990, in a game that still holds records for most points scored and largest margin of victory in an NCAA men’s basketball title game. A championship parade stretched from Fremont Street down the Las Vegas Strip to the Thomas & Mack Center on campus. The Rebels, led by Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony and Anderson Hunt, would ride a 45-game winning streak into the 1991 Final Four before Duke got its revenge.

Johnson, Augmon and Anthony would all be selected in the top 12 picks of the 1991 NBA Draft, with Johnson going No. 1 overall. Between 1986-87 and 1990-91, UNLV went 163-22 and played in three Final Fours (the Rebels also played in the 1977 Final Four). Coach Jerry Tarkanian, who arrived in Sin City in 1973 and was as big in town as any member of the Rat Pack, was forced to resign amid controversy following the 1991-92 season. UNLV has won only three NCAA tournament games since.

2. The Raiders win the vote to move to Las Vegas

It was unthinkable a few years prior, what with the NFL not even allowing Las Vegas to air a commercial on the Super Bowl broadcast advertising itself as a vacation destination due to that whole gambling aspect. But Raiders owner Mark Davis, who had long ago purchased the Web domain www.lasvegasraiders.com and had a cell phone number with a 702 area code, came through on his promise to make NFL owners an offer they could not refuse.

Indeed, on March 27, 2017, Davis won the vote 31-1 — with only the Miami Dolphins dissenting — and Raiders fans gathered at the “WELCOME TO FABULOUS LAS VEGAS” sign on the Strip to celebrate. It made for a three-year-long awkward goodbye to Oakland before the team officially rebranded itself the Las Vegas Raiders on Jan. 22, 2020 — ironically enough, the 36th anniversary of the team’s most recent Super Bowl win. The late Al Davis used to celebrate his birthday, July 4, in Las Vegas. A $750 million hotel tax helped the Raiders build $1.9 billion Allegiant Stadium, which will play host to the New Orleans Saints in Monday’s grand opening.

3. The Vegas Golden Knights land with an emotional home opener

The NHL expansion franchise embedded itself into the community immediately with a somber and memorable tribute to the victims and first responders of the Route 91 Festival mass shooting before the Golden Knights’ inaugural home game at T-Mobile Arena on Oct. 10, 2017, nine days after the attack. The Knights would retire the No. 58 to commemorate the number of lives lost in the attack. And when the team played, it played better and advanced further than anyone would imagine, all the way to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, where it fell in five games to the Washington Capitals.

The Knights offered a blueprint of how to run a professional franchise in Las Vegas for the Raiders. Yes, just win, baby.

4. Mike Tyson takes a bite out of Evander Holyfield

Las Vegas had long been the fight capital of the world but none, at least in this corner, were as iconic and, well, disturbing as what went down in Tyson-Holyfield II on June 28, 1997, for the WBA title at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Seven months prior, Holyfield had upset Tyson with an 11th-round stoppage, and after a series of headbutts from Holyfield in the rematch, a frustrated Tyson bit Holyfield’s right ear in a third-round clinch and spit out the piece of cartilage onto the canvas. After another clinch, Tyson bit Holyfield’s left ear, though it remained intact. Tyson was disqualified after the round and a near riot ensued. For his troubles, Tyson was fined $3 million and had his boxing license revoked for more than a year by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Oh, Tyson and Holyfield are friends today.

5. Kareem skyhooks his way into the record books

Yes, it’s true. The Captain set the NBA scoring record in Sin City inside UNLV’s less-than-four-months-old Thomas & Mack Center on April 5, 1984. Wait, what? Yes, the Utah Jazz played a handful of regular-season games in Las Vegas and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his Los Angeles Lakers were in town that night. Abdul-Jabbar’s signature skyhook from the right block came off a pass from Magic Johnson and over the outstretched arms of Mark Eaton with less than nine minutes to play in the game to eclipse Wilt Chamberlain‘s record of 31,419 points, which had stood since 1973.

Abdul-Jabbar would retire in 1989 with 38,387 points, which is still the record. The Jazz calling Las Vegas home for a spell portended the NBA summer league setting up shop in 2004 and that wild NBA All-Star Game Weekend in 2007.

6. Evel Knievel jumps the Caesars Palace fountains … and crashes

The daredevil motorcycle rider had one hell of a wipeout on Dec. 31, 1967, missing his landing on the 141-foot attempt for his most memorable stunt gone wrong. Per reports, Knievel suffered 40 broken bones, including a crushed pelvis and femur with fractures to his hip, wrist and both ankles, not to mention a concussion and lengthy hospital stay. The jump is memorialized in a painting hanging in Allegiant Stadium. Knievel never tried the jump again, but his son Robbie accomplished it with much fanfare on April 14, 1989.

7. Tiger Woods announces his presence

For a brief moment, Woods considered playing collegiate golf at UNLV before heading to Stanford. At least, that’s what the Rebels believed. No matter, Woods’ first PGA win came in Las Vegas on Oct. 6, 1996, in his fifth PGA start. The 20-year-old Woods, who shot a 9-under-par 63 in the second round, beat Davis Love III by shooting a two-putt par on the first hole of sudden death and claimed a check for $297,000. And the legend of Tiger Woods was born.

On March 5, 2011, Patrick’s fourth-place finish in the Sam’s Town 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was the best finish for a woman in one of NASCAR’s top three series, bettering the 62-year-old record set by Sara Christian, who finished fifth in Pittsburgh in 1949. Patrick, who initially gained fame on the IndyCar circuit, set the mark in her 16th NASCAR start. Her previous best NASCAR finish had been 14th a month earlier in Daytona, Florida.

9. Landing the National Finals Rodeo

December used to be a dead month for the gambling mecca as a destination city. Then Las Vegas pulled a coup in 1985 in getting the NFR to move to Sin City from Oklahoma City for a 10-day signature event that draws upward of 170,000 fans annually to the Thomas & Mack Center. The aptly named Super Bowl of rodeo is the final rodeo event of the PRCA season. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and its effect on Las Vegas as a virus hotspot, the NFR is moving to Arlington, Texas — which has looser health regulations — in three months.

10. ‘Fan Man’ crashes Bowe-Holyfield II

James Miller, AKA Fan Man, falling out of the sky and into the ring ropes in the seventh round of the Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield rematch at Caesars Palace on Nov. 6, 1993, was the wildest thing to ever happen in a heavyweight title fight … until Holyfield-Tyson II nearly four years later (see above). Miller had circled the outdoor arena for 10 minutes before his paraglider came crashing down, the parachute stuck in the overhead lights, his legs caught in the ropes.

Miller was dragged away and beaten by assorted security and fans. It resulted in a 21-minute delay (Holyfield would win via majority decision, 115-113, 115-114, 114-114) and stays in the hospital and jail for Miller, who claimed the crash was an accident, though he was charged with dangerous flying and released on $200 bail. A Raiders connection — two months later, Miller flew about 1,000 feet over the team’s playoff game against the Denver Broncos at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and was arrested upon landing.

10a. Local legends reach their apex

Yeah, I’m cheating a tad here, but sometimes 10 spots is not enough, and these “homegrown” icons deserve more than an honorable mention. Because Greg Maddux (Valley High School class of 1984) going into Cooperstown as a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2014 is a big deal. Same with Jerry Tarkanian gaining inclusion into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013, less than two years before his death. Then there’s native Las Vegan Andre Agassi, as a No. 12 seed, beating Goran Ivanisevic to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon in 1992. And, of course, adopted son Floyd Mayweather Jr. beating UFC champ Conor McGregor on Aug. 26, 2017, at T-Mobile Arena to improve his record to 50-0, one win better than Rocky Marciano.

Honorable mention

  • Aces forward A’ja Wilson being named the WNBA MVP with 43 of 47 first-place votes on Sept. 17, 2020, along with the Aces being the league’s top seed for the playoffs, probably should have cracked the Top 10. But the pandemic muted what should have been a grand celebration at Mandalay Bay, what with Wilson — who was also the league’s rookie of the year in 2018 — and the Aces in the WNBA’s bubble across the country in Florida.

  • College of Southern Nevada, led by 17-year-old Bryce Harper, advances to the 2010 Community College World Series Final Four.

  • Mountain Ridge Little League plays in the Little League World Series in 2014 and is named United States champion when Chicago Jackie Robinson West is forced to vacate wins.

  • The 2001 XFL season begins with great fanfare, as Las Vegas Outlaws running back Rod Smart introduces the world to “He Hate Me”.

  • Female goaltender Manon Rhéaume suits up for the IHL Las Vegas Thunder in 1994.

  • Ronda Rousey and Amanda Nunes headline UFC 207, the first time two women made up the main event of an MMA card, on Dec. 30, 2016, with Nunes winning by TKO in 48 seconds at T-Mobile Arena.

  • Harper and Kris Bryant (Bonanza High School class of 2010) win consecutive National League MVP awards in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

  • Minor league baseball arrives in 1983 in the form of the Triple-A Las Vegas Stars, who have since been rebranded as the 51s and the Aviators and now play in neighboring Summerlin.

  • Pele and the New York Cosmos facing Eusebio and the Las Vegas Quicksilvers at Las Vegas Stadium in NASL play on April 9, 1977.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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