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A weekend in Vegas with the fans waiting on their Raiders

LAS VEGAS -- Richard Carew was raised an Oakland Raiders fan. His father had season tickets on the 50-yard line for the Raiders before the team moved to Los Angeles in 1982, and he still has season tickets for the Athletics. Now, Richard is buying his own season tickets for the Raiders, who will begin play in Las Vegas in 2020.

On Saturday, Carew looked pained, though, with a twinge of excitement as he walked through what amounted to a Raiders museum in the middle of a shopping village south of the Las Vegas Strip.

There to greet you at the entrance was Al Davis' white windbreaker, under glass, and the late iconoclast owner's disembodied voice. And there were Cotton Davidson's shoulder pads and Fred Biletnikoff's helmet and, yes, jars of Stickum. All three Raiders Super Bowl rings were on display, too, as well as photos that predated Davis with the Raiders adorning the walls, right next to the shimmering gold-and-black 1960 Raiders sideline jacket (yes, the Silver and Black's original colors were gold and black).

Carew was awaiting his appointment to purchase his tickets for when his favorite team lands in Sin City in less than two years.

"I'm from Oakland, where they need to be," said a defiant Carew. "If I had my choice, they'd have a new stadium back there."

Carew has been in Las Vegas for 16 years and works in housekeeping at the Luxor Hotel & Casino, and he's about to pay what amounts to a mortgage for these tickets. Why would he invest if he did not fully embrace the move?

"Because," Carew said, a smile emerging, "they're in my backyard again."

As the City of Oaklandsues the team, and the Raiders face the possibility of being vagabonds for a season, Vegas is preparing for its new team. The Raiders fans there watch another lost season and wait for when the team will really be theirs.

It's Sunday morning now, and it's a late-arriving crowd at Legends Sports Bar and Grill on Boulder Highway. Just a handful of Raiders fans in their garb wipe the sleep from their eyes as they amble to their usual spots in front of the big-screen TV. Hey, it's a 10 a.m. PT kickoff in Las Vegas, and the Raiders, well, they're not doing so hot this season.

A slow start to the game -- the Raiders trail the Cincinnati Bengals17-0 -- keeps things quiet. But the Raiders make things interesting and close to within a touchdown with five minutes to play. By then, the crowd has grown to about 60 fans and has woken up the smoky bar, along with the Raiders players three time zones away.

The longest-recognized Raiders booster club in Southern Nevada, the Las Vegas chapter has had as many as 155 members and has been in operation since 2007, 10 years before the Raiders won the right to move here. And while turnout at Legends on this day was not as high as it's been in the past -- "There's not a lot to cheer about right now," one member said of the relative malaise in the Raiders' record, which dropped to 3-11 after the 30-16 loss to the Bengals -- members insist the excitement level is still high for the team to move here.

There is a theme too for the Raiders fans at the bar.

"You know, it sucks for Oakland," said Joe Perea, the club's president. "But don't hate on Las Vegas. It's not our fault."

Everybody loves a winner, perhaps nowhere more than in this gambling mecca, which exploded last year for the NHL's Vegas Golden Knights and their improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final as an expansion team. Truly, Las Vegas had seen nothing like it since Jerry Tarkanian and his UNLV Runnin' Rebels ruled the city and won the NCAA basketball championship in 1990.

And sure, there have been fly-by-night operations through the years, from the Arena Football League (the Sting), the Canadian Football League (the Posse) and the XFL (He Hate Me on the Outlaws), to the International Hockey League (Thunder), the International Basketball League (Silver Bandits), the Continental Indoor Soccer League (Dustdevils) and Roller Hockey International (Flash and Coyotes), to name a few.

But never has Las Vegas had one, let alone two, of the Big Four sports in town. And with the WNBA's Aces having moved here last year, the NBA is rumored to be eyeing the city next, with MLB always mentioned by locals as well as MLS. The Raiders built their base in the East Bay with decidedly blue-collar fans, and when it comes to this booster club, there are similarities even in the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas.

Ernesto Bendana, a 37-year-old union carpenter wearing a white Amari Cooper jersey, had plunked down $7,500 for his PSLs, $18,000 total for his tickets on the second level by the Al Davis Torch, and saw it as saving money for himself.

"I travel to so many games anyway," he said. "So when you add it up, airfare, hotel, car rental, food and drink. ... Forget that. I don't have to travel no more. I'm staying home."

Alex Kunkle, 31, and an employee at Nevada State College, recently paid his $7,500 for PSLs on seats in a corner of the end zone on the Raiders' side of the field. He is a recent transplant from Portland, Oregon, whose Raider family fandom began with his grandfather, who served in the navy and was based in Alameda in the 1960s.

"The season might not be going that great now, but people here are excited because we believe that Jon Gruden knows what he's doing and they'll be better in two years," Kunkle said. "But I'd be lying if we didn't say they should lose and get a better draft pick."

As it stands now, the Raiders would have the No. 2 selection.

And that player should be a foundation piece when the stadium opens on July 31, 2020, a name player whom the Buckleys -- Bryan and Lisa -- will root for from their seats on the 50-yard line, seven rows up on the second level on the visitors side.

"The PSLs were an eye-opener," Lisa said, and Bryan, a realtor in Las Vegas, grinned.

Bryan acknowledged that he is a recent Raiders fan because in Las Vegas, "the team you root for is the team you bet on," he joked. Now, though, it's the team in which you made an investment.

Even if the fans' love for the team might be deeper than their pockets.

Some PSL and season-ticket buyers see themselves making their money back by buying tickets at face value to other big-ticket events at the stadium and turning around and selling them. Think, Super Bowl ... unless, of course, the Raiders happen to be playing in it.

There's no buyer's remorse, they said. At least not like the compunction felt by the booster club in Legends, when Joe Mixon scored from the 1-yard line on fourth down to give the Bengals a 14-0 lead.

"F--- you," Big John Baietti, who grew up a Raiders fans in 1960s San Mateo, yelled in his booming voice from his corner stool. "Impeach Mixon!"

And not when, after the Raiders closed to 23-16 with 5:05 to play, Alex Erickson returned the ensuing kickoff 77 yards to the Raiders' 21-yard line, disappointment ricocheting off the walls covered in Raiders logos and photos.

It was all over but the crying, and the postgame raffle for booster club members -- who won items from Raiders gear to a beer tower -- and maybe a few hands of video poker at the bar, where you could order Raider-themed food items off the Gruden's Grub menu, such as a Black Hole Burrito, a Derek Carrsadilla or, even though he was traded before the season, some Khalil Mack N Cheese.

"The hype has gone down," said Perea, a union electrician who has lived in Las Vegas for 22 years. "Everybody was jumping up and down that first year. It's dwindled away a little bit, especially with a bad season. But there are also more Raider bars in Las Vegas now, and there will be more in the next two years. And when the team gets here..."

Perea's voice trailed off. There was booster club business to tend to, members to recruit, and community events to plan, such as serving underprivileged youth and highway cleanup.

Some nine miles due west from Legends, at 3333 Al Davis Way, the stadium is going vertical. Ten cranes are placing pillars on the north end as its skeleton, the gap where the 90-foot-tall Al Davis Torch will reside on an open-ended concourse, is easily made out. The Las Vegas skyline -- a pyramid, a medieval castle, Manhattan, the Eiffel Tower -- lord over the scene, which sits across Interstate 15 from the gold-plated Mandalay Bay. And a few hours after the Las Vegas Raiders of Oakland, Los Angeles and Oakland before that lost in Cincinnati, a lone security truck circles the fenced-in work in progress.

Interested passers-by can catch a glimpse of the 62.5-acre site, which is still hard for many locals to believe. But a dose of reality hits them on bordering Dean Martin Drive.

A stark black billboard with Gruden's profile, adorned with his ever-present game-day visor and headset, rises from the dirt. It simply reads: THE RAIDERS ARE COMING.
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