“36 Hours in Vegas” - A Short, Strange Trip to the WCC Basketball Tournament

  The ultra-intense Rex Walters nearly led the USF Dons to an upset win over BYU (photo by Ethan Miller)

The ultra-intense Rex Walters nearly led the USF Dons to an upset win over BYU (photo by Ethan Miller)

By Connor Buestad | connorbuestad@gmail.com

When deciding upon my mode of transportation to my inaugural visit to the West Coast Conference basketball tournament in Las Vegas, I felt it was only appropriate to take a bus. I figured you fly to a major conference basketball tournament like the ACC or the SEC, but you drive to a mid-major conference tournament. That’s just customary. So I ended up riding a Tufesa bus out to Sin City (via Salt Lake City), one that proudly markets their ability to transport you from Mexico to the Southern United States comfortably in the middle of the night. This particular Monday morning trip only produced a total of four passengers.

If you take the Tufesa to Vegas, the closest they’ll get you to the WCC Tournament is out front of the Excalibur Hotel on the strip. From there, it is up to you to hail a cab, or use the empty pedestrian overpass to simply walk over the crowded freeway in order to get to the Orleans Hotel & Casino. The Orleans is located off the strip in a relatively seedy area. One of the more prominent landmarks surrounding the Orleans is a Deja Vu “All-Nude” gentlemen's club. Across the street lies various cheap eats and convenience stores ready and willing to soften the blow of some bad-beats on a the blackjack tables.

Walking through the parking lot approaching the main entrance of the Orleans, there really is hardly any sign that a Division 1, ESPN televised basketball tournament is going on inside. It wasn’t until I reached the glass front doors of the casino and saw some “WCC Tournament” stickers that I was able to confirm I was in the right place.

As is true with all Las Vegas hotels, the Orleans casino floor is an intentional maze, free of clocks or useful maps, designed in way that makes you completely give up on where you were originally going in favor of just sitting down at a table with half drunk strangers and gambling.

By this time it was just 10 minutes until the Saint Mary’s Gaels and Gonzaga Bulldogs were set to tip-off in a semi-final tilt, and I was literally lost in the middle of the casino floor with a standing room only ticket in my hand.

“Can you tell me where the basketball game is going on in this place?” I ask a tired-looking poker dealer. “Yeah,” he responds. “Walk down past those slot machines, make a right at the T.G.I. Friday’s, and you’re there.” Easy enough, I thought to myself, and proceeded to make my way past the slots in search of the T.G.I. Friday’s landmark.

As dedicated as I was to WCC semifinal basketball, the lure of T.G.I. Friday’s happy hour potato skins and discount Bud Light proved too much for me to ignore. Minutes later, I found myself placing my order with a muscle-bound server in a Friday’s uniform chock-full of flair.

The game was on a flat screen TV, my thinking went, and how incredibly good are potato skins after a 6 hour bus ride?

“Hey man, you going to the game?” asks a heavy-set man from Washington state. “As a matter of fact I am,” I respond.

Steve was his name. And he was “In Vegas for a little while for various reasons,” some of which were to soak in both the WCC tournament and the PAC-12 tourney the following week. He, like so many other Gonzaga fans I encountered over the weekend wasn’t an actual alumnus of the school, but a fan nonetheless who “has been watching the Zags play for a long, long time.” (i.e. since the 1999 Santangelo, Calvary, Frahm team.)

  One of the many backroads to the Final Four (photo by @section925 on instagram)

One of the many backroads to the Final Four (photo by @section925 on instagram)

By halftime of the Gonzaga v. Saint Mary’s semi-final, I had managed to settle up at T.G.I.’s, ride along the flat-moving-escalator to the Orleans Arena down the hall, and find my standing-room-only seat among the other degenerate basketball junkies in attendance.

The atmosphere inside the Orleans is a bit weird. The home to minor league hockey’s Las Vegas Wranglers, the arena is a far cry from the homely feel of McKeon Pavillion in Moraga or War Memorial in SF, or the Kennel in Spokane. Aside from the die-hard fans who flew in from their respective WCC campuses, most of the spectators inside the arena almost just seemed to be there by accident. Maybe they were gambling on the game, maybe they were just looking for some more Las Vegas entertainment, maybe they were staying on the 12th floor of the Orleans and wanted a break from their wife and teenage kids, maybe they liked basketball just a little too much.

Concessions sold garbage food like nachos and dippin’ dots (“the ice cream of the future”), but no beer was allowed to change hands. You also couldn’t place a bet on the game inside the Orleans Casino. To do that, you’d have to seek out one of the countless sportsbooks outside the Orlean’s property line. Somehow, this rule helped protect the integrity of the game.

On the court, Gonzaga was a flat out better team than St. Mary’s. David Stockton (John’s son) controlled the game throughout and Kevin Pangos played like his efficient self. In the post, Sam Dower dominated Brad Waldo. With Matthew Dellavedova gone to the NBA and Gonzaga laden with senior experience, the Gaels proved to be no match. The Gonzaga faithful, outnumbering St. Mary’s supporters by about 5 to 1, reveled in the victory over their arch-rival from the Bay Area. As St. Mary’s players walked into the locker room after their convincing loss, all they could hope for was a bid to the NIT. Their dreams for another trip to the Big Dance had been dashed.

Game two of this night of semi-final matchups pitted another Jesuit school visiting Sin City (University of San Francisco) versus the mormons of BYU. As it turned out, this game ended up being a Las Vegas late-night instant classic.

The upstart Dons of San Francisco, coached by the fiery ex-NBA sharpshooter Rex Walters, played above their heads against the Cougars of BYU. Walters, who earlier this year watched his starting point guard Cody Doolin quit the team after a inter-team fight in practice, was a joy to watch coach. Screaming one second, laughing the next, Walters provided a welcome sideshow on the USF sideline. He was gunning for a huge upset win and his freewheeling coaching style was on full display. The Dons took the Cougars into overtime, but eventually fell two points shy of the upset, 79-77. Walters, gracious in defeat, will hopefully be back in Vegas next year for another crack at the big boys of the WCC.

Not long after the Dons loss, I found myself sitting in the lobby of the Palms Casino food court, eating the only food that was readily available, which happened to be a McDonald’s Extra Value Meal. ESPN announcers Dave Flemming and Sean Farnham apparently weren’t hungry, as they slowly walked by with loosened ties, only to disappear into a sea of slot machines. However, it wasn’t long before a couple members of the USF team arrived at Mickey D’s, jonesing for a postgame meal of any sort.

Tim Derksen, USF’s sophomore guard who played valiantly in the OT loss, sat quietly with a couple college buddies wearing “USF Sixth Man” T-shirts. Far across the casino floor, the Palms Sports Book’s giant big screen TV is airing SportsCenter on loop. Derksen’s friend nudges him on the shoulder, encouraging him to look up and watch his highlights play out on the big screen. Derksen raises his head for a moment, only to look back down and resume eating his french fries before the ESPN anchor can tell us who won. He, like the rest of the patrons at this late-night Vegas McDonalds already knew the outcome.

The Dons would ship out of town the next morning, while I would stay one more night to watch Gonzaga win the 2014 West Coast Conference crown. Only one team from the WCC would get to head back home a winner. The rest of the league would have to concede that Sin City had gotten the best of them. As history shows, it’s never easy to leave Las Vegas on top.

  David Stockton cuts down the nets at the Orleans (photo by Ethan Miller)

David Stockton cuts down the nets at the Orleans (photo by Ethan Miller)

“Get StOAKed” – An Oakland Clothing Line is Determined to Challenge Perceptions

By Connor Buestad | connorbuestad@gmail.com

A group of five 15 year olds isn’t supposed to be able to captivate a room like this.

Tears of joy and pride, prolonged moments of intense contemplation, and rousing standing ovations were supposed to be reserved for “Graduation Saturday” at UC Berkeley. And although more than a few remnants from the Cal graduation yet remained, it was Sunday now. By this time, the diplomas had all been given out, the pictures had all been snapped, the celebratory bottles of wine had been emptied, and the grandparents were well on their way back to Florida.

A newer, younger generation of students now had the stage in the Haas School of Business main auditorium all to themselves. An impressive collection of East Bay ninth graders had descended upon the Berkeley campus to compete in a business competition and pitch their start-up ideas to a group of distinguished panelists. The event, put on by BUILD.org, promised the winner a thousand dollars of seed funding.

In front of a standing room only crowd, it was a clothing company called “Stoaked” that stole the show.

Ryan Frigo, Jovon Jenkins Jr., Desmond Cliett Jr., Christian Johnson, and Kai Crosby, all Oakland Tech Freshman, took the stage near the end of the competition and left no doubt who was the most deserving winner. In a compelling presentation, the five-man team went far beyond simply explaining their brand, but instead dove headlong into social issues plaguing the city of Oakland. A city that the team is currently growing up (and taking pride) in.

The Stoaked contingent used a microphone instead of a bullhorn in order to be heard on this day. And their focus was on their hoodies rather than the 1%. But their speech held undertones of the since past Occupy Oakland movement, and the crowd surely was struck by the gravity of the moment.

“Stoaked is an apparel company that represents Oakland’s life, beauty, and soul,” explained company leader Kai Crosby. “The brand represents a lifestyle and a vision that Oakland’s potential will continue to be brought out, and will bring positive outside perceptions to Oakland. We are trying to slowly change the image of the city we grew up in by selling clothes.”

Ryan Frigo continued to captivate the audience with more background on how Stoaked came to be, and where he plans to take it in the future. It is a company that sells a fashionable, well designed, original product, but the founders make sure their goods also come with a positive and meaningful message.

  From L to R: Frigo, Jenkins Jr., Cliett Jr., Johnson, and Crosby (photo by Gene Dominique)

From L to R: Frigo, Jenkins Jr., Cliett Jr., Johnson, and Crosby (photo by Gene Dominique)

Frigo, who appears to be the brains behind the technical side of the product, has chosen a logo for Stoaked that epitomizes the change in Oakland that he is after. The spreading roots of the “City of Oakland Tree”, centered inside a triangle is the logo representing this up-and-coming brand. And if even incidental, consumers can’t help but see the triangle as representing a delta sign, as in change.

“We looked into the Oaklandish logo (also depicting the ‘City of Oakland Tree’) and we realized they don’t have any special rights to the city tree, so we went ahead and made our own design out of Oakland’s city logo.”

The company Frigo makes reference to here, Oaklandish, is an established clothing brand who is dedicated to supporting and representing the city of Oakland in the most positive light possible. With shirts including the one depicting the word “stAy” in support of the one-foot-out-the-door Oakland Athletics, Oaklandish has made every attempt to support the city through a local, artistically driven clothing store.

And as much as stores like Oaklandish have done to change and improve the perception of the city of Oakland, there is no substitute for the perspective that the members of Stoaked posses. Even despite close ties with Oakland and her sociology degree from the University of Chicago, Oaklandish’s CEO Anglea Tsay can’t quite compete with how local Stoaked really is. In the case of Ryan, Kai and the rest of the Stoaked staff, they embody the image and purpose of the clothes themselves. Their models are their classmates, their design consultants are their buddies who skate the rails behind Oakland Tech.

It wasn’t until Frigo finally laid his paws on a heat press that Stoaked went from just a lofty idea to something of substance. Now that same heat press is working overtime in his family’s basement, churning out shirts, tanks and hoodies for customers all over the Bay Area.

“Me and my friends take pictures all throughout the city of Oakland,” explains Frigo. “Sometimes it’s in an urban setting, other times it’s up in a secret spot in the hills. Using photoshop and different design programs, we create what the images will look like, then we use transfers and a heat press to get them on our clothes.” 

It is a process that can be time consuming and labor intensive, especially for a 15 year old. But as Frigo explains, “It doesn’t really feel like work, we enjoy doing it. We love making these clothes.”

As Spring gives way to Summer, the young men of Stoaked have graciously moved on from their business comp triumph. The seed money has already been re-invested, the Summer Line has been released and the all important Fall roll-out of apparel is in the pipeline. But as anyone already knows from hearing this group of entrepreneurs speak about their city and their mission, their goals go far beyond just the next quarter of sales.

Stoaked has decided to not just agree to change or sign up for a movement, but they decided to start one themselves. With each picture taken, each shirt pressed, and each item sold, they plan to come closer to changing the perception of the city they are growing up in.

 If they aren’t careful, they just might do it.

"Giving New Meaning to the Phrase 'Locked in at the Plate'" - Baseball inside San Quentin Prison

  The sun creeps up over the walls of San Quentin Prison

The sun creeps up over the walls of San Quentin Prison

By Connor Buestad | connorbuestad@gmail.com 

Sure I had my fears. Who wouldn’t? At San Quentin California State Penitentiary, you name it and they’ve done it. Murder, rape, armed robbery, the list goes on, and it isn’t pretty. Some are on death row, others are simply there for life, a few are expecting to get back out on the “outside” as they call it, sooner than later.

I arrived at the prison’s visitor’s parking lot early on a Saturday morning. Look left, and I can see the north end of the San Francisco Bay in all its glory, morning light glistening off sailboats and the Tiburon ferry. Look right, and I’m confronted with a cluster of barbed wire, bars and high walls. Two worlds, so close yet so far away.

As it came time to enter, discussion ensued among teammates about what was to be allowed into the prison. I had never been, but I assumed prison security would be tight. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Aside from peering into my bag and lazily sweeping a metal detector in front of me, the guards let me in scot free. Compare this process to that of boarding a pedestrian flight to Seattle on SWA and it’s almost laughable. Put it this way, if I wanted to bring in a Costco sized tube of Crest, no one was stopping me.

A brief trek though the Maximum Security wing of the prison, home to the infamous Scott Peterson, led us to the “yard”. Down a ramp, around a corner, and there I was in the heart of the “Q”. My first impression was, yes, this really does seem like the movies. Eliminate the new hospital that was recently built, and I could of sworn I was in Shawshank. (Red and Andy Dufrense had to be around here somewhere, I thought.) One of the first things I noticed was a large clock overlooking the yard. Ironically, it was broken. Perhaps time really did stand still in this place.

As we set down our gear and trotted out to warm up, I was amazed by how active and engaged everyone was. Sure, a few prisoners chose to spend their Saturday morning lounging with fellow prison buddies, but they were the minority. Instead, it seemed as if most prisoners were wrapped up in their own world, doing their best to get the most out of their free time outdoors. Prisoners were participating in running, boxing, horeshoes, pingpong, chess, guitar, pushups, basketball, and tennis, just to name a few. There was even a religious ceremony of sorts going on in deep right-center field, complete with a mini-bonfire and a small hut. What should have been time spent loosening up for the game, ended up being a field study for Sociology 101.

  Mount Tamalpais serves as a constant reminder of life on the outside

Mount Tamalpais serves as a constant reminder of life on the outside

As with any baseball game, there is copious amounts of banter that takes place between the two competing teams. Playing shortstop, I was afforded a brief two-minute conversation with any San Quentin Giant who reached 2nd base. Topics breached included Pablo Sandoval’s recent slump, favorite Bay Area radio stations, and how much a Snickers costs on the street as compared to in the slammer. What struck me most, however, was the sincere “thank you’s” I received for coming inside their world to play. On three different occasions, a prisoner looked me dead in the eye and said, “thank you very much for coming, I appreciate it.” You can say what you want about the prison system in this country, but this type of compassion told me something is working.

During the course of the game we had our share of brief interruptions. One of which was called “yard down”. This occurs when there is some sort of disturbance or security issue somewhere within the prison walls. Midway through the 6th inning, I took a knee with the other 200 some-odd convicts, hoping the delay would be short lived so we could get back to the game. Two minutes later we were back at it.

I was interrupted for a second time by the prison basketball game that was taking place adjacent to our baseball game. This too was a game between a team from the outside versus the San Quentin Warriors. The interruption I speak of? Well, just an emphatic fastbreak dunk which set off a rowdy scene among the crowd of prisoners, presumably gambling on this, the “game of the week.”

The longer I spent inside these prison walls, the more I was impressed by the demeanor of its inhabitants. I went in expecting a rowdy bunch of criminals, but I instead found a calm, subdued group of individuals immersed in their activity of choice. Call me crazy, but it seemed like the prisoners were living a life of simplicity and routine that some readily enjoyed. Surely, there are horror stories that even the most loquacious prison guard would never confide in me, but the mood inside San Quentin on this Saturday could best be described as pleasant.

The San Quentin Giants ended up losing on this day. Surrendering a 4 run lead to fall by the score of 14-12. Shoddy pitching and errors on defense lead to the Giants demise, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of hustle. Following the game, the players manicured the field with water and rakes as if it was their brand new Corvette, a microcosm of the pride each player took in playing for their prison. Finally, both teams congregated on the pitcher’s mound for a brief prayer, lead by a veteran San Quentin outfielder. The topic of the prayer was religion, but the theme was undoubtedly hope. To quote Andy’s letter to Red in The Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Amen.

  Maybe the Field of Dreams isn't in Iowa after all?

Maybe the Field of Dreams isn't in Iowa after all?