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King under the court: Meet the man behind the Miami Heat’s new style of Showtime

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The conductor was busy getting ready. It was a big night. And the man needed to look presentable. He slowly reached for the staples of his ensemble, the things that formed the contours of his character. Black pants. Black shirt. Closed collar. Jordan Ones. The eclectic Jesse Saenz chose a uniform symbolic of the underground, made-man billing he grew for himself, here in Miami.

He was “The Conductor” after all. And even if it was only a nickname tossed around the club below the Miami Heat‘s home court, the man needed to play up his persona.

Reflecting a cool and casual vibe to the Friendlies, Jesse’s wealthy customers, was a priority. Without Jesse’s touch, the show would swiftly fall apart, the curtains close and the crowd quickly careen back to its cars.

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The preparations were made throughout the night. Yellowtail would be cooked in white truffle oil and served tiradito. The tuna came with capers upon coco leche de tigre. Both were chopped and portioned in a jungle of kitchens by dozens of cooks. Bow-tied bartenders dashed to grab crates with bottles of Azul tequila and Brugal rum. Valets readied the private garage, bottle girls fit their feet into tiny heels and hosiery while security pulled up their black gloves.

Jesse Saenz speaks to his staff, seated in front of him, before the opening the "Courtside Club" at Miami Heat's arena.

Jesse Saenz briefs staff before the opening of his club at the Miami Heat’s arena in December. The Heat were playing the Lakers that night and Saenz expected it to be a busy night.

(Ysa Perez / For the Los Angeles Times)

“Awwwlright errrybody,” Jesse said, bursting through a pair of double doors into the middle of a cavernous room. The heels stopped clunking across the floor. He tilted the tip of his forehead south, folded his wide arms across his chest and poked out his lips.

“What it do?!”

He was greeted with cheery applause by his staff.

“This is what we’ve been doing for 10 years,” Jesse reminded them. But, tonight, everyone needed to have their game faces on. “The Lakers are in town,” Jesse said. “You know what to expect. There’s a whole bunch of celebrities who wanna be here tonight because of LeBron.” He went over security protocol, checked everyone’s memory on the menus and highlighted the proverbial coin-filledcarrot on a stick.

“Because when LeBron comes back to Miami,” he said, “it brings money.”

Two hours before tipoff, tires screeched underneath Kaseya Center. The Maseratis were coming. At the valet, guests were whisked out of their whips and hurried inside. Old heads tussled with block-letter Heat jerseys they were pulling over big collared shirts and bigger stomachs. Ties came off next. Transported through an X-ray machine with their phones, Balenciaga sneakers and girlfriends with augmented features.

Every few minutes, another few dozen people sat at circular tables under dancing strobe lights. The sushi was brought on long dishes, followed, usually, by Dom Perignon. A DJ was ushered to a booth above the crowd and started spinning tracks. All around, people were bouncing. That guy’s a fancy lawyer. That one has a defense contract. The man at the bar owns banks all across the state. And another’s a businessman, celebrating an anniversary with his wife’s friends.

Besides the gobs of money they flashed and in between guzzles of champagne: All the Friendlies shout out Jesse by name. “Bottom line: it’s the best s— ever in an arena. You can even bring kids in here,” the millionaire Chris Carlos tells me from a booth. “This is the best venue in the country for a nightclub to be in an arena. And, Jesse is the reason I keep coming back.”

Where else could men like Carlos rub elbows with athletes like Floyd Mayweather Jr. or talents like Drake, all while enjoying several of Miami’s spiciest proclivities all at once, on any given night of the season? Anybody with top dollar who heard about the place couldn’t wait to pop bottles in the same seats that Dwyane Wade did after he called it a career.

The key to an avenue of Miami nightlife seldom experienced was the man in charge of the underground orchestra, a title that gave Jesse carte blanche below South Beach. He’s only been in town a few years, but people speak of him like royalty. Longtime Friendlies tell me how Jesse got rapper Rick Ross to perform at their home for their boy’s bar mitzvah, or how he persuaded Jason Derulo to sing for another boy’s birthday.

Fans crowd around the bar at a nightclub in the basement of the Miami Heat's arena.

Fans crowd around the bar at a nightclub in the basement of the Miami Heat’s arena.

(Ysa Perez / For the Los Angeles Times)

“People know Miami as being a celeb city, a place where people want to have fun,” Matt Brooks, a brand specialist who helped launch the club, told me. People wanted to be inside the arena early, before the traffic piled up. “And, then, during halftime,” Brooks said. “It would turn all the way up. I remember Gab Union and her friends had a table there every night to hang out at, eat dinner and have drinks. During the Finals, you’d literally have David Beckham hanging out in there, or Lenny Kravitz chatting with his friends.” Those nights, he added, “it really felt like you were at a South Beach nightclub.”

With the NBA Finals set to return to Miami this week as the Heat battle the Nuggets, Jesse’s staff will be ready.

Two hours after the final buzzer sounded, and the last of the Lakers finally were exiting out of the parking lot, the Courtside Club still was rocking below the rims. I stood near the door and saw the awe of first-timers coming off the arena floor, ducking behind curtains and coming down the stairs and out of the darkness to find a door that led them into a hidden wonderland.

Anywhere else, the buzzer sounds on a Wednesday night and folks flee the stands for some shut-eye before their nine-to-five. In Miami, it‘s an invitation. A clarion call to dance the night away. Inside the club, cannons shot confetti bombs toward the ceiling, exploding red and black bursts raining confetti. A Heat win, no matter the night, was cause for celebration. The club was going up. And, if you were lucky, the DJ might play your favorite song.

Calamity was the only constant that night. Jesse argues it was weaved into the experience. In some ways, his club was the culmination of our culture’s obsession with the perks of fame and anonymity. Exclusive access with admission that starts at $7,000 per game, overpriced liquor and fine dining while partying until the sun rose with a bunch of folks you’d never see again.

If anything, Jesse was selling proximity to a party people only dream of. And, it’s not like the Heat don’t know. What other team in the NBA would keep the president’s suite two steps from the club’s front door?

“I used to get calls from Pat Riley and his crew all the time saying the bass was too loud,” Jesse says, from a back corner of the club that looks like the closest thing to the glory days of the Lakers’ Forum Club. He was holding a sound board, overzealously tapping his index finger on a red, doomsday-like button that activated a smoke machine. Finishing his sentence, he took his finger off the button for only a second to motion to the DJ to turn the bass up. “I basically ignored him,” Jesse said, yelling. “That’s what they’re paying for. This vibe. This place, 24/7. Ain’t no way we gonna stop now.”

Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra chats with team president Pat Riley as they watch players practice Saturday in Denver.

Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, left, chats with team president Pat Riley as they watch players practice Saturday in Denver. When the NBA Finals return to Miami for Game 3, a nightclub near Riley’s office at the Heat arena is expected to be packed.

(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Connections were currency for a successful career in nightlife. It kept people with wide wallets coming back, always ready to give up their coins. Meaning their preferences were the priority, even over the president of the organization. The rules were simple: Anything goes for the Friendlies, who could get behind any red rope in town with his blessing. And, to Jesse, once you spend money in his club, you were his friend for life. If you wanted to be.

The model was working for years. If not, executives from the Heat never would’ve walked him to the top of the 400 section of the arena, years ago, and promised him a place in the basement as long as he wanted it. Before he got there, that hole was barely turning a profit. Now, he’s so good at putting on parties, half a dozen other NBA franchises have tried to get him to leave South Beach.

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“My first time [in the club] was the Finals,” Jesse said, offering a reason he’s never left Miami. He spelled it out for me. “The N-B-A Finals, you feel me?”

Looking at him now — beaming under the blare of surround sound and champagne bottles popping behind him — it’s almost as if he can’t believe his own masterpiece.

“I feel like I’m just getting started in sports because of the evolution of where I come from,” he says between sips. “What we’re doing here has just begun. We’re at the forefront of it. We laid it out, we made all of this happen.” He turns to me and winks. “We’ve got the secret sauce.”

The way he talks about his journey, Jesse preaches like this was all ordained. Or, maybe it’s easier for him that way. To believe that his whole life was leading him to arrange this type of melody.

He tried to run away from his past. Repress it. Blot out the truth. Anything to dissociate, to repress the dark memories that woke him at night. Even sitting next to me, practically kissing the rafters from one of the highest seats in the 400 section of the arena, Jesse looked like he saw a ghost.

He twisted his thumbs in a cyclone of anxiety and sighed with the anguish of a man three times his age. Jesse was 42, his face aged by a lifetime in nightlife, a hellish career of nonstop grind. Some of the scars and bruisings were from old run-ins. Times he almost got, got. It wasn’t his choice, necessarily. He was born into the hustle.

“Everything I had to navigate through, though,” he said. “I became a problem child because of it.”

His first valuable bumps as a boy, he said, happened under Las Vegas’ endless lights. It was where Ignacio Saenz brought his son after a life of bouncing around. Jesse was barely 10 but he had seen both coasts. Ratty apartments in New York. Shot-out duplexes in Vegas. They were luxuries to his father, who fled Parral, Mexico, in the ’70s, searching for his slice of the American Dream.

He was here illegally. So, Ignacio always had to be on the move. Apartment to apartment. Bed to bed. They were never in one place long enough to put down roots until they got to Vegas.

They were often low on cash but never spirit. Ignacio used their poor fortunes to teach his son the value of a dollar.

Jesse Saenz, right, opens a Christmas gift with help from his father, Ignacio.

Jesse Saenz, right, opens a Christmas gift with help from his father, Ignacio. Saenz grew up to become the conductor of a popular, exclusive nightclub at the Miami Heat’s arena.

(Courtesy of the Saenz Family)

He settled on something practical: opening a few upholstery shops, once he got his green card, to support a three-decade stay in Sin City. And, after word got out, he even fixed up a few lowriders for the homies who were willing to drive in from L.A. and his neighbors around Vegas. The endless drudgery Ignacio endured left him a hero in his son’s eyes, even if it meant he rarely saw his father. Jesse didn’t care, though. All he knew was that storm after storm, pops never quit. Day after day, he provided for a hungry mouth he didn’t even have to see to feed.

“When I was with him, it was all family,” Jesse said. “Every Sunday was a family day. Whenever we were together, there was a gathering. Barbecues. Mountains. Lakes. Whatever. It was all family. That was where I had structure, and a dynamic. But,” he said, sighing, “it was always spotty. Because I wasn’t living with my father. I was living with my mother.”

Right after Jesse was born, Ignacio separated from Jesse’s mother. She and Jesse moved to New York, where he split time between Brooklyn and Long Island before they eventually moved back to Vegas.

“When I was living with my mother, I was kind of running the streets,” Jesse said. “Doing whatever I had to do. My mother … her method of discipline was harsh.”

After he turned 5, Jesse walked to kindergarten by himself. His mother wasn’t around to join him.

“We never really had a real relationship. We never really saw eye to eye. Ever. There was no structure at home,” he said. His voice started shaking. “My mom was a little bit more rough around the edges. When I was with my father, I behaved. When I was with my mother, I was in the streets. It was never, ‘Be home when the streetlights come on.’ There was really no protection there. There was no experience in my life where I felt like my mother was motherly.”

He started running away by the third grade, unable to navigate life in the big city as an independent 9-year-old. Sometimes, his grandmother took him in.

“If I needed a place to stay, she was there,” he said. “If I needed food, she was there. … My grandma was there to protect me.”

It became a relief whenever he saw Ignacio. Even if it was only “10% of the time.” It was the only sliver of hope he had. The only chance at a normal life. But he never told Ignacio about what happened when he was away. He couldn’t. If Ignacio could sustain, so could Jesse.

When Jesse finally got to middle school in Las Vegas, he’d only known chaos. He said he never lived anywhere for more than a year and changed schools more than five times in six years. He started running with the wrong cats in Northtown who were notorious for heading a neighborhood bike ring. They zipped school to school and nabbed anything that wasn’t chained down. Jesse saw it as a bit of reckless fun. Nothing someone with money couldn’t replace.

One afternoon, they stole a bike outside of J. Harold Brinley Middle School and decided to stash it at Jesse’s house and pick it up in a few weeks once the heat died down.

It was a foolproof plan — until one day there was a knock at the door.

A Chicano from Nevada-Las Vegas pulled up to the police station in a red BMW with big rims and a long exhaust pipe. Out stepped a little man with a big presence and bigger beard. Jesse thought he was rich. He was different from Ignacio. Jesse’s father worked with his hands. John Lujan, though, was a speaker. A man who motivated with his mind.

John was the university’s affirmative action officer and a career activist. He was born in Northern California to a mother who was part of the United Farm Workers labor union, a woman who encouraged John’s zeal for dissent. He marched with César Chávez in support of migrant farm workers’ rights and participated in and supported hunger strikes on college campuses in L.A., like in 1978 when he didn’t eat for 12 days to protest the Allan Bakke case at UCLA. Protest was so much in his blood, John named his only son after the Argentine revolutionary, Che Guevara.

Jesse’s gang stole something from John that he wanted back. Che, John’s son, was the owner of the bike that got nicked.

Jesse said he had no idea they stole Che’s bike. He liked Che. They were in the same block of classes at Brinley and in the seventh grade together. They played baseball sometimes after school and scouted lowriders at shows. They would sit around Che’s room, bumping rap, playing video games and dreaming of whippin’ the finest Impalas around Vegas.

After a couple of hangs, Jesse lingered the longest of the crew of boys who hung at Che’s house. Weekends went by, and Jesse started sleeping over, unbeknownst to his mother most of the time. Jesse was splitting time between his bike-grabbing gang and camping on Che’s block.

John knew the chief of school police in Clark County and called all the boys in. Another kid saw the crew steal the bike and John took the thief to court to get $500. Jesse was in possession of the bike, set up as the fall guy.

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Jesse was staying in an apartment with Ignacio up the road from the middle school. Che knew him back then as “a little thuggish” 13-year-old. Broad shoulders and a boulder for a neck. But, when he was around him and his father, Che said, Jesse was like a different person. He just needed a push in the right direction, somebody who would look him in the eye everyday and tell him that he mattered.

“Part of it was by accident, and part of it was by intent,” John told me. “I was raising my son by myself as a single father, and I was able to keep an eye on [Jesse] a little bit.”

Jesse rarely spoke of his mother. John had no problem listening. He had a master’s in counseling, was working as an administrator at a university and, frankly, “my son needed him. I needed him. He was like another brother.”

Weekends started piling up, and John had to ask: “Well, son, what about your family?”

“No,” Jesse told him. “My mom said I can stay with you.”

The answer startled John. But, he didn’t fight the child. He was leaving Vegas, pushed out of UNLV and heading to Southern California to start a new life. Jesse had a surprise for John too.

“I’m going with you,” he said.

“Are you sure?” John said. “You know we’re not coming back.”

“I know,” Jesse repeated. “She said I could go.”

John didn’t know what to say.

“I’m kind of a free spirit,” he said. “But, I don’t know how free I was at that moment.”

He went to see Jesse’s mother. He knew his grandmother. “She was a nice old lady,” he said. “But she couldn’t take care of Jesse. They were very, very low income and grew up [in the ] very, very, very hard part of North Las Vegas.”

John left the house, got in that BMW and rode north. He sat in their dining room and talked to Jesse’s mother; the boy was not at the table but was within earshot.

“Yes, Jesse’s talked a lot about you and he wants to go,” he recalled her saying. “And I told him he could go.”

“It’s not that easy!” John shot back.

He couldn’t just take someone else’s son and inherit him as his own out of his good will. It had to be done legally, at least. Plus, some child support would be nice. Jesse wasn’t the smallest child to add to a house.

She looked in her son’s direction for a second, no more, then agreed.

“OK,” she said.

That’s it, John thought.

“Well, can you tell me anything about him that I don’t already know?” John said.

“Not really,” she said. “He’s going to be a lot of trouble with you. Jesse’s basically worthless.”

There was a long, dead silence. John started slowly, repeatedly, tapping his loafers against the floor. Jesse said he heard him sniffling from the stairs.

“I want him,” John whispered, as he started to cry. “I want him, I want him, I want him, I want him, I want him.” It turned into a rumble. “I’m taking him,” he said, finally, forcefully. “Jesse,” he said, turning to his new son. “Let’s get ready to go.”

Some papers were drawn up. And the switch was made.

Jesse left for his new life in San Bernardino County, to live with John and Che in Redlands.

The change wasn’t the easiest. Jesse was fighting when he could, almost getting kicked out of school. John still couldn’t keep Jesse away from the life he left. Bad intentions can be difficult to break. As time passed, John’s methods weren’t working.

Even Che thought his boy should chill out.

“Jesse was more hotheaded,” Che said. “… I was a negotiator compared to him. He always wanted to throw down.”

Redlands was a culture shock. Months before their move, Jesse was crackin’ skulls and stealing bikes. Now, he was in a different state, breathing fresher air.

As a way to impose discipline, John made Jesse work in front of a computer. As the list of his indiscretions grew, Jesse trudged through the living room, to the family computer and was made to type out his rationale.

“And then he would grade it!” Jesse said. “And I had to go back and try to make it better.”

There was one trick Jesse wasn’t seeing. Each time he thumped through the living room and went to that computer, by the time he rose, he had learned, little by little, how to write. How to think better than he did before. John capitalized on the momentum and bought Jesse a gift: the original “SimCity” video game for his computer.

“SimCity is really the game that helped me understand other people around me and helped me understand politics,” Jesse said. More importantly, it taught him how to build community, how to take care of people and how to water the seeds planted in him, by way of seeing it in real time.

When he was 18, he left John. He still was trying to figure out a path forward, to use the wings Ignacio made for him to fly.

“There’s a lot of emotion involved with being displaced for a large portion of your childhood,” Jesse said. “But, my father taught me lessons. On how to be a good laborer. To earn respect and get respect. To always depend on the family you have.”

He looked up for a second from his seat in the Miami arena, renewed, and peered at the banners swaying atop the rafters. He breathed deeply and tapped his heart with his index finger.

“And that stuck with me forever.”

A few years went by and Jesse found himself back in Vegas.

Jesse always admired John’s love of cool cars. He wanted one just like him. For a few months he worked at an Audi dealership, working finance in the back. He called Che and told him he needed a change, somewhere to stay, maybe a new job.

Slingin’ cars for Audi could only take you so far. Especially in Vegas.

The money was good but he wanted more. Money in the desert wasn’t in cars. Not for real, anyway. If he wanted to really be a baller, back then, he knew he had to get in the clubs. He’d go home from his dead-end job, count his cash and dream about the lights on the strip he passed on his way from work.

Six weeks turned into six months, but he was still in the same spot. A little bread in his pocket but no plan. The homies at work kept pressing him to quit.

“These dudes were bussers, bouncers and managers in the clubs and they were making crazy cash,” Jesse said. “Even the bussers were makin’ crazy guap, crazy cash. They were working three days a week, but making 130, 140 and 150K, primarily on tips.”

All those months pushing paperwork paid off.

“They were like, ‘You need to quit this s— and come to [the clubs],’” Jesse said. He hung up his suit and walked out the same day.

His first job was sweeping and mopping the floors of the VIP suites in the famous Pure Nightclub. At the time, T.I.’s “Bring Em Out” had just hit radio waves and inspired Jesse and his co-workers to make corny dances (the “Porter Shuffle”) for extra tips and attention from high-value guests. Waving towels and mops in the air, changing the chant “Bring em out! Bring em out! Bring em out!” to “Bring a mop! Bring a mop! Bring a mop!”

He was 22, embarrassing himself for the sake of our richest and most famous, but for some reason, he said he felt like he finally had arrived.

The managers promoted Jesse to the day beds and he worked the VIP section. From there, he says, he used his status as leverage to meet high-end clientele. After he lined up a few partners, including the late DJ AM, Jesse opened the club LAX. Jesse knew the game well enough to know he couldn’t be the front man. His only chance was in the background. As a supervisor who ensured the venue’s success.

He says that decision turned him into an overnight success.

“We had every ballplayer that was coming to Vegas,” he said. Not to mention celebs like Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Dana White and Jennifer Lopez.

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Within a few years Jesse became general manager for Pure, helped open the Chateau nightclub on the strip and assisted with a day pool opening at Hard Rock that he says routinely made profits in the millions during the aughts.

The Pussycat Dolls perform before the start of a fashion show at Pure nightclub in Las Vegas.

The Pussycat Dolls perform before the start of a fashion show featuring Nicky Hilton’s ‘Chick’ clothing line at Pure nightclub in Las Vegas in 2005.

(Eric Jamison / Associated Press)

But in that industry, everything was quick and dirty. Two years at one place, 18 months at another.

He was beginning to wonder how he would maintain his new workload. He wasn’t going to stop as long as he could. It was the first real cash he’d ever made. Even if it debilitated him, day by crippling day. It got to the point where Jesse was working six days a week, in a slow month. Fifteen-hour days on average.

As fast as he rose in Vegas, he sunk. His venues were getting bought out and, suddenly, he was without a job for the first time in more than five years. The dozens of folks under his watch vanished. Without a job, he was no one. Alone, swimming in a sea of insecurities, taunted by the dancing casino lights that once delivered his brightest moments. He was 29, already burnt out to a crisp — a feat Icarus likely would marvel at.

“Jesse had a chip on his shoulder ever since he was a younger kid. Ever since being told he wasn’t s— by his mom and he was never going to amount to anything, and being in trouble his whole life to being the man he is now, it required him to become a workaholic,” Che said. “Work consumed him in a way, because he wanted to make sure he never went back.”

Without work, again, he was aimless.

One day he went home, looked in the mirror and asked himself bluntly what he had to do next.

Move, again?

Switch professions?

How could he walk away from it, he thought. Who would leave the thrill of a lifetime?

“When you don’t have a credential in a city that caters to celebrities, once you can’t get someone free tickets, your phone stops ringing. I went from hundreds of messages and calls that I had to respond to within minutes to nothing. Everything was completely silent,” he said.

“That was the moment I realized how lonely it could all be.”

He picked up his keys and headed for the door. He felt isolated in a way he never wanted to experience again. He had faced enough lows to walk away.

He was done, he thought. He’d figure it out like he always did, like he always had to.

As he was closing the door, he realized he forgot his phone on the table inside. He reached for it and it rang.

“Jesse, I got something for you.”

He sucked his teeth and looked toward the ceiling.

On the other side of the line was opportunity. Out the door was freedom. He inched the phone closer to his ear but didn’t say a word.

“It’s gonna require you to move.”

He breathed out hard, a few times. He couldn’t believe what he was saying. But, he thought, it was a compromise of the two things he wanted: an escape and one last jolt of a ride.

“And I … And I-I…” Jesse said to me, sounding almost ashamed. “I chomped at the bit.”

If he still wanted to chase nightclub life, he had to move to Shreveport, La. Caesars Entertainment started a pilot program in Shreveport to imitate a Vegas pool experience and needed a steady hand to run the show at one of its hotels in a district known for gunplay.

The city needed something different, somewhere safe for Louisianans to sip their daiquiris and hoot and holler in peace. He ditched his nice abode and low humidity in Nevada for a single room in the swampy Budget Inn in nearby Bossier, where he lived without family or a workable kitchen for a year.

He had to hire marketing staff from a pool of sales associates who worked at Dillard’s department stores. He negotiated fees for big acts with middle men and duffle bag boys from out the bayou. If he wanted any shot at success, he said, he needed to adapt to his environment.

“I got this Mexican dude who’s come to town in his white Audi, no one knows who he is,” said Larry Ellis, formerly of Dillard’s. They engaged in some guerilla marketing tactics, something successful enough to bring ballplayers like Michael Vick and Jason Peters and rappers like Biz Markie, Paul Wall and the Ying Yang Twins to town.

“This had never happened in Shreveport,” Ellis said. “The biggest thing we had here was a military base. I made so much money that summer. And, because of Jesse, we hosted the biggest parties this area’s ever seen.”

Jesse’s plan was to stay in Shreveport. The pilot program was successful, even if the hotel didn’t know what to do after the summer ended. And, Jesse had made it a few months in a new place without any problems. But Hollyhood Bay Bay, a popular DJ in the area, performed one night and got into a fight with a rival crew. Folks were afraid of retaliation after that, even if Jesse was working with the police and both sides to squash the beef.

“Going from Vegas to Shreveport is more than night and day,” Jesse said. “Vegas was corporate. Shreveport was the streets. That dictated who went on, who performed, who got what spot out there. … Luckily, nobody got hurt.”

During some of the deals, Jesse said he knew there was a chance that something was going to crack down. He got nervous. He was by himself in the shoe of the South and quickly humbled by realizing how sheltered he was in Vegas compared to Louisiana, where he was teaching and hiring talent to service the area while lacking the best resources to live.

Jesse needed something more stable and shifted his focus to Miami. The street had informed him when he was a boy, but it was worth too much now as a man. His time in Louisiana had come to an end, and it wasn’t the same when he left.

“I went through a deep depression,” Ellis said. He still lives in Shreveport and said nothing came to town in the decade since Jesse left. Nothing that replaced that special feeling, all destroyed because a few folks wanted to throw hands at the club. “I felt like a failure. We had worked so hard to make it a safe zone for everyone to feel comfortable.”

“It was like death,” Ellis continued. “We were gettin’ paid to have fun. To this day, people around Shreveport are still askin’ me: ‘Whatever happened to that Mexican dude in the Audi?’”

Sitting across from me in Little Havana — the feverish night’s bustle behind him — Jesse slowly downs a Cuba libre. Between gluttonous portions of stringy ropa vieja, Jesse appears to be a man far from what he was chasing in clubs and juke joints. He recently got married. His wife, Sabrina, used to be a nightlife boss too.

They have two boys — Enso, his bright 2-year-old, and Airo, his already social 1-year-old — he showers with love. Each morning on their plot of land on the other side of Miami, Jesse climbs a tree and chops down a coconut with a machete so his boys can drink the freshest milk and water.

Jesse Saenz holds his sons Enso, right, and Airo. They are wearing hats.

Jesse Saenz holds his sons Enso, right, and Airo.

(Courtesy of the Saenz Family)

If the boys get lucky like they have the last couple of years, the Heat keep winning and playing into the last moments of spring. And as soon as the sun rises, there should be mangoes waiting for them underneath the coco tree.

Out there it’s easy to see how Jesse has morphed as he’s aged. Regret still lives with him. He wishes his mother was with them; he hasn’t seen or spoken to her in nearly 20 years.

But deep down he believes what he’s gained is mightier than what he’s left behind. He has the one thing he never did, what the clubs and the money never could give him all those years he was mopping floors in Vegas or high-fiving mascots in Miami. There’s a whole world out there for Jesse, now, a paradise of his own creation.

Inside his club is a staff that respects him. Outside is the village that raised him, who knew he always could stand by himself, in defiance of the die in which the world cast him. He exists now as one of Miami’s masterpieces. Maybe one day, they’ll paint his face on the Wynwood Walls.

Jesse Saenz leans against wall decorated with Miami Heat logos and pictures of players at his nightclub

Jesse Saenz is at home at the nightclub in the basement of the Miami Heat’s arena.

(Ysa Perez / For the Los Angeles Times)

“He grabbed the best and worst from both worlds he had to live,” John said. “If he was still with his mother and grandmother, he wouldn’t have had any of this. He couldn’t. But, he had good luck. Great fortune. And always kept a smiling face.

“People always ask: ‘How did it happen?’ and [say] that I should write a book. No, never. But, I’ll always talk about it. I’ll always tell people about that wonderful boy I came to raise at that house in the Redlands.”

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