Las Vegas Elijah Johnson has some advice for Kansas University basketball fans traveling to Glitter City for this week’s Las Vegas Invitational.
“Stay off the Strip. Stay off the Strip,” KU’s 6-foot-4 sophomore combo guard said with a smile.
The Strip is famed Las Vegas Boulevard, where there are casinos — and lots of ‘em.
Vegas natives like Johnson realize it’s the tourists, who hit the slot machines, tables and sports books, keep those casinos, large and small, profitable even in a slow period for the U.S. and international economies.
“Vegas is Vegas,” Johnson said, describing the host city for Friday’s KU game against Ohio University (7 p.m.) and Saturday’s against Arizona (9:30 p.m.) at Orleans Arena, located a few blocks west of the Strip.
“As much fun as parents have with the gambling and being around the Strip, being around all the bright lights and everything, we have the same thing. They have things for people our age. They have nightclubs for kids 18-20 and things like that,” Johnson added of non-alcohol-serving dance clubs.
Johnson, who was born in Gary, Ind., left the Midwest in eighth grade, moving to Vegas where his dad, Marcus — until three weeks ago — was employed at Paris Hotel on the Strip. Marcus, who worked in the parking department, was a victim of the economic slowdown and was laid off.
“Gary, Ind., is home, so no matter what, at the end of the day when I go there, it’s always going to mean more to me because that’s where I come from,” Elijah Johnson said.
“Vegas is where I grew up ... from eighth grade up, that’s where I was at. Things are brighter in Vegas than in Gary, Ind., more going on, bigger, actually more positive things going on. Vegas is my second home, but I know where I’m from.”
Elijah Johnson is an adopted hometown hero of sorts. He averaged 15.9 points, 4.8 assists and 4.0 rebounds his senior season in helping Vegas’ Cheyenne High to a 21-3 record.
“Yes, there’s pride (in what he’s done) because not too many people come out of Vegas (to play college ball),” Johnson said, indicating he was fired up about getting to play before “my parents, my little brother (Marcel, 10), my little sister (Ariana, 12), a lot of friends.
“We have so many events in Vegas, for somebody to actually be from there playing ball on this level will probably mean a lot to the Vegas fans.”
Elijah, who chose KU over Texas, Oklahoma UCLA and others in recruiting, realizes he won’t be the most famous person in Vegas this holiday weekend.
The city overflows with celebrity sightings all times of the year.
“All the time,” Elijah said of spotting the rich and famous. “Living there, I’d see Floyd Mayweather (boxer), Ice Cube (rapper, actor), anybody. Celebrities stop in Vegas. You see ’em everywhere.”
His dad seconds that notion.
“Movie stars ... pro athletes. I opened a limo door one day, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar walked out. I didn’t realize he was that thin,” Marcus Johnson said.
“I saw Mark Eaton one time,” Marcus added of the 7-foot-4 former Utah Jazz center. “My father used to love Mark Eaton, God rest his soul. He was one of the first players who, when he put his hand up, you couldn’t do anything against him. This guy was a tree.
“Another time I waited on Ludacris at the airport,” Marcus added. “At the time he was one of Elijah’s favorite rap artists. I came home, and he wanted to shake the hand of the man who shook the hand of Ludacris.
“Emmitt Smith, Emmanuel Lewis, John Travolta, I’ve seen a parade of movie stars and athletes,” Marcus added.
Marcus — he said about 30 of Johnson’s family members figure to be at Friday’s game — knows he’ll visit with a lot of KU fans in town this weekend.
“KU fans travel everywhere,” Marcus said. “I went to the UCLA game last year (in Los Angeles), and after the game we were in a restaurant and it was all blue — KU blue. Everybody in there was a KU fan. Fans would come up to me and say, ‘We love your son.’”
Like his son, he was willing to offer some words of wisdom for the KU fans in Vegas for the KU games.
“Stay off the Strip. Eat light,” he said, with a laugh, repeating part of his son’s mantra. “Vegas is a tourist town. You come here to spend money. If you are lucky, you might win. But you come here to spend money and enjoy yourself. There are so many shows and things you can do here we don’t have in Gary. With the weather warmer here, it’s definitely been a good move.”
Marcus said he hopes to fit in some family time with Elijah on this trip. But he realizes that might be difficult to do.
“They are here on business,” Marcus said. “It’s just going to be great to see him back here.”
Elijah will be mighty happy to see so many loved ones.
“It’s all he’s been talking about this past month,” teammate Thomas Robinson said. “I know he’s very excited about going home.”