Betting the NCAA tournament brings back memories of grandpa

George Sommers was a New Yorker turned Las Vegas resident and gambler.

HENDERSON, Nev. -- I like to hang out at the Green Valley Ranch sports book, my occasional home away from home. Especially now, during the NCAA basketball tournament.

But the other night, as I sipped my beer, I looked at the empty seat next to me. My eyes welled with tears. I didn’t want anyone to see me crying, to be confused as some emotional drinker, but I couldn’t help but think of him, how I knew he’d love to be here with me.


His name was George Sommers. My grandpa.

He was larger than life: bald, the big glasses and a classic New York accent. At night, he was like Frank Sinatra, wearing a fedora and having a slice of pizza at an Italian place. During the day, he was a blue-collar worker.

He, Mom and Grandma moved from Long Island, N.Y., to Las Vegas in the 1980s. He worked hard to make sure his family was happy -- whether it was a $30,000 wedding for my mom or buying me toys for Christmas.

I grew up without a father. My biological dad divorced my mom when I was just two. I haven’t spoken to him in more than 10 years. So my grandpa filled the void; he became that father figure. He taught me about sports, life and respect.

And here and there, he taught me about gambling.

Gambling was the reason we came to Sin City. The Gold Coast in Las Vegas was the hot spot. They would play the slot machines across from the Kate’s Corner Ice Cream parlor when you enter from the valet entrance on the right side of the building.

I was told stories about how my grandpa would grab some ice cream, sit down and within five minutes be filling buckets with quarters.

But the place he loved most was the sports book. That’s where the majority of his money went. I’m not sure if it was the competitive air of the place or that it got him closer to the action. I never understood it, like I never understood how a New York native could be an Oakland Raiders fan.

I never questioned his gambling habits. Born in Las Vegas, I thought it was normal. Horse racing, basketball, baseball or football. Whatever it was, my grandpa played it. And he was pretty good at it.

He was still good at it, even while spending the last six years of his life bedridden, paralyzed on his right side and unable to talk.

I remember getting the call on a Sunday afternoon. My mom, crying, told me they were rushing my grandpa to the hospital. It didn’t make sense. I had just seen him three hours before getting his groceries. Before we left, I gave him a big hug, told him I loved him and I’d call him later.

Grandpa had suffered a stroke.

I didn’t see him for two weeks. I went to the hospital, asking my mom, “Am I going to be able to talk to Grandpa?” My mom, holding back tears, said, “He may not recognize you.”

He remembered me, but because of the stroke, he couldn’t talk. Surprisingly, little changed. He couldn’t go to a sports book anymore, but he still bet horse races and games from home. He’d point at the teams or horses he wanted to bet on, and my grandma took care of the rest.

A few years later, on Dec. 10, 2007, my grandpa was back in the hospital. At first, he seemed fine, like he’d come back home soon. Then, he started feeling pain. Doctors rushed in. I was told to leave the room.

My mom and grandma emerged from the room, saying there was nothing else they could do.

He was gone.

It wasn’t normal, and it still isn’t. Here I am, more than six years after he died, sitting in the Green Valley Ranch sports book on a Friday night alone.

When I turned 21 years old this past May, I couldn’t wait to play the sports book. I always thought I’d be good enough to bet $20 per parlay card, like Grandpa used to do, and win every week.

My first year of legal gambling hasn’t been kind, though. I’ve come close to winning but there have been times where I’ve lost every bet and felt like giving up gambling for good.

I know what I’m missing: Grandpa isn’t by my side, steering me toward smarter bets. I can almost hear him saying, “Are you serious, Danny? You’re taking a team giving up over 10 points? Don’t be like the idiot next to you.”

Especially now, during the NCAA tournament. He would have loved the atmosphere that March Madness brings inside the sports book.

It’s a cruel place, but I love it. Because Grandpa did. That’s really the only reason I keep coming back, because I know he would.

Note: Danny Webster is a student at UNLV. He’s also the sports editor for Rebel Yell, the campus newspaper.