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Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Updated: July 1, 10:29 AM ET
The in crowd

By Eddie Matz
ESPN The Magazine

This article appears in the July 12 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

I'm going to do you a favor. Put down this magazine right now and whip out your calendar. I don't care if it's on a PC, iPhone, iPad, fridge magnet, whatever. Just get the darn thing.

I'll wait.

(Sound of me waiting.)

Now check to see if you have any plans for the third weekend in July. You do? Fine. Break 'em. Because you've just won a four-day, three-night stay in fabulous Lake Tahoe. Okay, well, technically you didn't win anything on account of you'll have to pay your own way. But once you get there, you'll feel like you just won the lottery, American Idol and a lifetime supply of Wonka bars all rolled into one.

You can have your Pro Bowl, your NBA All-Star Weekend, even your ESPYs. You can even have your Super Bowl week -- in New Orleans. When it comes to the greatest sports party on the planet, I'll take the American Century Championship, the best-kept secret in sports.

You heard me. Celebrity golf, baby.

When it was conceived back in 1989 -- to fill airtime after NBC lost the rights to major league baseball -- the tournament had no title sponsor. What it did have was Michael Jordan, John Elway and Mario Lemieux. In its first year, this cockamamy event landed three giants of sport in the prime of their Hall of Fame careers. Of course, it also had bitchin' weather, network coverage, a PGA feel, gambling, the middle of July and a secluded village that can keep a secret and just happens to be one of the most gorgeous places on earth. Two decades later, the tournament still has MJ, Elway and Lemieux. More important, it still has Tahoe.

I've been fortunate to see some spectacular places in my time. I've stood atop Baldface Mountain in British Columbia and had to remind myself that I was not yet dead. I lived for a year in Turks & Caicos before it became Bahamas 2.0. I got engaged in Maui on a golf course overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Tahoe buries them all.

For starters, there's the weather. If you go during the summer, you won't see a single cloud. Doesn't matter how long you stay. And while it's an unbearable 106° just 45 minutes north in Reno, the elevation of Tahoe (6,000-plus feet) keeps temps in the low 80s. Then there's the scenery. Snowcapped mountains descend into water so crystal clear you want to open your mouth and drink it. As if that weren't enough, you can gamble! (On the Nevada side, anyway.) The effect of this cannot be overstated. There's something about gambling that seems to corrupt even the best of folks. It's as if the mind says, Well, I'm already doing one ethically questionable thing, so I might as well do a bunch of others, too. It's the reason the slogan "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" was conceived. Well, Tahoe is basically a mini-Vegas with better weather and way more natural beauty.

No wonder first-timer Shane Battier and his wife dropped off their 1-year-old with the grandparents, and fellow newbie Dennis Haysbert, one of a dozen or so thespians in the field, demanded that The Unit producers write him out of the season premiere so he could attend. Ashley Heap, meanwhile, probably wasn't thinking about golf when she agreed to let her tight end hubby count this as the couple's anniversary celebration -- each of the past four years. Says Todd Heap: "It's like one big fraternity." If only getting a bid weren't so tricky.

When MJ is at an event, you know it's big.

Every January, a full six months before tee-off, NBC Sports execs Jon Miller and Gary Quinn sequester themselves in a 15th-floor conference room at NBC's New York City headquarters and, after looping in tourney director Mike Milthorpe, conduct their own version of Selection Sunday. Starting with a master list of 400 famous people who golf, they pare it down to 200 before sending out the golden tickets (actually, a boring two-page letter signed by Quinn). Hacker Charles Barkley gets one because of his Q rating. Former big league pitcher Rick Rhoden gets one because he's an eight-time champ. In all, Quinn and company will accept about 100 players for 80-something spots (as with a wedding, there are always cancellations). Nearly all the invitees are single-digit handicaps or better. Of course, the list is never final until it's final. Last spring, Penny Hardaway played Doral with Jordan and shot 73. Jordan called Miller and, just like that, Penny was in. About the same time, Quinn called former Falcons quarterback and tourney vet Steve Bartkowski and asked if he knew current Atlanta QB Matt Ryan. He did, and just like that, Ryan was in.

So what exactly is it about this kitschy little three-round tourney that makes it the can't-miss event for pro athletes? Depends on whom you ask.

Ask a youngster like Ryan, who made his Tahoe debut last year, and he'll tell you it's the chance to press flesh with his idols. "I can't believe I got to meet all these people," says the 2008 NFL Rookie of the Year, sounding as though he could challenge Kenneth from 30 Rock in an aw-shucks-off. Squeaky clean as Ryan seems to be, it's hard not to believe him, especially given the sheer assemblage of star power.

Take, for example, last year's Wednesday night kickoff event, a players-only cocktail hour held in the 16th floor bar at Harrah's, the hotel/casino that annually plays host for the weekend. One by one, the A-listers trickle in, trading bro hugs and chuckles. Ray Allen is there. Tony Romo is there. Mike Modano is there. A mind-blowing magician named Matthew Furman, who became the tourney's hired help after being discovered at a barmitzvah eight years ago, is there, and he has Jason Kidd and Battier shaking their heads in disbelief. An hour later, across the hall in the swanky Summit restaurant, Miller introduces the tourney's 19 rookies. MMA star Chuck Liddell is one of them. Poker whiz Dan Negreanu is another, as is Pats Pro Bowler Wes Welker. After the buffet dinner with the 4,200 jumbo shrimp and 1,875 lamb chops, the group is treated to a private Dennis Miller gig. Among those busting a gut are Wayne Gretzky, Ozzie Smith and Alonzo Mourning.

It's like those old Super Friends cartoons that used to air on Saturday mornings. You'd get an episode with Superman, an episode with Batman, an episode with Aquaman, and every now and then they'd mix in an episode with all three of them plus the Green Lantern and the Flash and the Wonder Twins. That's what being in Tahoe in the middle of July feels like.

Sure, you could attend a Hall of Fame induction ceremony and see plenty of legends, but they'd all be from the same sport. You could sneak into the ESPYs and find all manner of jocks, but aside from the ceremony itself and maybe a pre- or postparty, that's it. They're in, they're out. People swear by the NBA All-Star weekend and Super Bowl week, but the host towns are so big and the party schedule so jam-packed that you never come close to getting all the big dogs in the same place at the same time. In Tahoe, you do. For five days straight.

"I think I just peed my pants," says Ryan as he walks off the practice green on Thursday morning at last year's tourney. Moments earlier, between warmup putts, the Falcons signal-caller bumped into a certain 6'6" bald man who used to play a little basketball. The exchange went like this:

Bald man: "Michael Jordan."
Matt Ryan [taking off hat]: "Nice to meet you."
Bald man: "You likin' Atlanta?"
Matt Ryan: "Yeah."

Remember, Ryan is a guy who, after just one professional season, already had the sports world by the balls. A guy who's so preternaturally poised that he answers to the nickname Matty Ice. And yet there he is wetting his Calvins, coming up with conversational gems like "Yeah."

Ask Aaron Rodgers, who'll be making his sixth consecutive trip to Tahoe this year, what keeps him coming back, and you get a different answer. "It's about the golf," says the Packers quarterback with a mischievous grin that screams, It's so not about the golf. If it were, Rodgers would be up in his hotel room catching some Z's on the eve of last year's first round. Instead, there he is at the roulette table late Thursday night -- just hours before tee-off -- with a Corona in hand, copping to a perennial side wager he has with a few NFL pals, including Carson Palmer.

Everyone seems to have a little side action, but nobody talks numbers. (Remember, Tahoe knows how to keep a secret or two.) Well, almost nobody. Rodgers claims that his bet is $1,000 and that he wins every year. The last post might be an overstatement, the first an understatement.

Later that Thursday evening in the Harrah's lounge, Battier is clutching a Bud Lite while trying to convince folks that the green jacket he's wearing over his blue button-down shirt and khaki slacks is a legit Augusta specimen (it's not). "I'm good friends with Tiger," he says. "This is from his second Masters." Moments later, Battier hops up on stage, grabs the mic and shouts, "Yo, yo, what up, Tahoe," then proceeds to lay down a mesmerizing karaoke version of "Ice Ice Baby." Pencil-straight, Duke-graduatin', blue-button-down-and-khakis-wearin' Battier doing Vanilla Ice? It's so not about the golf.

Matt Ryan works on his fundamentals along the infamous 17th fairway.

If it were, you wouldn't find Ray Allen up on stage in the lounge Friday night playing deejay, as he does every year, with the six different iPods that he brings for the occasion. You wouldn't find Marcus Allen and Alfonso Ribeiro (that's right, Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) belting out Motown hits all night long, accompanied on piano by a local legend known as Arty the Party. Nor would you find Barkley, who's such a larger-than-life figure at the tourney that he could run for mayor of Tahoe and win without breaking a sweat, on the very same stage a couple of hours later handing out Coronas by the case and pouring Patron for anybody who wants it (all on his own dime, by the way).

All of this isn't to say that guys don't take the American Century Championship (which will be on ESPN3 July 16 and NBC July 17-18) and its $600,000 in prize money -- much of which goes to charity through the Lance Armstrong Foundation -- seriously. Quite the contrary. Gretzky admits that although he doesn't hit the links much anymore, he did play seven days straight leading up to last year's event. But as the weekend wears on and the majority of the field falls out of the running, the event becomes less about the golf and more about, well, everything else.

By Saturday night, there's Jordan in the high-stakes room, cigar and a stack of $5K chips in his left hand, choosing not to play at a blackjack table reserved for him (I actually saw a custom-made gold plate with black engraving that read, "This table reserved for MJ") and instead opting to piggyback on Tony Romo's hand. There's Jerry Rice dancing topless on the catwalk at Vex, Harrah's house-infused, bracelet-required nightclub. There's tourney virgin Trent Edwards soaking it all in from of one of Vex's roped-off VIP booths, which feature $275 bottles of Absolut, $1,000 minimums and the yummiest Hello Dollies ever.

Ask Edwards what makes the American Century Championship a no-brainer save-the-dater, and the Bills QB has a simple answer: "The 17th hole." It's the only part of the whole Tahoe experience that's even remotely about the golf, and even then it has nothing to do with golf. How could it? After all, the 17th is a pedestrian par-3, straight and flat. There's no breathtaking drop-off, no crater-filled bunkers, no babbling brook. What it does have is a couple of hundred yards of beach that play host to the rowdiest golf fans on the planet.

Take 52-year-old local Isabel Billman. Like most of the enthusiasts on 17, her primary objective (besides partying) is to nab a close encounter -- whether it's an autograph, a photo op, or just a friendly tête-à-tête -- with a celeb. To succeed, she'll use any means necessary. Two years ago, her "Let's Tango With Taylor" sign scored her a dance on the green with D-end and Dancing With the Stars fave Jason Taylor. Last year, she and her posse, who for the past decade have taken four speedboats across the lake from Incline Village, lured celebs to the sand by offering up party punch and homemade pizza. When all else fails, she's not too proud to exploit her 14-year-old son or her, um, natural assets. "Kids and coconuts," says the bikini-clad real -estate agent. "That's the secret."

Apparently it works. Last year a few pros were distracted enough by Billman and the rest of Tahoe's tailgaters that they took turns firing 50-yard bombs onto nearby party boats. Even ruler-straight Ryan, who shunned casinos and cocktails all weekend in favor of laying low with his family, found himself taking a swig of the party punch. "If you can't have fun here," explains Billman, "you can't have fun anywhere."

Eddie Matz is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.