It's the Mecca of Basketball. The closest thing to a Hoops version of Woodstock. If Woodstock was overloaded with desert heat and regretful decisions at the casino.
Words won't describe how incredible NBA Summer League in Las Vegas is, but let's take a stab at this. If you haven't been to Summer League, or if you're even considering the possibility...GO. As a basketball fan, it's an encounter that most individuals will describe as being "heaven-like". Writing this piece just puts a smile on my face to express the overall experience in itself. This previous year was my 6th year attending the Mecca of Summer Basketball and I can tell you that each year it gets better and better by a wide margin.
YOUR FIRST TIME
You know the scene in Goodfellas where Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) gets caught selling cigarettes on the street, leading to him getting arrested for the first time and in which head Mafia boss Paulie announces "oh you popped your cherry." That pretty much sums up your first time at Summer League. Okay, so maybe everything except the part about getting arrested. The point is, it's over before you fully let it hit you how incredibly awesome your time was. Your first couple of days at basketball paradise are like a massive blur. There's so much to take in and you keep asking yourself "is this real?" Even the most obsessive basketball fans will tell you that you will get all of the basketball you can possibly handle. By day 3, your mind has officially turned into mush. Just imagine any other Las Vegas trip and then on top of that exhaustion, add watching basketball from Noon to potentially 8 PM every day. It sounds ridiculous, but you HAVE to pace yourself. Any veteran of Summer League will tell you that going all day long multiple days in a row is only something than Hannibal Lecter would think was a good idea.
(Photo via Reviewjournal.com)
Here's what happens. You pay for a ticket, which has slowly started to go up each year (I believe it was around $35 this year) and you hurry out of the 100+ degree desert sun to get allowed into the basketball oasis. There's two gyms, the Thomas & Mack Center (UNLV Home Games) and the Cox Pavillion (Smaller gym). There will usually always be two games going on depending on what time you arrive. On a full day's slate, there are usually around 10 games going on. It's first come first serve when it comes to seating arrangements. Yes, there's going to be some sections roped off for the VIP's and the NBA Personnel, so don't have a pipedream of sitting next to an NBA GM...it won't happen. BUT you always have the potential of running into NBA personnel and players around the main concourse.
IT'S NOT JUST GAMES
One of the more fascinating developments of Summer League is how it has turned into a Networking powerhouse for anyone involved in the Basketball world. You will see more "Golf Polos" at Summer League than you will in your entire life, I can promise you that. The Basketball Industry is known as one of the most competitive in all of the professional sports, and you'll see a perfect example of that here. From meetings in the stands to meetings in the concourse, every young passionate and brilliant mind coming up in the basketball world heads to Las Vegas with the goal of expanding their network. Young coaches will sit on their phones, with the goal of setting up meetings during halftime of games. This is the beauty of the basketball industry and Summer League in itself. Each year, the gathering gets bigger and the talent on and off of the court continues to rise. This isn't just about the NBA as well, which is something that the average fan might confuse. Coaches, scouts, and executives from the top international clubs are also here to network with everyone. It has truly become a must-attend event for everyone in the basketball world.
(photo via Celtics.com)
THE FAN EXPERIENCE IS ELITE
This is one of the biggest sells I can make to anyone considering going. You won't get the same basketball experience at ANY game during the NBA Season. Personally, I believe the Cox Pavillion (smaller gym) is one of the best basketball experiences you can get. There's not a bad seat in the house, and you are closer to the action than any other gym you can get. The gym is insanely quiet. You will be able to hear everything on the court, from players talking on defense to the bench coaching staff shouting out plays and adjustments. Even during timeouts, you can hear coaches talking to players if you are close enough. It's not a joke. This year I was able to hear a coach rip into his team after a slow start and he used more profanities than Tony Montana in Scarface. That might not even be the best part. Hecklers in the small gym are basically loud enough you would wonder if they were given a megaphone before entering the gym. During a dead ball this year, a Celtics fan decided to yell at from across the gym "Hey Danny Ainge...will you sign this kid already, this is ridiculous" after watching Javonte Green throw down his 4th poster dunk of the game.
The fan experience continues to improve each year. More and more fan interactions continue to develop not just during timeouts, but also on the main concourse. Imagine waiting for a drink at the concession stand this year and all of a sudden a mariachi band is playing right next to you. Yes, it's true. Pop-a-shot stands fill out the concourse, as well as NBA2K stands for children as well as coloring stands for the little ones. Players will even have autograph sessions after the games. There's pretty much anything your basketball heart can desire for just about any age.
DON'T UNDERESTIMATE THIS MONSTER
I'll go ahead and repeat the previous statement. You will get ALL of the basketball your mind can handle. It's an absolute war attending Summer League. Don't be insane and tell yourself that for your first Summer League experience you're going to go to Vegas for a week and go to basketball every day and all day long. Pace yourself. That's coming from someone who is literally running a basketball website. There's a couple of helpful hints that can help you become a Summer League veteran in a hurry.
- Don't Go All-Day Every Day.
- The Big Gym is Cold. Dress Accordingly.
- Don't sit around at Halftime. Go to the Other Gym.
- Realize that Everyone thinks of #3 and Prepare Accordingly.
- You're in an Arena for most of the day...that sells Arena food. Plan for that Curveball.
- The Cell Service in the Big Gym is less than ideal...
- Put Your Phone Away.
Which leads us to...
THE COMPETITION LEVEL IS SENSATIONAL
You might wonder why I put #7 above, but it's one of the more important ones. Put your phone away. Get those photos and Instagrams out of the way in a hurry. The Summer League talent level is AWESOME. All of these players are playing with a massive boulder on their shoulders. Every young player is always looking to make a splash. Rookies that just got drafted are excited to be done with the media tour and finally get back to playing basketball. G-League players are ready to show the world that last years experience was the last time they wouldn't make an NBA roster. And the Undrafted? That's the underrated cream of the crop. They have the eye of the tiger and know they need to make the crowd explode to get the leaguewide attention. Once you realize this, it becomes clear how competitive these games are from a psychological perspective. You might not see more potential posters and big play highlights at a basketball event than you will see at Summer League. Don't believe me? Take a look below, there was plenty of eye-opening highlights this year.
(video via NBA)
Everyone in the gym knows this. You'll see fans from every team and it's the most underrated part of the experience. Everyone is here for basketball, and everyone is in the best mood ever. Even the occasional tourist who just lost $500 at the Blackjack table the night before and is showcasing a brutal hangover seems to be upbeat. Before you know it, you'll find yourself discussing the NBA talent with 30 complete strangers in your section. Everyone wants to talk about hoops and you'll be pleasantly surprised about how much fun you have with the interactions. Each year in Summer League, an unspoken tradition comes to place. The fans single out one player to be chosen as the "Star of Summer League." This year it was Boston Celtics big man Tacko Fall. The entire gym has a buzz whenever the player enters the game and the moment he touches the ball? It quickly becomes an NBA Playoff crowd. I witnessed Tacko Fall dunk a ball in a packed Thomas & Mack gym and you would have thought it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals with the roar that took place from the Summer League crowd. It's laughable and yet absolutely perfect at the same time.
Still debating going to Summer League? Hopefully, this "tribute" finds you already researching flights for the next year. Go, bring your basketball degenerate friends.