By Kevin Nelson
For 10 days every July, the basketball center of the universe shifts to Las Vegas and the NBA Summer League. In a city famous for excess, this hoops extravaganza of eight games a day in two different arenas is an exuberant, fun, crowd-pleasing excess of youthful athleticism and desire.
This year 24 NBA teams brought squads of 16 players apiece. This included the top overall pick in the June draft, Markelle Fultz of the 76ers (unfortunately he got hurt and couldn’t play), the No. 2 overall pick Lonzo Bell for the Lakers, No. 3 overall for the Celtics, Jayson Tatum, and a host of other first- and second-round draftees, promising first- and second-year NBA vets, foreign newcomers, and D-League hopefuls.
The games began early in the afternoon and stretched into the evening hours. Often two games were going on at the same time—Bucks against Clippers at small, intimate Cox Pavilion, while the Lakers were throwing down against the Kings at the larger Thomas & Mack Center. The two arenas, located on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus (a short Uber or Lyft ride away from the Strip), are connected to each other, so attendees didn’t even have to step outside into the sweltering desert heat to go back and forth between the games.
What made the atmosphere still more invigorating for fans and collectors was that so many players, coaches, and NBA executives could be seen sitting in the stands watching the games, or strolling around the concourse of the Thomas & Mack Center where the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels play their college games.
At the Philly-Boston game, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens sat courtside with his family, not coaching the game but as an interested spectator. He signed programs and posed for pictures with fans during timeouts. After a Kings game in Cox Pavilion, Sacramento exec Vlade Divac was spotted walking through the concourse with a group of players and colleagues. He, too, stopped and signed or let kids take selfies with him, one example among many of the casualness and accessibility of the setting.
Many foreign countries were represented as well, both on the floor and in the concourse. Zhou Qi, a rail-thin 7-footer from China who would like to be the next Yao Ming for the Rockets, was impossible to miss. In baggy shorts, white T-shirt, and matching white sneakers, he smilingly posed with fans for pictures. Phoenix’s Dragan Bender of Croatia, also 7 feet and one of many Croatian imports to the NBA, high-fived a fan walking past him in the concourse.
“What’s cool is that you never know who you’re going to run into, and you can get them to sign,” said Tony Carmon, who came to Vegas for the tournament from his home in Southern California. “That’s what I like.”
Carmon’s thing is autographed baseballs, and he was standing in line with his friend and fellow collector Daniel Pacheco. They were waiting for the Bulls’ top draftee Lauri Markkanen, a 7-footer from Finland by way of the University of Arizona, to appear at the autograph table. The tournament set aside a designated autograph area and recruited players such as Markkanen, the seventh overall draftee, Portland’s Zach Collins, Frank Jackson of New Orleans, and other first rounders to sign for fans.
While Carmon had a blank baseball tucked away in his jacket pocket ready for Markkanen’s signature—he has more than a thousand signed baseballs in his collection—Pacheco clutched a Summer League program, his favorite type of collectible.
“I’m really a big basketball person,” he explained. “I have a bunch of signed programs at home.”
He noted that the line waiting for Markkanen on a Monday night wasn’t nearly as bad as what they had encountered on Saturday, when ex-Duke prodigy Jayson Tatum sat down at the table and hundreds of people showed up hoping for his signature. Many walked away disappointed because he signed for only a short time. Another former Blue Devil, Brandon Ingram, now of the Lakers, also drew a big Saturday crowd.
The most famous new Laker, of course, is Ball, whose family was said to have staged a pop-up store for autographed Lonzo merchandise at the venue.
Joe Axtman, an avid Milwaukee Bucks fan and an equally avid collector, found a novel way to get the jump on the crowds at the autograph table. Except for the Bucks and perhaps a few others, he purposefully did not watch any of the games so he could always be first in line for autographs.
“It takes a commitment,” he admitted. “I skip the game to get the autographs. The second the line ends for one signing session, we get in line for the next one.”
This strategy has paid off handsomely. Among the names he bagged at the tournament were Tatum; Ingram; top Utah jazz draftee Donovan Mitchell; Gary Payton Jr., who signed with the Bucks this spring after a season in the D-League; and at a legends signing, retired Utah colossus Mark Eaton and Sidney Moncrief, naturally, an ex-Milwaukee star. Standing outside Cox Pavilion after a game as the crowd flowed out into the concourse, Axtman eyeballed Dillon Brooks, the Canadian-born second-round draftee out of Oregon who’s now with the Grizzlies, and bagged him too.
Axtman grew up in Milwaukee and now lives in Vegas.
“My favorite part of living here,” he said, “is going to summer league.”
He recognizes, as do all the collectors at the tournament and for that matter all the fans too, that many if not most of the players they are seeing will never make it big in the NBA. Some will go overseas to play in Europe, others will serve their time in the Development League (now sponsored by Gatorade), hoping some day to earn a shot at the bigs. For others, this brief summer spin will be their one and only dance in pro basketball.
Even so, the event does truly showcase the stars of tomorrow, today. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and C.J. McCollum are among the NBA stars who made their pro debuts in Vegas; Green and McCollum, in fact, came back two summers in a row to give their game still more seasoning. At a previous NBA Summer League, Axtman landed one of his most prized Milwaukee sigs, that of Giannis Antetokounmpo, a former first-round draftee with the team and a rising force in the league.
When Axtman took a break from standing in line and went to watch his beloved Bucks play, a fellow collector, Jason Deboer, would hold his place for him so Axtman could get back to the front of the line after the game ended. Axtman then returned the favor for Deboer, a Portland resident and fan who liked to watch the Zach Collins-led Trailblazers in action.
Unlike Axtman, though, Deboer wasn’t thrilled by the autographs he was getting.
“Most of the players I want to get I haven’t been able to get because I’m not willing to crawl over people to get them,” he said, alluding to the swarms of youthful autograph seekers and picture-takers that surrounded Tatum or Ball wherever they went. “If there are a bunch of kids crowding around them I tend to stay away from them.”
Deboer goes to the Nike Hoop Summit every spring in Portland; this pits the best American high school seniors against the best of the international game who are 19 years or younger. Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, and Kevin Garnett are NBA MVPs who played at the summit when they were in high school, while another NBA MVP, Dirk Nowitzki, starred as a teenager for the internationals. Deboer shoots action photographs of the youngsters at the game, prints up their pictures in nice 4x6 glossies, then tries to get these same players to sign the photos when they appear later in the summer in Las Vegas.
The games themselves are a treat. Nobody phones it in; everybody on the floor goes all-out all the time because, in a very real sense, their livelihoods depend on it. Many of the players are teenagers, with a mere year of college behind them, and they and their fellow travellers in their early twenties throw their bodies across the floor in pursuit of loose balls and fly sky-high to slam down thunder dunks to fulfill their dreams of making an impression on the men with the checkbooks and thereby earning a contract or job.
Even those with guaranteed contracts must play hard and play well because if they do not, they will be shown up by their talented, hard-working, and highly motivated peers. Also red-faced will be the team officials who have expended high draft picks and committed small fortunes on the gamble that these fresh-faced prospects who still cannot take a legal drink will make the leap to stardom.
One $30 general admission ticket got you into all eight games for the day. You could sit anywhere you liked (except courtside, which was $400 a seat), allowing you to get a very good, close look at the entertaining action on the floor. Longtime NBA Summer League attendees say the event keeps getting bigger and bigger, the crowds and media buzz keep growing, and what was once a small gathering in the desert for basketball junkies is steadily morphing into a genuine American and international sports phenomenon.
Still, it is good to keep all this in perspective. Sitting around us for one game was a group of tourists from Finland. They were speaking Finnish but they knew English too.
We asked them if they had come to Las Vegas to see the fine young Finnish star and Bulls draftee, Markkanen. “No,” said one of them. “We’re here to play poker.”
Kevin Nelson is a Sports Collectors Digest contributor and the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History.