Is this guy looking for the cops or what? Lem Banker is a gambler who says he bets only on things that have hair. No blackjack, no roulette wheels. Give Banker the human beings in football, basketball and boxing. Near midnight, he sips a brandy. He drinks coffee from a glass wrapped in a napkin. Banker surveys the MGM Hotel casino, his eyes in a nervous radar sweep of this hedonists' heaven.
"Looking for a friend," he explained to two reporters, holding up a room key. "He needs the key."
Banker's friend, we knew without asking, needed the room to show slides of his summer vacation in Dubuque, and so we got on with our conversation about what the Ray Leonard-Tommy Hearns fight means to Las Vegas.
Banker, 54, has lived here 23 years and is a leading pro football handicapper. He assured us the fight is very important, using a sentence with the words "carnival," "extravaganza" and "charisma."
If money talks and bullfeathers walk, Lem Banker could walk across the Himalayas. Which is why we cornered him in his native habitat, the better to study a town in which you can be run over by a car bearing the license plate INHOCK. On Las Vegas Boulevard, you can buy gas at a station with a 10-foot long sign advertising, "Free Aspirin & Tender Sympathy."
"This town is 10 years ahead of all other cities," Banker said. "It's like being on vacation year-around. Whatever you want, you can get."
We'll get to Lem's pick in the Leonard-Hearns fight in a minute, but first a few social notes. Howard Cosell has his larynx here, LeRoy Nieman has his paints, Norman Mailer will bring his literary fists. Maybe 30 newspapers are here, with a hundred more coming after Sunday's football, and Caesars Palace is gearing up as if millions of dollars were at stake.
They are. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Center estimated the Larry Holmes-Muhammad Ali fight last fall produced $132 million for the city. Caesars Palace reported profits that month of nearly $25 million.
"Traditionally, the best day in Las Vegas is New Year's Day," said Andy Olsen, Caesars' director of public relations. "For Holmes-Ali, everybody had a New Year's Day. We expect much the same thing for Leonard-Hearns."
Caesars built a 25,000-seat stadium on its tennis courts. A ringside seat sold for $1,000. In addition to its normal seven restaurants, the hotel will open two more for the fight crowd.
"Our Buffet Royale will offer everything you ever dreamed of," Olsen said. "Crabmeat, quail, froglegs. This won't be any buffet where you have to saw off chunks of shoe-leather roast beef. We'll have beef Wellington."
This will be served at poolside at $42 a plate, salad bar included.
Too bad Caesar passed away. He'd love his place, especially Cleopatra's Barge.
The barge plies the lobby waters. To get there from Vegas Boulevard, first you find a path through the entrepreneurs of the evening. Take the 100-yard long skywalk, a moving walkway on which you hear, "I, Caesar, welcome you to my domain." The skywalk carries you across the parking lot where Evel Knievel turned himself into mashed potatoes leaping his motorcycle over the fountains.
To find Cleopatra's Barge once you're in the lobby, bear right past the picture of Ann-Margret, past the sign promising "One Million Dollars" in payoffs from a slot machine, and past the blackjack tables where a year ago a Texan played for $28,000 a hand as he waited for the Holmes-Ali fight.
When you see the naked Egyptian lady, stop. Hanging 10 feet overhead, she's the bow maiden of Cleopatra's Barge, inviting you aboard. The boat isn't a boat, just as Vegas isn't a city, but it is a bar/dance floor shaped like a boat and placed in six inches of water. It moves up and down mechanically, as if riding the Nile.
We're getting to Lem Banker's pick, but first we have to check in with Shelly Finkel, the promoter who made the Leonard-Hearns fight the biggest money machine in boxing history.
"We expect to gross $35-36 million," said Finkel, "with Ray guaranteed $8 million and Hearns $5 million. They're not likely to get anything over that, though if it should go to $40 million, they'd split another $2 million."
The 25,000 seats here are practically sold out, with only a couple hundred of the cheap seats to go. Pay-for-view television "has been incredible," Finkel said, with systems paying $15 a house. Closed-circuit theater sales are "very good," Finkel said.
"Gambling and boxing go together," said Olsen, Caesars' man, and Lem Banker, there with his brandy at midnight, said he would make "a sizeable investment" on the fight come Wednesday night.
"I'll play Leonard," Banker said, "because Angelo Dundee is his manager and has been through the wars with Ali and Leonard. I'm investing in Dundee the same way you might invest in a stock. Only I don't invest in real stocks."
"I've seen too many chairmen of the board come to Vegas," Banker said, "and they're all idiots. I'd rather make my investments on football and basketball, where everybody is honest."