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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Don’t bet on this former Vegas mayor being at the Super Bowl

Interior details of Oscar’s Steakhouse at the Plaza Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, on Jan. 28, 2024. Oscar Goodman tried for years to lure pro sports to Las Vegas. Now that he’s out of office and the N.F.L.’s premier event has arrived, he has no need for the “Big Game.” (Cody Cobb/The New York Times)

By Ken Belson

It was just after 4 p.m. on a recent weekday, and Oscar Goodman, the mob lawyer turned Las Vegas mayor turned civic cheerleader, was sipping perhaps his first Hizzoner of the day.

The drink — made with Bombay Sapphire gin, more Bombay Sapphire gin and a slice of jalapeño pepper, served in a large martini glass — is not just Goodman’s favorite social lubricant. It’s an homage to a faded version of Las Vegas that he has spent decades celebrating and trying to keep alive.

After a sip of the fuzzy elixir, Goodman settled into a booth at Oscar’s Steakhouse, an upscale restaurant in downtown Las Vegas, where he is paid to lend his name and conjure up his heyday representing gangsters such as Meyer Lansky and Tony Spilotro, staring down the FBI and appearing as himself in movies such as “Casino.” He still plays the part well. Goodman, 84, has no trouble dishing out bare-knuckle opinions about everything from graffiti and gambling to prostitution and the homeless situation.

Goodman is more than merely an “only in Vegas” relic, however. During his 12 years as mayor starting in 1999, he also helped boost the city’s tattered downtown, which long ago was eclipsed by the Strip a few miles south. Yet one thing he was unable to do while in office was persuade America’s biggest sports leagues to put a team in Sin City. Try as he did, the leagues could not be convinced that the city’s connections to gambling were not a threat to the integrity of their games.

That stigma vanished in 2018 when the Supreme Court overturned the federal law banning sports wagering outside Nevada. The floodgates opened, and even the NFL, which had pushed back the hardest against Goodman, now calls Las Vegas home. The Raiders began playing here in 2020, and the city has since hosted the Pro Bowl and the league’s draft.

On Feb. 11 will come the crowning achievement, when Las Vegas is the site of Super Bowl LVIII between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers.

Goodman regrets not being in office for the arrival of pro sports, including the Golden Knights of the NHL in 2017 and last year’s announcement that MLB had given the Oakland Athletics permission to move to the city. But he has gotten a vicarious thrill watching his wife, Carolyn, who succeeded him in office and remains Las Vegas mayor, attend the ribbon-cuttings.

“You want to succeed in everything you tried,” Goodman said of his efforts. “But look, I’m a realist. I didn’t succeed, but I was very lucky that my wife was able to do what I couldn’t do.”

What Goodman did do was tell anyone who would listen that the leagues were sanctimonious charlatans. Professional sports, he said, benefited from gambling because fans become more interested in games when they have money riding on them. He told the league commissioners concerned about the influence of gambling on players and coaches that Las Vegas was the safest place to play because the casinos and sportsbooks were highly regulated.

“It was a joke,” Goodman said of the leagues’ resistance to the city.

He didn’t stumble on sports by accident. By his own account, he’ll bet on anything that moves, including, apparently, cockroaches. Before ordering his drink, he told a visitor that he had bet on the two underdogs — the Chiefs and the Detroit Lions — to cover the spread in the NFL’s conference championships games. (He won both bets.) Then Jonathan Jossel, who runs the Plaza Hotel, the home of Oscar’s Steakhouse, stopped by to give Goodman $150 in cash, his share of their winning fantasy football team.

“I cannot risk owing this man a penny,” Jossel joked.

Bathed in neon from the signs outside the restaurant, Goodman said he recognized how the Runnin’ Rebels of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, unified the city when they were one of the top men’s college basketball teams in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He felt that Las Vegas needed professional sports teams not to boost the economy — as many mayors claim when trying to persuade taxpayers to subsidize stadiums for teams — but to generate enthusiasm and signal that Las Vegas was a world-class city.

“The truth is, he really does have vision,” Carolyn Goodman said of her husband’s push to lure a team. “I know part of it was selfish because he loves sports, and of course he loves to gamble. The way he supported our romance through college was playing poker.”

Oscar Goodman, who wasn’t afraid to use the word “whack” while mayor and, in a nod to a particularly memorable scene from “The Godfather,” still keeps a plastic horse head in his office, was a rare lawmaker willing to call out the leagues’ rigid opposition to sports gambling. He would point out, correctly, that some team owners had once been bookmakers and that billions of dollars were wagered on games.

“You have that hypocrisy, and Goodman certainly seized it,” said John L. Smith, a longtime journalist in Nevada and the author of “Of Rats and Men: Oscar Goodman’s Life From Mob Mouthpiece to Mayor of Las Vegas.”

“He has a certain anarchy about him,” Smith added. “He sees that and wants to break that up.”

Goodman trolled the leagues in his flamboyant style. He sat courtside at basketball games with a showgirl on each arm. He publicly chastised the NFL’s commissioner at the time, Paul Tagliabue, after he blocked Las Vegas from advertising on television during the Super Bowl in 2003. Goodman dropped by MLB’s winter meetings with showgirls and a martini glass, hugging former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda and other baseball luminaries and telling reporters that Las Vegas was ready for a team.

The leagues were not impressed. Goodman recalled how in 1999 he visited the NBA’s offices in New York, and David Stern, who was the commissioner, told him that Las Vegas would get a basketball team only over his dead body.

“Basically, we ended up like everything else in my life, in a fight,” Goodman said. “I said, ‘You want to know something, Commissioner: Before I became mayor, I represented reputed mobsters, and I could arrange that.’”

All of those spats feel like ancient history now, as gambling commercials run on TV during game broadcasts, fans bet using cellphone apps and Las Vegas prepares to host the most famous sporting event in the country.

As the first spouse of Las Vegas, Goodman could easily cop a seat in a luxury box at Allegiant Stadium, where the Super Bowl will be played. But after years of doing battle with the leagues, he’s not interested in battling traffic to hobnob with the same people who stiff-armed him. Instead, he’ll watch in his living room with his family and an ample supply of Bombay Sapphire gin.

If Raiders owner “Mark Davis called me and said, ‘Please sit with me,’ I wouldn’t go,” Goodman said. “I love being at home with my wife, and the kids stop by. I’m the happiest guy in the world. I get drunk, and I see 44 players on the field at the same time. I mean, it’s my favorite day of the year.”

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