The beauty of fantanking

Still from Russia with love

We’re still in America, right?

South Beach, U.S.A.

MIAMI — I have spent the past three days wondering how my entire 20s and two-thirds of my 30s somehow passed by without a single South Beach trip. Why wouldn’t everyone come here instead of leaving the country for places like Cancun, Bermuda, the Bahamas and the Caribbean? What am I missing?

Here’s the case for South Beach as a vacation spot:

1. You don’t have to leave the United States, but it’s one of those places that makes you feel like you left the U.S. because of the architecture, colors, white beaches and everything else.

2. An endless array of luxury/boutique/art deco hotels (if you have the cash) and a good share of affordable hotels as well … and most of them are within two blocks of the beach.

3. An unsurpassed bar/club scene. There’s a little bit of everything here. If you want to drink in one of those outdoor bars that faces the ocean and plays “Margaritaville” every half hour, you can do that. If you want to go to one of those elaborate super-clubs like the one shown at the beginning of the “Miami Vice” movie that sucked in the theater but has now become surprisingly rewatchable on DVD, you can do that. If you want to go down to one of the back-of-the-hotel pool bars (like the one I mentioned on Monday), you can do that. If you want to take a $20 cab ride and check out the Coconut Grove scene, you can do that. Just an endless amount of options.

4. Along those same lines, last call in Miami is tentatively at 4 a.m., but some bars stretch it to 5. I feel like you need to know these things.

5. Because of the Cuban influence, no city has better coffee and cigars. Can you think of two better random strengths for a city than cigars and coffee?

6. For bachelor party or male bonding purposes, not only are the strip clubs supposedly fantastic (I’m basing this on word of mouth — I am now terrified to go to strip joints after a friend told me he got a lap dance from a stripper who had the same name as his baby daughter), but the women here are beautiful and I have now revised my “What I should have done but nobody ever told me to do it” game. Do you ever spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about stuff like, “Why didn’t anyone stop me when I decided to spend four years of my life attending an Irish-Catholic college in Massachusetts with 30-degree weather and 20-mph winds?” Well, I definitely would have gone to college in Southern California (a place like University of San Diego, which even offers a six-week winter break), and I definitely would have lived in Miami for a couple of years. And probably entered alcohol rehab at some point. Whatever.

7. Great shopping and great restaurants. Personally, I don’t care about the shopping part, but I keep hearing people mention it this week so we’re throwing it in.

8. Beautiful women. Jaw-dropping, even. I used to think that 85 percent of all the beautiful women live in Southern California, but I’m dropping that down to 75 percent because I didn’t realize how many of them were here. It’s ridiculous. And by the way, I have no problem bringing this up because I’m tired of the Sports Gal saying how hot Dr. McDreamy and Dr. McSteamy are. Enough is enough.

9. The actual beach looks like something you’d expect in St. Bart’s or St. Lucia: white sand, aqua-blue water, never too crowded (because it’s impossible to park down here), tons of white umbrellas, even a long sidewalk hugging the beach for runners and roller-bladers. Now, there’s a chance everything was cleaned up for Super Bowl Week, so I don’t want to oversell it … but this week’s version of South Beach is the most plush and practical American beach I’ve ever seen. When I was walking along the beach Wednesday, I did not feel like I was in the United States. Not for a second.

10. The aforementioned Movie Test — Miami is one of those rare cities where you always feel like you’re appearing in somebody else’s movie. And hopefully, that movie doesn’t turn out to be “Scarface” or “Manhunter.”

One disclaimer: I’m obviously catching South Beach at the perfect time — no hurricanes, no 100-degree summer weather, no joyous riots because Castro finally passed away. Anyway, I needed an outside perspective to confirm everything I was feeling, so when I heard that ESPN’s “After Dark” show (a one-time ESPN2 show on Saturday night that will feature red-carpet stuff from Friday’s ESPN party and taped segments with celebs like Shaq and Clinton Portis) convinced Damon Jones to drive a souped-up Cadillac Escalade around South Beach and show off his favorite spots, I cashed in my Synergy Card and decided to tag along in the backseat. Along with the TV crew (two cameramen and a producer named David Kraft), we headed over to the Four Seasons in downtown Miami around 6:30 Wednesday night and waited for the Cavs to arrive. Their charter flight was running a little late, and just when we started to get worried, we looked to our left and noticed the Cavs ambling up the back entrance toward the front door, all of them wearing fancy sweatsuits, listening to iPods and looking like they just woke up.

(Note: For whatever reason, it’s always mesmerizing to watch an NBA team move in unison in a public place — given everyone’s heights relative to the rest of us, it’s basically a traveling freak show, even though they obviously aren’t freaks. Every innocent bystander freezes upon first glimpse and just gawks at them. And you can’t really blame them. When in your life will you ever see this many gargantuan people moving at once? Even someone like Sasha Pavlovic is legitimately 6-foot-7. How many 6-foot-7 people have you met in your life?)

We found Damon and touched base with him. Of course, he had no memory of ever agreeing to the shoot and kept asking, “What’s the name of the show again?” even though David had talked to him on the phone 24 hours before. (This is a mortal lock to happen on every shoot with an athlete.) After some cajoling and a glimpse of the souped-up Escalade, he was more enthusiastic and headed up to his room to change. Meanwhile, I ventured over to a white truck now parked behind us that was carrying Cavs luggage — I’m not kidding, about 75 suitcases were pulled off, even though (A) the Cavs were staying only one night (to play Miami Thursday), and (B) only 20 people total were traveling with the Cavs. All of the suitcases were tagged with either the player’s uniform number or the name of the nonplayer, and there were about 250 bellhops separating all the luggage and figuring out what went with what. I was captivated by the whole thing. I feel like this should be its own documentary — a week in the life of traveling with an NBA team.

Anyway, Damon popped back out about 20 minutes later with his uncle, Jerome, best known as Shaq’s longtime bodyguard. Damon kept calling him “Unc,” which made me upset that I’ve never called any of my uncles “Unc” because it sounds about 100-150 times cooler. (I’d like to apologize to Uncle Ricky, Uncle Bob, Uncle Chuck, Uncle Greg and Uncle Don for not thinking of this sooner. You will now all be known as “Unc.”) Then he hopped in the driver’s seat and we were off. One camera was mounted on the hood facing Damon and we had a cameraman in the passenger’s seat. Instantly, Damon snapped into “I’m on TV!” mode and started his whole, “Yo, yo, this is Damon Jones from the Cleveland Cavaliers, aka ‘Handsome'” routine as he drove us down to South Beach. Some things I learned along the way:

1. Most NBA teams (including the Cavs) avoid staying in South Beach and usually opt for downtown Miami (near the stadium) or Coconut Grove. Why? As Damon explained simply, “It’s an advantage for the Miami Heat if teams stay in South Beach.”

I mean, doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know about South Beach? NBA teams are AFRAID TO STAY THERE! How could eight years pass between Super Bowls in Miami???? HOW??????????

2. Damon considers Shaq the king of South Beach, Dwyane Wade the prince, himself another prince, and Pat Riley the “Don Donna.” That’s what the players nicknamed Riley — it means that he’s the “man” or the “king.” Right around here, I decided that I need to hang out with NBA players more often.

3. Damon’s top-four reasons that Miami is the best NBA city to play in: Great weather, great fans, no state taxes and South Beach is the “icing on the cake.” (Now you know why guys like Eddie Jones keep accepting the veteran’s minimum to play here.) Smartly, he said some nice things about Cleveland as well — kinda like someone who once dated a supermodel, then felt obligated to tell his pedestrian girlfriend that she was just as pretty in her own way — but finished the rant by giggling, “I love Cleveland … BUT IT’S NO MIAMI!”

4. He called Ocean, Collins and Washington the “three hottest streets in Miami,” decided to take what he called “a lap” up Washington, down Collins and up Ocean for the big finish (since that’s right on the ocean). It’s worth mentioning here that these streets run parallel to one another and the best stretch runs for about 13-14 blocks (from 18th Street to 5th Street), with Washington offering the most food and club options, Collins the best hotels and shopping, and Ocean the best mix of everything (as well a view of the water).

We started our lap and Damon started pointing out his favorite places — Grazie (a good Italian restaurant), Club Bed (“hopping”), Hotel Astor (a boutique hotel), Sobe Lounge and Club Mansion (two of his favorite clubs), Club Crowbar (another winner), Jerry’s Deli (a good late-night food spot that’s open 24 hours). Sometime during all of this, his cousin Roy Williams (the Cowboy) called him and Damon invited him to his single favorite spot in South Beach … (believe me, you’re going to be as shocked as I was) … Johnny Rockets, which has a prime location on Ocean Drive. That’s where Damon was meeting Unc after we finished shooting — they were going to sit outside and eat burgers and fries and have a milkshake. Damon loves Johnny Rockets. He even nicknamed it “The Rocket,” as in, “I’ll meet you at the Rocket in 15 minutes.” Right around here, I decided that I need to hang out with NBA players even more often than I originally planned on hanging out with them 10 minutes earlier.

5. As we started our drive down Ocean, Damon called it “the most entertaining street in America.” And since he’s played for eight different NBA teams, he would know. We cruised along at a slow pace, with people occasionally screaming out “DJ!” or “Damon” or even “Wassup boi!” at him. The energy on Ocean was unbelievable — salsa music blaring, rap music blaring, techno music blaring, bar after bar with something happening — and that’s when I made the decision, I am not letting another 17 years pass between Miami trips. Finally, we pulled up to The Rocket, where Unc and Cuz were waiting outside and already chowing down. Damon filmed his final outro and he was off, which meant four white people had to drive a souped-up Escalade on Ocean Drive and break the record for most “What the f***?” stares from pedestrians and drivers.

From there, I met some friends for dinner at Sushi Samba and went over to the Delano for late-night drinks. Remember the behind-the-hotel bar scene that I described in the Raleigh in Monday’s column? The Delano is like the Raleigh on steroids — bigger pool, bigger bars, bigger everything. It’s almost too much. It’s one of those places where you see a 45-year-old guy wearing a white linen sports jacket and orange pants and talking to his impossibly hot date and nothing about this seems even remotely weird. I am not entirely sure that South Beach belongs in the United States, or even whether this has all been an elaborate act for all the Super Bowl tourists and the town can’t possibly be this cool under normal circumstances. I’d believe anything at this point.

Anyway, starting today, Super Bowl Week kicks in and every single famous athlete or celebrity on the planet is rumored to be coming in for the weekend. All the Colts and Bears fans will start descending upon the city from out of town. (Like everyone else, I’m delighted by the thought of these Indy fans walking around South Beach — it’s going to be like a Nature Channel experiment when it takes a polar bear and moves it to a warm place.) Shaq’s having a huge bash after the Cavs-Heat game. Friday features the Maxim and ESPN parties going head to head, as well as T.O.’s pool party in the afternoon and PlayStation’s ongoing party at the Raleigh, with roughly 15,000 parties happening on Friday and Saturday nights in all (including SI, Penthouse and Playboy). Since all traffic is being closed on Ocean Drive from 15th Street to 5th Street, turning it into the Motorola Mile (filled with Super Bowl stuff and various exhibits), and since so many people will be down here, they’re expecting South Beach to become completely overcrowded and impossible to penetrate at night.

All I know is this: My assignment for this week was to come to Miami and tell you, the home reader, what it’s like to have a Super Bowl here. Right now, we’re working on a solid A-plus. The grade could change, but that’s what we’re looking at right now. And since I can’t sum up my feelings on South Beach in a single sentence, let’s hand it over to the great Brody Jenner, who’s making a noble attempt on “The Hills” right now to break the reality-TV record for “most cheesy compliments ever given to a girl while trying to get into her pants.” Two things you need to know about Brody: (A) He’s Bruce Jenner’s son, and (B) he’s already been on two reality shows. Now he’s pursuing the star of “The Hills” — America’s sweetheart, LC — who’s far too stupid to realize that Brody called her only because he knew the cameras had just started rolling for Season 2. You would think she’d catch on because Jason (last season’s nose-itching boyfriend) pulled the same move on her and she was too dumb to see that one, either. She’s easy prey for a player like Brody, who’s been laying lines on her like “you have the most beautiful eyes I have EVER seen.” We’re about three more episodes away from having a threesome with him and a 6-foot bottle of Rohypnol. I don’t see this ending well.

What does this have to do about anything? Well, in this week’s episode, Brody finally lured LC back to his apartment and gave her his greatest line yet: “There’s nowhere I’d rather be than right here with you.” I don’t feel that strongly about South Beach, but give me a few more days. We might get there.

Four other notes since this is supposed to be a sports column:

1. Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy are still black.

2. If you didn’t notice, Kevin Durant threw up a 37-23 against Texas Tech. We’re now at the point where, if the Celtics got the No. 1 and drafted Oden, I would be legitimately devastated. Warrants mentioning.

3. The Clippers waited until I was 2,000 miles away and they were about to start a two-week road trip to sign Doug Christie to a 10-day contract. If Christie passes through the Clips without a single Jackie Christie appearance at a home game, I’m going to kill everyone in my section. I’m just telling you now.

4. I haven’t run into one person who thinks the Bears can win on Sunday. Not one.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available in paperback.

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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