May 27, 2012

Vegas, Baby!

Double Down Saloon: Halfway between the Hard Rock Hotel and the Thomas and Mack Center. Somehow, I doubt their claim about being the happiest place on Earth.
I love Las Vegas. I wouldn't exactly say I enjoy gambling because I'm not crazy about the possibility (or probability) of losing money. To be honest, it’s incredibly stressful for me and it gets more and more stressful as the table minimums go up. I can’t enjoy the free drinks even at a $5 table, which are about impossible to find on the Strip anymore. But there are a lot of other things about Vegas I love. It’s like a microcosm of the excess of America rolled up into one 4.2 mile stretch of road, complete with a ton of neon and deep fried Twinkies if you want them. I’ve made the trip 13 times in the last 11 years, mostly scheduled around the NBA season. I’ve traveled there in March several times when the Wizards were on their annual spring west coast swing, been once just before Thanksgiving (another Wizards road trip) and made the trip five times in July, when it’s hotter than hell at 8 am, even though you tell yourself it's a dry heat. I made the first two July trips because I really didn’t understand what I was doing; I made the last three because July in Vegas is NBA Summer League time.

In 2004, six NBA teams (Boston, Cleveland, Denver, Orlando, Phoenix and the Wizards) participated in a new summer basketball league in Las Vegas. At that time, the league was one of several around the country designed to allow NBA teams to work out first and second year players, unsigned free agents and recently drafted rookies against competition from other NBA teams. In the eight years since the league started, participation has grown to 23 NBA teams and the number of other summer leagues has shrunk to one. The other league, in Orlando, is not open to the public so Vegas is really the only place I can go to see semi-sanctioned NBA basketball in the offseason.

I went to Summer League for the first time in 2008 with my friends Mike and Bryan. That year, Mike and I were sitting at Dulles Airport after checking in for our flight via self-service check-in while Bryan checked in with an agent at the ticket counter (apparently B was on some sort of watch list that year). As we waited for Bryan, we were debating if we would bump into Ivan Carter, who was then the Wizards beat writer for the Washington Post. I said no; Mike said yes. Despite the fact that we knew Ivan was going to Vegas that morning, I figured what are the odds? There are three airports in the DC metropolitan area, right? We had just finished our conversation when I looked up and said, "Hey, it's Ivan Carter." We introduced ourselves and talked to Ivan for a bit about the team and Summer League before getting on the shuttle to the terminal. As Ivan was leaving us he pointed to first me and then Mike and said "Mike and Tony, right?" We corrected him but he put us in the Post's Wizards Insider blog as Mike and Tony anyway ( Just for the record, he got both our names wrong.

The "New Big Three", 2008; That didn't really work out how they planned.
Watching Summer League is utterly unlike watching basketball at Verizon Center or any other NBA arena. Most games are played in the tiny Cox Pavilion at the Thomas and Mack Center, which is the home court of the UNLV women's basketball and volleyball teams and seats about 2,500 for a Summer League game. There is no overhead mounted scoreboard, no instant replay, no fancy sound system and no in-arena entertainment. It's just ten guys on a court playing basketball. The team benches are the first of two rows of folding chairs on the sides of the court and the second row of folding chairs separates the benches from the fans so you are about as close to the action as you can get. You watch what you want to watch and it costs you about $20 for the whole day.

The crowd is totally different, too. The "fans" who show up at Verizon Center to watch Kobe or LeBron or some other star playing for whatever team they happen to be playing for are thankfully absent; it's just pretty much hard core basketball junkie nerds with too much time and money on their hands. In short, people like me. I once had a 15 minute conversation with two guys about how thin Corey Brewer's ankles were. I just wouldn't have those same conversations anywhere else.
Sometimes at Summer League it seems like the whole NBA has moved to the desert for the week. In addition to sharing the stands with other fans, you may end up sitting next to a general manager, coach, scout or player so you have the opportunity to pick their brains about important stuff or minutia that you always wanted to know about the game or the league. In 2010, I went out to Vegas by myself early for Summer League and stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel, which is really (for me) the closest acceptable hotel to the Thomas and Mack Center. I was eating dinner at the Pink Taco at the hotel after watching the first day of games, wearing a shirt with a huge Wizards logo on the back, when the bartender approached me with a beer that I didn't order. He told me it was from the two guys at the bar because I was a Wizards fan and there weren't too many of them in Vegas.

Now, usually I am not a huge fan of accepting drinks from men I don't know, but I figured maybe they were from DC and out there to watch hoops. So after I was done with dinner, I walked over to say thank you and see if they were Wizards fans. They weren't. They were actually Tim Connelly, our Director of Player Personnel, and Mike Wilson, our Director of College Scouting, so I had the opportunity to get some insight into the process of evaluating and scouting talent from the people who actually do that for a living. At one point in our coversation, they claimed responsibility for assembling the entire Wizards roster before remembering we had won only 19 games the previous season and backing off that statment a little. I just wouldn't have the opportunity to get into those discussions other than at Summer League in Vegas.

You might think I'd be alone in supporting my team out there, but despite being 2,500 miles away, Wizards fans are surprisingly well represented at Summer League as the Post's Dan Steinberg found out during his Vegas trip in 2009: I love the description of us being "fond of standing tall in their strange little identity as devoted D.C. basketball fans" and I'm happy I made the article. Bryan would have made it into the photo with me and Mike but Dan ushered him out of the frame for not wearing Wizards paraphernalia.

Summer league is July 13 through July 22 this year. Can't wait to go back!

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