LAS VEGAS – Derek Stevens didn't need to fill out a bracket to become a big winner in the NCAA Tournament. He's got a $1 million payout waiting if Michigan State keeps defying the odds and wins the national championship.
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A bet made in December when Michigan State was 5-3 and seemingly going nowhere will pay big for the downtown Las Vegas casino owner if the Spartans end up cutting down the nets Monday night.
"I thought it was worth the risk," Stevens said. "Obviously it was a big longshot and it's still a big longshot."
Stevens, who frequently stops in at the Golden Nugget sports books as he walks between the two casinos he operates, told sports book director Tony Miller at the beginning of the season that he wanted to make a big bet on which team would win the national championship.
After a few weeks of talking, on Dec. 5 Stephens put $20,000 down on the Spartans at 50-1 odds.
"I thought with a coach like Tom Izzo with such a great track record and the basketball season being a long marathon that it was worth it," Stevens said. "The value was there and they were willing to take my bet."
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Stevens is friends with both Miller and Golden Nugget owner Tilman Fertitta, who had to approve the bet because of the size of the payout. He said Fertitta has been texting him whenever Michigan State gets behind in the tournament, saying it looks like he's about to lose the bet.
"We talk and jostle back and forth about it," he told The Associated Press.
Michigan State still needs to pull two upsets if Stevens is going to collect his million dollars. The Spartans are five-point underdogs to Duke in their semifinal matchup, and would be underdogs to either Kentucky or Wisconsin should they get that far.
That has him thinking about hedging his bet going into the weekend with a play on the other side.
"Before tipoff I'm going to hedge it a little bit," he said. "Just to have something no matter what happens."
Stevens, who went to the University of Michigan, owns The D hotel-casino and the Golden Gate on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. The area has long been overshadowed by the glittering Strip, but Stephens said downtown has an underdog spirit and operators who are willing to take big chances.
Nevada gaming regulations forbid casino operators from betting in their own casinos, so Stevens places his bets as he walks between the two properties he owns.
If the Spartans continue their improbable run, Stevens has a plan for the proceeds from his payday. He's going to give some money to the Tarkanian Basketball Academy in memory of the late UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, and give a bonus to all the employees in his casinos who were working for him the day he made the bet.
"If we do get fortunate enough to make it and pull off winner, I'm going to make sure we take care of a lot of people who take care of me," he said.
"By the time the next payroll comes around there will be a little bonus in there. After that I'm going to reinvest everything in downtown Las Vegas and continue to grow our businesses."