LAS VEGAS – It’s easy to catch the snippets of conversation as Donnie Nelson mutters on his cell phone, tapping away at an iPad.
The Mavericks’ general manager is visited by a steady stream of reporters and friends as he sits on press row at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center, waiting for his team’s Saturday game. It’s a rotation of video cameras and handshakes, hushed phone calls and declarations that his team’s roster is solid. Sit there long enough, and you might overhear a contradiction or a worry.
This is business conducted in the midst of the writers whom GMs try their best to avoid, with fans walking down the stairs toward the impossibly close seats for which they’ve paid $25.
Welcome to Las Vegas summer league, where the rules of the NBA are temporarily suspended. Welcome to a city where Thomas Robinson, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris can stroll through a casino without attracting a crowd, where the blinking, nauseating lights of slot machines and gaudy chandeliers can somehow make them into little more than three guys on the town.
Summer league in Las Vegas began in 2004, when six teams – the Celtics, Cavaliers, Nuggets, Magic, Suns and Wizards – played 13 games. The event, founded by Warren LeGarie and a group of businessmen, continued to grow to 20 teams in 2007, when the NBA first attached its name to the league. After a year off in 2011 due to the NBA lockout, summer league is back in 2012, with the excitement of last season and the lack of games a year ago translating into higher ticket presales and bigger crowds.
Now, eight years into its existence and with 24 teams participating and the NBA logo stamped all over UNLV, the event continues to retain a feeling distinctly its own. David Adelman, who is coaching the Minnesota Timberwolves in Las Vegas and coached high school for six seasons, said that the event reminds him of an AAU tournament – with a lot more talent. That assessment isn’t too far off, save for the children and adults alike clamoring for autographs, stretching toward the benches and daring to get closer than they ever would if this were the regular season.
The fortunate teams get locker rooms, the others play in a smaller gym and change behind curtains. Ball boys cleaning the court get in the way of play, and no one cares. This is an alternate universe where second-year Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried can boast that he’s a veteran and Celtics coach Doc Rivers has little more to do than sit in the stands and watch.
Since the beginning, LeGarie and summer league organizers have billed their event as a chance for unprecedented access. It’s a fluid project, changing each year to accommodate both teams and fans. Everything from the music in the Cox Pavilion – which ranges from ’80s hip hop to Bob Marley – is subject to feedback and change.
Teams put in their preferences each year, regarding everything from schedules to opponents to which court they’d prefer to play on. A cadre of interns and a full-time staff that works on the event nearly year round coordinates those requests and works out a schedule. They provide towels and Gatorade and set up practice times and reserve courts. But really, that’s where the accommodations end at UNLV. This is like any other road game, LeGarie said, where teams provide their own equipment and uniforms and are expected to handle other demands themselves. If the big-name rookies want to be difficult, that’s left to the teams to handle.
“It’s still basketball, and that’s all it is,” LeGarie said. “There’s nothing exotic. We don’t get, ‘They only want the green M&Ms as opposed to the brown.’ There are no divas here. We don’t allow any divas here.”
At summer league, the stars are little more than kids. Many been told for months, years even, that they’re the best in the country, worth millions and capable of changing franchises. But in Las Vegas, in their first-ever games as all that gets put to the test, it’s easier to remember just how young and raw these guys are. It’s a league bolstered by players trying to earn their spot on an NBA roster, many for the third or fourth time, but the unproven stars are what sells.
“It’s one of the few places where you can be up close and personal with people who’ll eventually be seen in All-Star Games, and you’re playing $25 per ticket for seven games,” LeGarie said. “It may be the best entertainment value in Las Vegas.”
In almost a decade of doing this, LeGarie has built a pretty good sales pitch, and it isn’t too far from the truth. This year’s fans can say they saw Blazers rookie Damian Lillard’s big dunk and the first glimpse of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in a Bobcats uniform – and whether they flame out or succeed, it’ll still be a story. Summer league isn’t really about what happens in the moment. It’s about what could be, predictions and surprises and fleeting glimpses of something great.
It’s fitting that all this goes on in Las Vegas because summer league can be nothing more than a gamble. Teams can begin to learn if they wagered correctly in the previous month’s draft, getting the first hint of what’s to come, an impression that might color a rookie season. D-Leaguers and international players can gamble on yet another chance to make the league, and in a city where life goes on hold, last year’s problems can be temporarily forgotten.
This is about nothing more than the future. This isn’t about the Heat, who won a championship in June and now field a summer league squad that’s at the bottom of the list of teams to see. This is about the Bobcats and the Trail Blazers, teams with little relevance just months ago that for 10 days can be headliners. Miami doesn’t really mind if its crop of young players falters; Portland and Charlotte and nearly every lottery team are banking on whatever success their rookies have carrying over to October and beyond.
So reach for the autographs. LeGarie and the NBA want you to. Someday, they might be worth something. If you’re lucky, you might have a basketball bearing the name of the next Jeremy Lin. Talk to the general managers. Get in line behind them and ask questions; high-five them. Enjoy these 10 days when the rules don’t apply and the boundaries are blurry.