Nothing tops Vegas and hoops
Editor's note: This column appears in the July 23 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
When the NBA moved its annual Summer League to Vegas, on paper the combination of basketball and gambling was right in my wheelhouse. I should have been sleeping outside the Thomas & Mack Center waiting for the first game, right? Nope. I missed the first three years ('04, '05 and '06) and would have missed 2007 if I hadn't needed a column idea. Heading to Vegas without a definitive angle, I was like a poker player going all in with king/queen: a decent hand, but a hand that needs help on the flop.
So what happened? I ended up with a full house: three kings, two queens and 6,000 words of stories and observations for a 1,200-word column. Now I'm kicking myself. In retrospect, I should have persuaded The Magazine to hook me up with a mack daddy suite for a week, implored a couple of buddies to join me for the intoxicating basketball-gambling combination, then blown this baby out into a full-fledged mega-feature that probably would have ended up with me in rehab. If you're one of the few remaining NBA junkies, forget about family vacations, forget about making money for college, forget your obligations as a family man: You have to make the pilgrimage to Vegas for Summer League. Just trust me.
In the pre-Vegas days, Summer League never quite worked because they couldn't field enough quality players: Too many lottery picks held out, too many younger vets believed the games were beneath them. That led to glorified pickup games dominated by ball-hogging point guards, athletic slashers and energic rebounders, a run-and-gun climate in which a few guys looked like superstars and everyone else looked like crap. In Boston's 2003 league, MVP John Salmons was joined by Kedrick Brown, Devin Brown, Donny Marshall and Brandon Hunter. Too bad the Dream Team moniker was already taken.
Still, Summer League worked for those dopey idiosyncracies that only NBA junkies enjoy, all of which were on display in Vegas last weekend. Like seeing random blasts from the past ("Good God, it's Toby Bailey! He's alive!") or GMs like Danny Ferry intently scouting games and contemplating their next atrocious moves. Watching fringe guys like Guillermo Diaz gunning for their own stats or young vets like Gerald Green mailing it in because they mistakenly (and comically) believe they're better than everyone else. Overhearing two fans behind me seriously argue about Atlanta's available cap space. Seeing Awvee Storey, the disgraced NBDL player who once nearly punched a teammate into a coma, notice his name was misspelled on his Bucks jersey, then wondering if the equipment manager was crumpled in a bloody heap somewhere.
Best of all, there's Check the Program Guy, the random, unrecognizable sleeper who has everyone frantically searching for their program after a monster dunk. If he plays well enough, he turns every spectator into Jay Bilas. Take Clippers forward Amara Sy, an athletic Frenchman who impressed everyone during the Clips-Grizz game with his length, wingspan and freakish motor, as well as with the admirable way he maintained his composure when the PA announcer pronounced his last name three different ways. I love these guys.
Now, here's how Vegas pushed it to the next level. First, Thomas & Mack has an adjoining 3,000-seat gym (Cox Pavilion) that allows simultaneous games with staggered starts. For a $25 general admission ticket, fans could walk back and forth between venues and sit anywhere (like the Rio's all-you-can-eat buffet, only better). On July 13, I watched four games in six hours and wrapped up the night by sitting four rows behind the Sonics' bench for the delightfully entertaining Kevin Durant-Marco Belinelli matchup, which was taken to new heights by a ponytailed and impossibly awkward Robert Swift's cheering on his Seattle teammates. I spent just as much time watching him as I did watching the game.
(Wait, did I mention that I inadvertently sat one row behind the new Sonics owners and their guest, the great Bill Russell?! You haven't really lived until you've seen Russ crush the hopes of every young autograph seeker from three feet away. He was swatting them away as if swatting hook shots from Rudy LaRusso and Walt Bellamy. Remember, kids, Bill Russell doesn't sign autographs; it's against his principles. Well, unless you give him lots of money up front.)
Second, they sprinkled the atmosphere with the over-the-top cheesiness only Vegas can provide, like comedian George Wallace throwing up the ceremonial opening tip for one game, followed by the PA announcer's saying, "Once again, comedian George Wallace ... He's appearing at the Flamingo all week!"
Third, and most important, the allure of Sin City has solved the "How are we going to get lottery picks and other name guys to show up?" problem. Hey, here's an idea: Put Summer League in Vegas! The Grizz-Clips game featured Mike Conley Jr., Rudy Gay, Chris Kaman, Al Thornton, Paul Davis, Tarence Kinsey and Kyle Lowry -- seven legit players -- as well as the astonishing revelation that Jared Jordan is white. Dozens of quality youngsters, including LaMarcus Aldridge, Craig Smith, Jason Maxiell and Randy Foye, played big minutes all week, and nearly every major draft pick played at least one game; Seattle played Durant and Jeff Green together. Even a sloppy Bucks-Celtics game featured more star power than their famous Tankapolooza 2007 contest in April.
So what if it was an excuse for a Vegas trip for most of these guys? With the influx of young talent, GMs and agents prowling the premises, the charm of adjoining venues and the X factor of gambling and clubs, there's an infrastructure in place for an annual summer extravaganza, featuring high-caliber basketball, every major summer announcement and so much schmoozing and networking, you could almost call it an NBA convention. Next summer I'm spending the week there. Hell, I might look for casino availability right after I hand in this column.
Besides, anything -- and I mean anything -- can happen during Summer League in Vegas. I found this out while playing blackjack at the Wynn's European pool on Saturday afternoon. Improbably, I ran into one of my favorite announcers, Gus Johnson, who loves me because I love him. Just as I was about to make Gus announce a few of my blackjack hands ("Here's the double-down card ... OHHHHHHHH, IT'S A 10!!!!!"), he implored me to come over and meet Isiah Thomas -- that's right, my frequent column target, who once threatened "trouble" if we ever met on the street.
After I explained to Gus why this would be a horrible idea, he countered, "Hold on, I got this. I'll fix this." He left while I kept playing blackjack, wondering how to defend myself if Isiah came at me with a piņa colada. Minutes later, Gus waved me over and introduced me to Isiah, who was quite gracious and gave me 30 minutes.
I explained my side, he explained his, and that was that. Maybe the details don't matter as much as the story itself: Gus Johnson brokering peace talks between me and Isiah Thomas at a topless pool in Vegas.
Honestly, I'd tell you more, but you know the old saying ...
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.