Las Vegas • Basketball was made for summer.
The playgrounds and school yard courts come alive when the temperature warms up, with kids watching the NBA Finals and mimicking their favorite players. High school players hit the AAU circuit, crisscrossing the country for premier tournaments and college recruiting is in full effect.
And for years, the NBA simply sat out. The championship would conclude in June, the draft would take place a week later and then the league would go dark for the rest of the summer.
"The problem was in the old days, they would build up the draft, then nothing because they'd concede to baseball," Warren LeGarie said. "That was a mistake."
LeGarie, an agent who represents some prominent NBA coaches, has helped turn the Las Vegas summer league into an event that keeps the league in the headlines well into July. What started as a six-team gathering that was thrown together on the fly in 2004 has blossomed into a 22-team summit that includes a tournament, owners' meetings and one of the few chances for agents and representatives from all 30 teams to meet in one place to hash out contracts, discuss trades and lay the groundwork for future deals.
"We want it so that people know that there's great basketball, but there's also a way to break down the walls so that people can reacquaint, develop new acquaintances or in some cases repair old acquaintances," LeGarie said. "There was a lot of face to face. We created something like the winter baseball meetings, where people can come in converse, do business, and then get down to the business of basketball."
LeGarie had been lobbying the league for quite some time to bring the summer league to Las Vegas for a centralized event. Several satellite leagues had been run in the past, in places like Colorado, Boston and on the campus of Loyola Marymount in California. But the fractured nature of the meetings made it difficult for schedules to be coordinated, and the door opened for LeGarie in 2004. Boston hosted the Democratic national convention, leaving a dearth of hotel rooms for the teams scheduled to participate in the summer league.
LeGarie got Boston, Washington, Cleveland, Phoenix, Denver and Orlando for the first Vegas summer league, and it quickly grew to a 16-team field. At the behest of Adam Silver, who will take over for David Stern as NBA commissioner in February, the NBA got directly involved in 2007, paying LeGarie, Albert Hall and VSL Properties to put on the event while helping with promotion and organization.
"It's highly successful," Silver said. "The competition is terrific. We feel very much a part of the community in terms of our participation, our owners, GMs and coaches feel very welcome here and it's created fantastic programming."
The summer league games are broadcast on NBA TV and ESPN has a SportsCenter set on scene at the Thomas and Mack Center. The games feature high-profile rookies, but most of the scouts and executives watching from the stands are more interested in evaluating the many players who come to Vegas with no contract for the coming season. Everyone is constantly searching for the next diamond in the rough, the unknown talent who is either coming off an injury or hasn't been put in the right situation yet.
A player like Gary Neal.
The Spurs guard went undrafted in 2007 and played in Spain, Turkey and Italy for three years before San Antonio invited him to play for its summer league team in 2010. He played well enough to earn a three-year contract and has established himself as a key cog for a team that lost to the Miami Heat in seven games in the finals this season.
Jeremy Lin started to make a name for himself with the Dallas Mavericks summer league team in 2010, earning him a contract with the Golden State Warriors.
There are also the mirages that come in the desert, players like Anthony Randolph, Jonny Flynn and Randy Foye who lit up summer league but had trouble gaining traction in the league. And while most of the rosters are peppered with no-names, journeymen and guys who will never become stars in the league, it feeds the hardcore basketball fan that for too long was left without anything to sink his teeth into once the draft concluded.
"They never understood the kind of appetite there was from not the normal fan, the rabid fan," LeGarie said. "The guy who lives and breathes with stats, with information and stories and background and all these things that sound quaint but to these guys it's the life blood, their passion. We realized we were on to something in our first year when we didn't get the box score up from the first game for like 15 minutes. We got hate mail saying, 'Get that up! What are you guys doing?'"
Over the years the tournament has expanded to two gyms on the UNLV campus and is holding a tournament that will crown a champion for the first time.
"That's making it way more competitive out here," Timberwolves first-round pick Shabazz Muhammad said. "Guys are trying on defense and making each other better for the season, which is a good thing. I think it's a great idea that they went from a playoff system."
Spurs GM R.C. Buford said the event has value both on the court and off, but he wasn't ready to declare the new format a success just yet.
"It's obviously become a great event and there's a lot of things that are a positive about it," Spurs GM R.C. Buford said. "I want to listen to our group to evaluate the tournament format. I don't know that we have a conclusion with how we feel about it."
Perhaps even more important than the action on the court what is happening off it. General managers find each other in the hallways of the Vegas resort hotels for deal-making discussions. Agents stump for their clients to get an invite to training camp. Coaches looking for jobs are passing out resumes.
"This was never my dream to be a head of a summer league," LeGarie said. "I see it as a big party that I get to invite a lot of friends to. And that's what it's become. It's a happening where you get to bring your best basketball friends."