- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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LAS VEGAS Well, this is a first.
I've stayed in so many hotel rooms that I've seen every episode of "The Sopranos" and "Entourage" without ever subscribing to HBO. I've slept so many nights at Marriott hotels that I'm eligible for jury duty on the concierge level. When I'm home, I instinctively place my dishes outside the front door for the maid to remove. (My wife is not very understanding about this habit.)
Yet this is the first time I've ever actually been lost in a hotel room.
Then again, this is the first time I've been in a hotel room large enough to hold the NBA All-Star Game, including the starters, their posses, the Laker Girls, all four LeBron's, Ron Artest's studio musicians, Shawn Kemp's extended family, David Stern's accountants, the Phoenix Gorilla and an actual court to play the game on.
I'm in the Hardwood Suite at the Palms casino, a two-floor, 10,000-square-foot spread so lavish even Russell Crowe would pause before trashing it.
I've seen the master bedroom and the floor-to-ceiling high enough for Godzilla. I've seen the Jacuzzi tub so large it should come with a tide chart. I've seen the basketball court, complete with electronic scoreboard. I've seen the billiard table, the full-size bar and the stairwell lined with soft, pebbled basketball leather (old ball, not new ball).
But right now, I'm not exactly sure where I am. It appears to be a large hall behind the formal dining room, but what is it and where does it lead? A tattoo parlor? A changing room for Cirque du Soleil gymnasts/Hooters waitresses? A private aircraft hangar?
And more to the point, why wasn't I given a personal GPS device at the door?
The Hardwood Suite could only be would only be in one city: Las Vegas, host of the Feb. 18 NBA All-Star Game at the Thomas & Mack Center and the city dedicated to the concept that too much not only is never enough, it's just the beginning.
It's located in the 347-room, $650 million fantasy tower of the Palms casino owned by Sacramento Kings proprietor George Maloof. A night in the suite costs almost as much as the average American annual income, but my host, Larry Fink, swears the room is popular for corporate parties and rented out a large portion of the year.
If the signatures on the wall are to be believed, Snoop Dogg stayed here and so did Bobby Knight (though probably not the same night). As did an almost illegible list of A- and B-list celebrities.
"Imagine," says my friend, Amy. "Lindsay Lohan might have thrown up on that couch."
More impressive, Carmelo Anthony might have thrown up a shot from right here, beyond the 3-point arc on the basketball court.
The Hardwood Suite boasts that it is the only hotel room in the world with its own basketball court, and I don't doubt it. But for $25,000 a night, shouldn't the rims be more forgiving? And a little lower? And instead of a bathrobe and slippers, shouldn't I be given a pair of shoes with flubber soles so I can dunk?
What do you get for your money at the Hardwood Suite? A lot of opportunities to watch TV, for one thing. There are plasma screens along virtually wall and above every tub, including three in front of the living room couch.
You also could easily sleep an entire NBA starting five in the suite. In addition to the extra-long beds in the master and guest rooms, there are three full-size Murphy beds that fold down from the gym wall, just in case you tire on defense and need to nap (I'm thinking Shaq).
And because no one wants sweaty guests at a party, the suite comes complete with a locker room, featuring 12 wood-panel lockers, multiple shower stalls and three sinks, plus a waiting room for your posse.
Due to the price tag (did I mention it goes for $25,000 a night?), I wasn't allowed to spend a night at the suite. Which is just as well. The Hardwood Suite would be wasted on someone like me. I'm the sort of person who would spend the whole night tossing in bed and feeling guilty about the excess and fretting over how much to tip the private butler that comes with the room. As Amy observed when she met me at the Palms, "Let me guess, you didn't valet park did you?"
In fact, Vegas itself is lost on me. I've been here several times and it's always the same for me. Where others indulge in a hedonist playground of temptation, gambling, binge drinking, tattoo parlors, pole dancing, instant gratification and legalized prostitution in other words, the perfect setting for the NBA All-Star Game I wander around the casino with both hands covering my wallet.
My 84-year-old father would have a wilder time here. Hell, I'm so out of it I have trouble figuring out how to operate the slot machine.
"I don't get it. I put in my dollar, but I don't know what this button is."
"You're playing 40 lines at once," Amy tries explaining patiently, as if instructing a child.
"What do you mean? I don't see 40 lines."
"They're not just straight across. They're all combinations."
"I still don't see the 40 lines."
"Just pull the slot, Jim."
"OK. But I don't understand where there are 40 lines."
"How about you lose? Do you understand that?"
I can't even order food properly. Thanks to a bad cold, the only item at the casino diner that appeals to me is the chicken matzo ball soup. When I order it, the waiter glares at me, waits for me to continue, snarls, "Is that all?" when I don't, and rips the menu away to hand to a more deserving diner.
I can't help it. Other people go to Vegas for a weekend of sin, skin and poker. I go to Vegas to tour Hoover Dam. Others go to Vegas wondering whether Prince is in town (yes, every weekend). I go to Vegas wondering whether Los Angeles Dodgers AAA affiliate Area 51s are in town (not until April 13).
Others go to the Bellagio with dreams of striking it rich and wandering through the casino like Brad Pitt or George Clooney. I go to the Bellagio to check out the rotating exhibitions in its fine art museum (a recent showing of Impressionists was outstanding, but the current Ansel Adams exhibit is underwhelming).
So, I'll let Nike rent out the Hardwood Suite for NBA All-Star week instead. Me, I place a $10 on the Washington Huskies to win the Final Four at the sports book, then make my way to the exit through a long parade of typical Las Vegas gamblers.
I pass a group of conventioneers from Lever Brothers; a short man wearing a Tim Brown jersey, sunglasses and wrap-around headphones; an old Chinese couple; an impossibly well-tanned man in heels; a woman in a wheelchair; and a man pulling an oxygen tank from slot machine to machine.
And as I walk to my car (in the self-parking lot), I can't help but wonder one thing:
If the Hardwood Suite is so large and excessive, what the hell would the Gridiron Suite look like?
and the Tigers will open camp first with fundamental drills: fielding grounders and throwing them into the outfield corner.
(Also, check the complete ESPN SportsTravel Spring Training Guide for all things MLB preseason.)
In honor of baseball's return, here are my 10 favorite spring training spots:
1. The outfield berms. Don't waste your money on expensive box seats where you'll fry the back of your neck. The best place to watch spring training is from a patch of grass beyond the outfield fence with a beer in one hand and lotion in another. You find more of these in Arizona, with Maryvale (Brewers), Peoria (Padres and Mariners), Scottsdale (Giants) among the best.
2. Dodgertown, Vero Beach. In an era of generic training sites, Dodgertown still retains an old-time spring training air, especially when you wander Sandy Koufax Lane amid the old player dorms. But hurry after six decades, the Dodgers are moving to Arizona in 2009.
3. Hi Corbett Field, Tucson. It's been renovated many times, but it still has a cozy spring training charm. And because the Rockies have been so bad for so long, tickets are never a problem.
4. Tempe Diablo Stadium. Few things are as relaxing as watching home runs sail off toward the butte down the left field line unless you're a young pitcher who is trying to make the team.
5. Scottsdale Stadium. The only thing missing is a world championship banner for my Giants.
6. Drinks at the Pink Pony. The quintessential spring training hangout.
7. Tigertown, Lakeland, Fla. The Tigers have trained here since 1934 longest spring training association of any team and if you close your eyes, you can almost hear Al Kaline taking batting practice.
8. The Bubble Room, Captiva Island. If you're in Fort Myers to check out the Twins or Red Sox, be sure to make the long drive out to Captiva Island for dinner at this kitschy classic.
9. Packard Stadium, Tempe, Ariz. Catching a Sun Devils game at ASU, where Barry Bonds and 85 other major leaguers played in college, is a great substitute when you tire of the big leagues.
10. Mill Avenue, Tempe. Right off the ASU campus, a great avenue for shopping, dining and drinking.
(If you have a sports travel-related question or tip, write to the Road Warrior and Jim will try to answer it.)
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com who has covered sports on five continents and written about them all across America. His work can also be found on Page 2, and his book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," can be ordered through jimcaple.net.