“So, what are you guys here for?” asked our cab driver, breaking the awkward silence that had come over the car.
“NBA Summer League,” we both responded.
“Oh, you guys are here to try out for a team? Good for you,” replied the driver.
Thus began my first Las Vegas experience. Being mistaken for an NBA basketball player isn’t quite how I expected my journey to start, but hey, I’ll take it. I mean, let’s be honest—that’s not something that has ever happened before, nor will it ever happen again.
If you’ve never been to Vegas before, just take everything you think you know about it—the casinos, the heat, the extravagance—and multiply it by five, ten, twenty, whatever. The whole city is a giant oasis of excessiveness in the middle of nowhere. If you ever fly into the city, make sure to take a window seat and you can see it for yourself. For miles upon miles you gaze out at a desert that—though beautiful in places—seems to go on forever until all of a sudden large groups of houses that all look exactly the same appear below.
And then, as soon as you begin to appreciate the ability of construction companies to make exact replicas of hundreds of houses, you are past the suburbs and staring in awe at the massive casinos and resorts that are among the most impressive you will ever see. It’s important to take in all of these sights and experiences because, well, it’s always a good idea just in general to soak in new experiences. But in Vegas this is especially important because despite all the excitement and potential inside the gym, the basketball is for the most part completely forgettable. No one wants to go to Las Vegas and have their only memories be watching bad basketball played by rookies and guys you’d never heard of before. Your friends aren’t going to be enthralled by your stories about that time you got to see Jon Brockman go toe to toe with Trevor Mbakwe.
We—the collective we that is the basketball nerds who decide to go to Las Vegas in mid-July—go because of basketball, and that’s what we spend most of our time watching and writing and talking about. At times—moments really, like mirages of real NBA basketball in the middle of the desert—the on-court action seems worth it.
Getting to see Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins face off in their NBA debuts while a standing room only crowd in the Cox Pavilion cheered their every touch of the ball was memorable. As was seeing the mysterious Dante Exum play for the first time the next night. Then there are the breathtaking dunks, like Eric Griffin ending Shane Larkin’s life just a few minutes into the first game, and the show-stopping blocks, like Miles Plumlee meeting Jabari Parker at the rim and snatching the ball with two hands as Jabari tried in vain to put him on a poster. You see these things and for a few seconds—minutes if you’re lucky—you forget that it’s just summer league and the regular season doesn’t start for over three months. But then Aaron Craft puts up a three from the corner that caroms off the side of the backboard and all of a sudden you remember that most of the guys you’re watching will never come anywhere near an NBA roster—which is fine, but it doesn’t make for the most enjoyable basketball watching experience. As such, the Las Vegas Summer League experience becomes more about everything related to and surrounding basketball than the actual games themselves.
For example: In the concourse connecting the Cox Pavilion and Thomas and Mack Center sat a table; and at that table were free basketball cards—and sticker books too, but whatever. Not long into the first day, this magical table had been discovered by us bloggers, and the basketball card black market was up and running. We compared decks and finessed trades like we were back in grade school, we tweeted pictures of funny cards and our “starting lineups.” And this concourse wasn’t just used to get back and forth between gyms or pick up basketball cards, it was also a goldmine of sometimes strange, but sometimes amazing basketball jerseys. There was a Raja Bell Jazz joint, a Vinny del Negro Spurs throwback, and even a Juan Dixon sighting—like literally. No really, there’s a decent chance the guy we saw was Juan Dixon wearing his own jersey. Every day brought not just more basketball, but more chances to trade cards and spot rare jerseys.
Of course then there’s the people—the people you trade basketball cards and search for weird jerseys with. For hours upon hours, days upon days, you sit in gyms and hotel rooms, restaurants and casinos with people that for the most part you know only from twitter dot com. Even though you’ve “known” these people for months, years even, on the internet, meeting them for the first time in real life always brings about this wave of brief awkwardness because shaking their hand and introducing yourself is like this realization of, “okay, here’s the real person behind this twitter account I’ve been interacting with.” But despite that initial interaction perhaps being a bit uncomfortable or graceless, there’s a beauty to it all. People from across the country, across the world even, meet and become friends because they all love basketball so much. It’s an incredible, almost unbelievable, but ultimately beautiful thing.
Take Noam Schiller for example. In another life, I would have never met Noam, nor even known who he was, seeing as I have little reason to go to Israel, and no one has any reason to come to Milwaukee. Yet in this life I did meet Noam, and I’m glad I did, because he’s a great guy. And without basketball, that never happens. Sure there are a number of other factors that go into it—but it all comes back to that foundation of basketball.
That solid, similar foundation is what makes it so easy then to feel like the people you had a less than perfect first interaction with just a few days ago are now your best friends. At the same time though, it makes it tough as you walk out of the gym on the last day of your trip and wonder if you’ll ever see these people again. I hope I’m back in Vegas next July, but I also plan on graduating from college in the spring and maybe going to grad school after that so who knows if I’ll be able to go. Likewise, everyone else will undergo plenty of change in the next year, and trips to Vegas are not guaranteed things.
As for now, I’m back home in Milwaukee, working 60 hour weeks to pay for school, writing at night when I feel like doing more than just watching baseball and staring at twitter dot com, and all the while thinking about basketball, because of course. And a few times a day my mind drifts back to my first Las Vegas experience, because everything at summer league is about basketball—just not always about the games themselves.