by Hayden Alfano
For hardcore basketball fans, the summer can be a dreary time. After the excitement of the National Basketball Association (NBA) playoffs — piggybacked as they are on March Madness, the National Collegiate Athletic Association's annual tournament — the nation's televisions remain hightop-sneaker free until the following NBA season begins, right around Halloween. This year is different — the basketball tournament at next month's Beijing Olympics promises to be terrific — but most years, only the biggest of hoops junkies find their fixes in early July at the NBA Summer League.
There are actually three summer leagues, though only one is run by the NBA. That one, taking place in Las Vegas, begins Friday; one of the others, held in a cartoon oasis amid theme parks and resort hotels in Orlando, tipped off on Monday and finishes at the end of the work week. Although Orlando this year has the two biggest names in the Chicago Bulls' Derrick Rose and the Miami Heat's Michael Beasley — the first and second picks, respectively, in last month's NBA Draft — the Vegas league has a higher profile, for obvious reasons. (The third league, the Rocky Mountain Revue, will be held July 13-20 in Salt Lake City).
For the uninitiated, summer league is different enough from regular-season NBA basketball as to be unrecognizable to the casual fan. While most teams send a squad — 21 of the league's 30 organizations are represented in Vegas this year — the rosters are full of names you'll never see stitched on the back of an NBA uniform. Teams use summer league as a kind of minicamp for their new players, filling in rosters around their draftees with role players who have a year or two of experience, and journeymen (who play overseas or in the NBA's developmental league) looking to latch on. Rookies learn their team's offensive and defensive sets, get familiar with the pace and physicality of the professional game, and acclimate themselves to NBA officiating.
It's as fan-friendly an event you'll find in major sports, which may cause some to fairly compare it to a more well-known ritual: baseball's spring training. For $20 — less than the minimum bet at a blackjack table at many Strip casinos on a weekend night(!) — fans can come and go as they please to a day's worth of games, up to six daily spread across two venues, on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The host gyms are small compared to cavernous, corporate NBA arenas, and all but the courtside seats are unreserved. This allows spectators to not only sit close to the players and listen to their coaches give instruction, but also to rub elbows with NBA types: Coaches, scouts, and general managers can be seen in the stands with the paying customers. It's welcome relief for people who willingly pony up $50 per ticket for a regular season NBA game.
Without romanticizing it too much — these guys aren't playing solely for the love of the game, after all — the beauty of the event lies in how ubiquitous the concept of summer ball is across all levels of basketball. When some of the world's best lace 'em up during summer league, they will be just like thousands of high school-aged kids across the country, trying to prove to a coach, their friends, or themselves that they have what it takes to play at the next level — whatever that level may be.
Will anyone emerge to be this year's Allan Ray — not to be confused with All-Star Ray Allen — who in 2006 parlayed a strong summer league performance into a contract with the Boston Celtics, then turned that into a $2 million deal with a team in Italy the following year? Who will be this year's Brandon Bass, the Dallas Mavericks' power forward whose breakout 2007-2008 season was foreshadowed by a strong performance last summer? Who will follow the path of the Golden State Warriors' Marco Belinelli, who put up 37 points in his first summer league game last year, only to be a non-factor during the regular season? (Even the NBA was fooled by him; a friend who recently visited the league store in New York City said the place was full of unsold Belinelli jerseys, no doubt produced in anticipation of a big year from the Italian rookie.)
A bunch of gym rats eagerly anticipate learning the answers to these questions. Not a bad way to spend ten days in the desert.
My flight to the desert and summer league leaves very soon.
summer league basketball
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by Hayden Alfano