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Kings Owner Lives Out Fantasy in Vegas

By Chuckmonster on Tuesday, 16th May 2006 9:28pm
  » filed under Las Vegas  comments: 0


LAS VEGAS - George Maloof Jr. steps out into the hallway away from a raucous party where his luxurious Sky Villas have just been opened to the public.

The marble-encased villas' infinity pools jut out from the futuristic tower and offer a panoramic view of the Las Vegas Strip to the east. In one two-story villa, more than 100 guests are celebrating, among them Paris Hilton, actor Jeremy Piven, and Maloof's ex-girlfriend, Tishara Cousino, Playboy's May 1999 Playmate of the Month.

Maloof, whose family owns the Sacramento Kings, is plowing $650 million more into what will be a $915 million casino, resort and condo development known as the Palms.

The newest addition, the 40-story Fantasy Tower, includes the six Sky Villas, which span up to 10,000 square feet and can go for $40,000 a night. By September, the Palms' second tower will be topped by the first Playboy Club to be in operation in 25 years.

The wide-ranging expansion is a risk for the grandson of a Lebanese immigrant known for pushing the limits in a city that seemingly has none.

But Maloof, 41, is used to winning big. He parlayed an $8 million family investment in a neighborhood casino back in the mid-'90s into what is now a nearly $1 billion resort less than a mile from the Strip.

"As they say, 'All in,'" says Maloof, a former late-night gambler in his college days at UNLV. "We're all in on this. We're all in."

By some accounts, Maloof is a visionary tycoon-in-training, following in the footsteps of billionaire Steve Wynn, who raised the level of opulence on the Strip with The Mirage back in 1989.

Maloof's main contribution to Las Vegas, though, has been to up the star wattage in what has increasingly become a celebrity playground.

Maloof had his eyes set on the Hollywood glitterati even before the Palms burst into the public eye when it hosted MTV's reality show "The Real World" in 2002, and later two seasons of Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown."

In October 2001, a month before the Palms hotel-casino opened, Maloof hosted a party at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles with his blackjack dealers enticing celebrities and the media to take a hit with play money.

"He made it known that he was going to court the hip L.A. crowd," said Anthony Curtis, president of LasVegasAdvisor.com, who attended the event. "And this was easy for him to do because of his family's background in sports and entertainment."

The sighting of celebrities and pro athletes is now a cottage industry in Las Vegas, providing plenty of grist for gossip columnists, magazines and a permanent bureau for the entertainment TV show "Extra."

Maloof is credited with helping set the trend, especially with his courtship of the MTV generation.

"'The Real World' was an absolutely staggering hit for all of those involved: MTV, the cast, and most importantly George Maloof and the Palms and then Vegas," says TV personality and AOL blogger Robin Leach. "That opened the floodgates for celebrities. So you've got to give George that."

Maloof also has been instrumental in helping Las Vegas inch closer to its dream of permanently hosting a professional sports franchise.

The city has long been shunned by leagues afraid of the taint of legalized sports betting.

But a little more than a year ago, Maloof received a call from his brothers who run the Kings, Joe and Gavin, with news the NBA was interested in bringing the All-Star game to Sin City. He called around to casino executives.

"I asked them if we had the opportunity to get the NBA in Las Vegas for the All-Star game, would you consider taking the game off the book?" Maloof recalls. "And everybody said, 'Absolutely.'"

When they brought the proposal to Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, Goodman says he was skeptical. But after a call to the league commissioner and after an order was given from the state gaming commission not to accept bets for the event, the game was quickly OK'd.

"He was the brains behind the outfit," Goodman says. "Without George and the Maloofs, this wouldn't have been a twinkle in my eye."

Observers note that the influence of the Palms belies its size by the end of September it still will have only 711 rooms, qualifying it for "boutique" status in the land of 3,000-room megaresorts. Its planned 599-unit condo tower, with buyers from pending celebrity divorcees Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey to race car drivers Michael and Mario Andretti, won't be finished until around the end of 2007.

"It's not on the Strip, and it's not downtown, and it's not the biggest casino," says David Schwartz, coordinator of the UNLV Gaming Studies Research Center. "What Maloof has been great at is using synergy. You know, things that are culturally very significant, things like MTV, things like the NBA. He's able to kind of tie that all together."

Maloof's next great branding exercise is the Playboy Club. Set to open in three levels atop the Fantasy Tower, the club is pushing the boundaries in Nevada, besides being the only one to operate anywhere in more than two decades.

Maloof persuaded state legislators and regulators to change rules that will for the first time allow gambling inside a club with a cover charge.

"We're reinventing the Playboy Club," says Maloof, who adds the casino will pay the adult entertainment giant a licensing fee to operate.

Despite constant parties in which he plays late-night host, Maloof says he's never stayed in bed past 8 a.m. "Las Vegas (hospitality) is the most competitive industry in the world. You can't sleep. You can't rest. You've got to be in the game all the time."

He looks back at the party.

"My fantasy is this. This is it. This is a dream."



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