Summer League Diaries

I’ve got two quick stories to share that perfectly encapsulate the NBA Summer League experience.

The first involves former NBA sharpshooter Mike Miller, who was walking by the bench at halftime when an assistant coach jokingly said something I can’t repeat here. Miller looked around carefully, held up the bag he was holding to shield himself from the cameras in the arena, and sent a very demonstrative one-finger salute the coach’s way, laughing all the while, before he walked to the next guy and started talking trash about some long-ago game.

Later that day, I was sitting by the NBA personnel section. A few rows below me sat retired NBA referee Joey Crawford, who is famous for his quick temper. At one point, he rose and started trudging up the steps towards the bathroom. A longtime coach and scout, Rick Wrase, said hello as he passed. Crawford stopped, stared at Wrase a moment, and aggressively gave him the technical foul signal. Wrase exploded with laughter, and my whole row started cracking up. Crawford looked over at us and winked. It was an incredible moment.

Experiencing the NBA Summer League in person is a wild experience. Fans have to walk through the players’ parking lot to get to the stadium (which, if you’re a car buff, is its own awesome sightseeing experience). I saw several NBA hopefuls jump out of an Uber right next to ours and sprint into the arena holding their basketball shoes — can’t be late if you’re trying to make a roster!

The concourses are filled with players, coaches, and media people chatting or standing in line like normal fans, and many more hang out in the arena’s restricted sections.

It was a full house. At various junctures, I saw LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Kyrie Irving sitting courtside; nearly ran into Gary Payton Sr. in the concourse; sat a few seats down from Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka and Suns GM James Jones; stood in line for a pretzel behind Shams Charania; and listened to Toronto coach Nick Nurse give a talk at a conference. 

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New Lakers coach Darvin Ham came right next to me to sign hats for the shrieking twelve-year-old boys sitting in my section wearing Kobe jerseys. Say one thing for Ham, he’s a man of the people. He signed stuff for a good fifteen minutes before heading down to chat with newsbreaker and infomonger Adrian Wojnarowski.

There’s a tunnel separated from the main crowds that the most prominent players, executives, and media could use to mingle. Many of the NBA’s best and brightest were out and about. The entire arena started buzzing when LeBron James surprisingly made his entrance from the tunnel to his baseline seats – even that section of the stadium, filled with big names, got noticeably more hyped.

We were constantly speculating about what was going on near that tunnel. Various NBA luminaries walked in and out, sometimes staying to watch the game but mostly just socializing for a while before leaving. Vegas is where the NBA comes to network and develop relationships with peers in a relaxed setting. We watched Nets GM Sean Marks and Pelinka chatting for a long time (about a Kyrie trade? Probably not, but almost definitely) before Raptors president Masai Ujiri showed up with Woj (discussing Durant-Barnes trade details? Unlikely, but for sure, yes).

On the court, Vegas is a place for rookies and young vets to show off the work they’ve been putting in during the offseason and for fringe players to show off for NBA teams and international scouts. Most of the ballers present won’t play in the Association, but that doesn’t mean their basketball careers are over. It’s for players who are still very much works in progress, but they’re not the only ones who are sharpening up. The PA announcers had several minor fumbles, like calling out for halftime at the end of the first quarter, and even the League’s official program had some funny typos — apparently, the Phoenix Suns went 64-18 in last year’s Summer League, an impressive performance for a five-game tournament.

Summer League is most enjoyable for people who are great with faces. I did a whole lot of staring and squinting, trying to figure out where I recognized that guy from. Luckily, throughout the weekend, I sat next to several diehard NBA fans who were able to pick out Keith Bogans from across an arena (thanks in particular to Burt and Bobby, both from Portland, for their encyclopedic knowledge of players, executives, and media! Made my job a whole lot easier).

The Vegas experience is held at UNLV’s campus, with a prime-time basketball arena attached to a glorified practice gym. Games are held concurrently in both, and it’s easy to wander back and forth between them as fancy strikes. The practice gym is named the Cox Pavilion, and it’s an incredible – if cramped – viewing experience. The walkways to the seats are legitimately a couple feet from the court, and you have to walk directly behind the TV announcers calling the game for various outlets. I almost kicked Isaiah Thomas, who was commentating on a game, when he abruptly pushed his chair back to stand up at the end of a quarter.

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I snuck a look at the cheat sheets the announcers use – everyone has one with a couple of bullet points written about each player, but there’s a stark difference in the amount of preparation each announcer puts into it. Some had reams of data about each player, while others had a headshot, a jersey number, and two hastily-typed notes.

Several fans and NBA personnel I talked to bemoaned the circus that Summer League has become. They missed the days when anyone could sit courtside, and a big game between top rookies might draw 100 people (who could enter the arena for free). It’s clear those days are never coming back, as fans paying $50 for a ticket consistently filled the lower bowl of the main arena. The NBA was hawking merchandise from every corner, and long lines snaked out from all the food and drink vendors.

They say the NBA is a year-round sport, and it’s never more apparent than at Summer League. More to come about the actual on-court product later this week!

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.