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A game of chance

Opportunity is there for Vegas's Banks

LAS VEGAS -- Marcus Banks began spending time at The Lights when he was 9 years old. He'd sneak out of the house almost every day around 5:30 p.m., leaving before his father, Arthur, finished working as a bellman at the old MGM hotel. The best action at The Lights always started at 6 p.m. And Banks wanted his shot at a good run. Sometimes Banks would not return home until 10 or 11 at night. When he walked through the front door, his father was always waiting. A spanking was inevitable. A stern lecture usually followed.

"Las Vegas is not a town where a kid can be out alone," said Arthur Banks, who now is a slot floorperson at Caesars Palace. "Marcus would stay out too long. I would tell him, `You know what you're supposed to do. You know that's going to make me angry. Why do you do it?' I'd spank his butt and discipline him."

But there were many hangouts worse than The Lights. Tucked into a quiet, residential neighborhood off Maverick Street, The Lights was a cracked-asphalt basketball court with paint-chipped backboards and chain-link nets. Four towering lights allowed pickup games to heat up after the desert sun set. When Banks was growing up, it was the place to play in Las Vegas. The best players in the city went there to showcase their skills. It was where Banks picked up his moves and a passion for the game.

"If you lost, you might as well go home because you'd never get back on," said Banks. "But I didn't lose too much. That's why I was late. It got to the point where I stopped crying when I got a whupping. I knew I had one coming tomorrow because I knew I wanted to play."

When Banks takes the court for the Celtics this season, he will become the first player born and raised in Las Vegas to compete in the NBA. Banks will be Boston's starting point guard, although no official announcement has been made to that effect. After visiting a few teams, including the Celtics, Banks elected to forgo the rest of his predraft workout schedule, believing Boston -- with the running game envisioned by director of basketball operations Danny Ainge -- offered the best fit. The Celtics acquired Banks from the Grizzlies in a draft-night trade.

Between The Lights and The Strip, Banks believes life in Las Vegas has prepared him for the NBA. The distractions of Las Vegas Boulevard stopped being cool after Banks graduated from Cimarron-Memorial High School. Although he is obsessed with winning, the unfavorable risk-reward ratio of gambling makes Banks uninterested in the city's famous pastime. For the local boy who made good after growing up in the residential sprawl 15 minutes north of The Strip, Las Vegas seems more like a small town than the popular tourist destination known as Sin City.

"I never really got myself caught up in that Vegas atmosphere because I'm from here," said Banks. "It's really nothing to me. I think Vegas is a great place to live and raise a family. It depends how headstrong you are. I never really wanted to gamble because the chances of winning are slim and next to none.

"A lot of stars have houses out here, but I never looked at it like that. I really didn't care about that kind of stuff. I've seen it all. There's nothing that anybody will be able to surprise me with in the NBA. Nothing. I'm talking about women, jewelry, cars."

Premature beginning

Arthur and Sabrina Banks brought their first son home in a shoebox. Marcus was born three months premature, with his major organs underdeveloped, and weighed only 1 pound 12 ounces. Doctors gave him little chance of survival. He spent his first six months in the hospital, and was released only a few pounds heavier. But his parents insist that even at shoebox size, Marcus had an unmistakably muscular build.

Arthur and Sabrina were confident they had something special, an athlete in the making, though they never expected Marcus to grow to 6 feet 2 inches, 203 pounds. Sabrina still worries about her 21-year-old son and finds it hard to believe what Marcus has done.

"You know his lungs weren't developed," she said. "He runs down the court so fast. I sometimes say to myself, `Honey, slow down.' "

Speed has always been part of Banks's game, whether playing basketball or tailback in Pop Warner football. His coach at UNLV, Charlie Spoonhour, said he has never come across a faster player, end to end, with the basketball. Banks estimates he can carry the ball basket-to-basket in 4.8 seconds. That kind of speed draws attention, even during morning drills at Tim Grgurich's annual offseason camp, which was held last week in Las Vegas.

"People take [my speed upcourt] for granted," said Banks. "They're like, `How come you don't do that every time?' You really have to pick your spots when you can and can't do it. I like to do it when everyone's tired because when they're tired, they don't get back fast. And I just run right by them and get a layup."

The Grgurich camp, which attracted rookies and a number of NBA veterans, including Paul Pierce, is just one of several ways Banks has been preparing for the NBA. The rookie point guard has played against Gary Payton and Baron Davis in Las Vegas-area pickup games and bonded with LeBron James at a charity event hosted by Magic Johnson in Los Angeles. He will stay with Antoine Walker in Chicago this week, then visit Pierce in Los Angeles. Asked what he has learned about Pierce and Walker, Banks said, "They're both stubborn. They're both going to want the ball. I know that for a fact."

The Celtics have added a veteran backup point guard in Mike James and dealt J.R. Bremer to Cleveland, so Banks has every reason to expect the starting job. Tony Delk, who started at point guard last year for half the regular season and playoffs, appears better-suited to coming off the bench at shooting guard.

"I'm not going to Boston not to start," said Banks. "I refuse. I'm going to do everything in my power to start. That's my goal, unless they bring in a guy that's hands-down better than me in every category. "I've never come across anyone who can stop me from doing anything I want to do, stop me from pushing the ball up the court, going by 'em and scoring. It's not going to happen. I'm not going to let it happen."

Lifestyle changes

Starting with a four-bedroom townhouse in a gated community on the west side of the city, Banks has quickly acquired the professional accessories that have become customary for his line of work. The cellphone that rings every five minutes. The NBA logo charm colored with rubies, sapphires, and diamonds. The status-revealing nicknames. There is "Lotto," bestowed by fellow Boston rookie Brandon Hunter in reference to Banks being selected 13th overall in 2003 draft. Friends call Banks "The Goods." The Hummer is on the way, though Banks has yet to decide on the color.

Banks views the protection of a gated community as a necessity. Billboards around the city feature Banks playing for UNLV, making him an easily recognizable figure, on who was often followed home after games. Back when Banks lived in an apartment near the UNLV campus, he found his car "caked" on his birthday, covered with eggs, sugar, butter and whipped cream. Other days, Banks found his car intentionally dented by people trying to get his attention.

"A lot of people out here feel that I owe them something," said Banks. "I'm doing this because I love it and it's where my heart is. Some people feel that I'm supposed to go out and hang around. I can't do that anymore.

"There's a lot of crazy people in Vegas. The way I have to carry myself now that I'm in the NBA is totally different. You can't just have a non-gated community where anyone can come up and knock on your door. You have to go through the guard at the gate. It helps keep down a lot of confusion."

The local sense of entitlement is increased because Banks played almost all of his organized basketball in Las Vegas. With the exception of two seasons at Dixie State College in St. George, Utah, the people of Las Vegas watched Banks go from a kid learning the game at Doolittle Community Center to a seldom-used backup as a junior at Cimarron-Memorial High, to the hyped "savior" of UNLV basketball.

Along the way, Banks watched and worshiped Michael Jordan. He practiced his dribbling skills in a pitch-black garage. Ten minutes every night right before bed. Between the legs. Behind the back. Crossover.

"Marcus is amazingly low-maintenance for someone who's got as many people who wanted to tug at him," said Spoonhour. "But his family insulated him and kept him away from a lot of stuff.

"I've seen adults that couldn't do very well in Las Vegas, but Marcus has got a good work ethic." After graduating high school one core course short of Division 1 eligibility, Banks had three options: attend a New England prep school for a year; redshirt at UNLV; or enroll at a junior college. Banks reluctantly elected junior college. As a sophomore, he led Dixie in scoring (16.8 points per game) and assists (3.7). He ranked first in the Scenic West Athletic Conference in steals (2.0). He earned first-team NJCAA All-America honors.

The following year, Banks played for UNLV, bringing his speed and relentless defense to Division 1. In his senior year, he ranked seventh in the nation in steals (2.8 per game) and led the Mountain West Conference in assists (5.5) while averaging 20.3 points. In only two seasons with the Runnin' Rebels, Banks surpassed the 1,000-point mark. He was named Mountain West Co-Defensive Player of the Year and garnered conference first-team honors as well.

"I know he'll play as hard as anybody you've got," said Spoonhour. "We asked him to do so many things, it was unbelievable. He ran the ball club for us. We put the ball in his hands in virtually every stress situation for the last two years."

To ensure a smooth transition, Banks continues to familiarize himself with the Boston system and develop better decision-making. When training camp starts at the end of September, Banks understands he still will have a lot to prove.

"I've been playing behind guys all my life," said Banks. "I had to make everyone believers. I was telling everyone, `I'm going to play in the NBA one day.' No one believed me. I've been doubted all my life, that's what made me strive harder. That's why I live off negativity.

"I'm 21 years old and I'm coming into a position where I can be a starting point guard and run a team. I'm ready for that role."

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