Norm Clarke joins the team at The Sporting Tribune

Legendary Las Vegas columnist Norm Clarke returns to his roots as a sports writer as Vegas becomes the center of the sports world.

LAS VEGAS – Every April I get a raging case of déjà vu.

The trigger, this time, was the Oakland A’s announcing they had a land deal for a new stadium in Las Vegas.

That was a full-circle moment for me.

Before moving to Las Vegas in 1999 to do the man-about-town column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, I was hired by the Rocky Mountain News in Denver in 1984 to head their coverage of the city’s bid for a Major League Baseball franchise.

Denver’s decades-long pursuit finally became a reality in 1991, when MLB agreed to put a team in the Rocky Mountains and another in Miami. They would later be known as the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins.

Having grown up in the Mountain West (Montana), it was a major highlight of my career to break the story in 1991 that Denver was joining the big leagues.

Five years later, Denver landed a National Hockey League franchise. The young talent-rich Quebec Nordiques were relocating to the Mile High City. Renamed the Colorado Avalanche, they completed a dream season by winning the Stanley Cup, the city’s first major professional sports championship.

For someone who loved sports, it was a tough call to leave a city which now had teams in the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL.

Sports had dramatically changed my life. When I was 10, my father died. Less than a year later, I lost my right eye as a result of a freak accident — my suspenders came loose and struck my eye. I was in a dark place for much of my teen years. But the light at the end of the tunnel, I thought, would come when I got to high school and could join my childhood buddies on the Terry High School football field.

But that dream was dashed when my mother sat me down and explained the risk was too high. Her motherly instincts were correct. But I was devastated. At 15 I started drinking and fighting. I didn’t win many.

The summer after my sophomore year, my mother went to the high school and met with the football coach. She asked him to let me go out for football. The coach, Ray Frank, expressed the same reservations, but, thankfully, relented.

Their mutual decision was the pivotal moment in my life. In my senior season I got to start. Nobody loved hitting—or getting hit— more than I did. I got to play for one of Terry High’s greatest teams.

Two and a half years later, after flunking out of college, I was struggling to find something I loved as much as football. I was working as a grocery boy when the store owner asked me to deliver an advertisement to our weekly newspaper.

A conversation with the editor changed the course of my life. I asked him if he planned to cover the upcoming basketball tournament. Terry High had tied for the best record in conference play.

He took a deep puff on his pipe and said, “No. I’m not that big of a sports fan.” He mentioned his sports guy had gone back to college. Then he paused, gave me a quizzical look and said, “Why don’t you cover it for me. I’ll pay you.”

Thank you, Terry Tribune editor Bill Spiller, for the opportunity. My first sports editor, Gordie Spear, taught me a lot about tenacity. His dream was to play basketball but he was cut all four years. He attended the University of Minnesota and made the basketball team as a walk-on. He started for the Gophers’ co-championship team. He taught me that old horse racing bromide: “It ain’t where you start, it’s where you finish.”

A young bureau chief in the Associated Press bureau in Helena complimented me for tipping the AP to a major story. He took me to lunch and said, “You’ve got great instincts. I know you’re just starting out, but I want you to start thinking about working for the AP.” Nobody had ever told me I had great instincts. My confidence soared. I became sports editor of the Billings (Montana) Gazette.

Ten years after being fired as a grocery boy, and going broke from spending two-and-a-half months touring Europe, I jumped off the train in Lima, Ohio and hitch-hiked four hours to Cincinnati in a snowstorm to see my friend, Bill Winter, who was in charge of the AP office in Cincinnati. That was pure serendipity. When I got back to Montana, another AP bureau chief in Helena, Paul Freeman, who had recruited me to join the AP, was waiting. He went to bat for me like no one else. I took the AP test and was hired. Then he informed me that the AP had changed its mind and rescinded the job offer because I was blind in one eye. Freeman submitted his resignation. The AP requested he fly to Denver to meet with a top AP executive and explain what was going on. That meeting ended with me being re-hired and Freeman tearing up his letter of resignation.

That same week I received a job offer from the Seattle AP bureau chief, Wick Temple. He wanted me to start out in Pullman, Washington as a correspondent. A day later, while in the Helena paper’s newsroom, I was summoned to a phone in the AP office down the hall. It was Burl Osborne, the bureau chief in Columbus. He said a vacancy in Cincinnati had opened and the job was mine if I wanted it. Bill Winter’s fingerprints were all over that big break.

Of course, I took the job and during my first week in Cincinnati, AP headquarters sent out a major announcement that my friend Wick Temple was the new executive sports editor.

I had a lot to prove when I arrived in Cincinnati in early 1973. I went there with zero news writing background and had to learn it on the fly. In May 1977 I was the first reporter at the scene of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in northern Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. The death toll of 165 and hundreds injured made it one of the worst fires in U.S. history.

You gain a lot of experience in a very short time with the AP. I got to cover most of the Reds home games and their two World Series championship teams in the mid-1970s. Those were easy years. They got more challenging when the Reds’ would-be dynasty fell apart. One of my biggest stories was the decision to report Pete Rose’s growing dissatisfaction with management.

I was tipped that Rose had informed his attorney to let management know, “If I’m too rich for their blood, they can trade my ass to Philadelphia.” The Cincinnati media accused me of everything from yellow journalism to fabrications. One guy stood up for me and would become a very important ally in Cincinnati Enquirer sports columnist Tom Callahan. He pointed out that Rose went from suggesting my story was bogus to going public with his dissatisfaction. At one point, he threatened to “punch (my) headlights out” and he wasn’t referring to my car. 

In 1978 I got a number of job offers and decided to join the San Diego AP office, where I could have the best of all worlds—sports, news and a beach house. Six years later I moved to Los Angeles to accept the position of AP’s coordinator of coverage of the 1984 Olympics.

Before the Olympics started, the Rocky Mountain News offered me the baseball job. The more I thought about it, the more exciting it sounded. Denver was in the midst of one of the last great newspaper wars. I was hired to stay on top of Denver’s chances to secure an MLB franchise.

Those 15 years in Denver were the best of times, first as a baseball writer then a sports notes columnist and the last 10 as the Rocky’s man-about-town columnist. One of my biggest stories, next to breaking the news about Denver getting an MLB team, was my 1996 interview with Nuggets star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, formerly known as Chris Jackson, before his conversion to Islam, in which he admitted he was not standing for the National Anthem. He called the American flag a symbol of oppression and tyranny. He was more than one of the best shooters in NBA history. He was Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick in spirit.

At the age of 57, I was restless and ready for one more great adventure. I took the biggest chance of my life – I decided to take my man-about-town column to Las Vegas during a golden time. I enjoyed it because I felt I covered it like the AP would have.

People who knew my background often asked if I thought pro sports would thrive in Las Vegas. I thought the NBA would plant a flag here first. But the NHL’s Golden Knights were the first to see the potential and ignited the city when they went to the Stanley Cup Final in their first season. There was no doubt the Raiders were going to be successful. The late Al Davis has to be smiling. He saw the potential decades before others. His son, Mark Davis, not only owns the Las Vegas Raiders now but the reigning WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces. The Raiders’ home, Allegiant Stadium, will be the home of Super Bowl LVIII in February, the Final Four in 2028 and likely the College Football National Championship before that.

The A’s $1.5 billion 30,000-seat retractable roof stadium will be approved by the legislature and I remain convinced the NBA will be here within five years, with an ownership group that will likely include LeBron James. Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber recently said Las Vegas could be awarded an expansion team by the end of the year.

With all the above unfolding, Las Vegas’ neon-splashed strip is currently being transformed to host the Formula 1 Grand Prix, reinforcing the city’s claim as the entertainment capital of the world. On November 18, a global TV audience will see F1’s elite blast the Las Vegas brand to another level. The Las Vegas Grand Prix will be an annual event for 10 years, scheduled to take place the weekend prior to Thanksgiving through at least 2032, making Las Vegas the center of the sports world for the next decade.

Thanks to The Sporting Tribune, I’m back in the game and excited about being part of the next chapter of Las Vegas sports.

This week’s best sighting: A teary-eyed Andre Agassi leaving the movie “Air,” the story behind Nike’s creation of the Air Jordan shoe line. Agassi was with his family.

If you have tips for Norm’s column, e-amil him at tips@thesportingtribune.com.