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Roll of dice on Vegas comes up a big winner

NBA summer league grows into 'July Madness' for fans, budding young prospects


LAS VEGAS — It all started simply enough.

The year was 2004, and summer league basketball leagues for NBA players and prospects were spread around at number of locations, including Salt Lake City and Long Beach, Calif.

“A couple of them were looking to have more of an anchor place,” says Warren LeGarie, a San Francisco-based sports agent who represents a number of NBA coaches and management types. “They challenged me, ‘Why don’t we find a place with better proximity to more players?’ Vegas was the place that made a lot of sense.”

LeGarie secured financing and a sponsor (Reebok) and organized a six-team summer league at UNLV, each of the teams playing three to five games.

“In the beginning, it really was a little simpler,” says LeGarie, 61, who represents general manager Neil Olshey, coach Terry Stotts among others from the Trail Blazers organization.

Though only a few thousand fans turned out to watch the low-key affair in 2004, NBA coaches and executives liked what they experienced. The next year, the Las Vegas Summer League expanded to 16 teams, including Portland.by: COURTESY OF MIKALAN MOISO - Joel Freeland of the Trail Blazers goes to the rim during one of Portland's games at the 2014 Las Vegas Summer League, which has developed into a week-long extravaganza.

A decade later, the LVSL has partnered with the NBA and expanded to 24 teams, crowns a champion and dwarfs the only other existing summer league for NBA teams in Orlando in both size and eminence. Games from both leagues are carried live on NBA-TV, but the 10-team league in Orlando is closed to the public and staged at the Magic’s training facility.

In Las Vegas, games are held at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion, side-by-side sites five minutes from the famed Las Vegas Strip. A $25 daily ticket allows the fan to watch as many as eight games between the two arenas. Each NBA team is guaranteed to play at least five games through the 10-day schedule that covers two weekends. About 430 media credentials have been issued.

“Call us ‘July Madness,’ ” laughs LeGarie, 61, who acts as a combination maitre d’/public relations man, greeting officials, coaches and players while taking care of their needs. “We had 9,500 for our championship game last year. People set their vacations up so they can attend the event now.

“We never expected this to become a happening. I’d be lying if I said we did. We had no idea.”

A good portion of today’s NBA stars — including Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Blake Griffin and John Wall — have showed their talents in the LVSL. Blazers Jarryd Bayless and Damian Lillard have won most valuable player honors.

“It’s been a ‘Walk of Fame’ type of thing,” LeGarie says. “The thing that resonates most is that the fan has incredible access. It’s as close to an NBA game-like experience as you’ll get next to a regular-season game. And we don’t even charge for air conditioning.”

It has become a time and place where plenty of NBA off-the-court business is covered, too.

“Most of the NBA executives are here,” Olshey says. “It’s almost become like a convention, with agents, executives and team officials. You can conduct a lot of business. You can interview for positions.”

Olshey did just that soon after he became Portland’s GM two years ago, hiring then-Dallas assistant Stotts as his coach.

The LVSV provides a service to many on a variety of levels.

“It’s of great value in terms of coaching development, player development, the ability to see a lot of people in the same place,” says San Antonio GM R.C. Buford, the NBA’s executive of the year in 2013-14.

“This setting is as representative of an NBA game-like atmosphere as you can get,” says Cleveland GM David Griffin, who signed LeBron James to a free-agent contract last week. “They’ve done such a good job of building the league into something where there’s a great deal of attention brought to bear on it. That puts kids in a situation where there’s a heightened sense of urgency. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.”

“It raises the bar for the players,” Olshey says. “You can’t simulate a real NBA game, but it’s as close as you get for the five to six months of our offseason.”

The players are predominately young — rookies or second- or third-year players, though veterans such as Josh Howard, Shannon Brown and ex-Blazer Jeff Ayers dot the rosters, looking for another chance to prove themselves.

Some of the summer league players are draft picks. Many of them are free agents, looking to earn a contract or an invitation to training camp.

“It’s a great venue for players to develop and be seen,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks says.

“I wouldn’t call it a tryout camp, but it’s definitely a proving ground, especially for your rookies and younger players,” Denver coach Brian Shaw says.

If there are no available spots on one team’s roster, a player enhances his chances of landing elsewhere by playing well enough to get noticed by the dozens of officials representing all 30 NBA teams — and international pro teams as well — who are watching from the stands.

Says Nuggets assistant coach Lester Conner: “Brian told our guys, ‘We have 13 players with guaranteed contracts, so two of you might make the team. But you’ll be showcasing yourself for other teams and teams in Europe.’ The NBA is not for everybody, but there are other places to play. And all the big shots are here — Phil Jackson and his (New York) staff, Gregg Popovich and his (San Antonio) staff. If you want to get seen, this is the place to come.”

Each of the games is 40 minutes long, with 10-minute quarters. Referees are provided by the NBA — budding NBA officials, many of them who work in the Development League. The LVSL is a proving ground for them, too.

“They do a great job in terms of trying to grow officials,” Griffin says. “And part of it is our kids learning to adapt to that part of the game.”

Coaches use the league to evaluate their players in an organized setting without the pressures of a regular-season game.

“You get a chance to develop your younger players and to see some veterans trying to make the team,” Brooks says. “You can implement your system and evaluate everything without worrying about wins and losses.”

The majority of the players in the LVSL never play a game in the NBA. Those who shine aren’t necessarily destined for an NBA roster.

“It’s a chance for coaches to get to know them, to start getting a hands-on impression,” says P.J. Carlesimo, the former Blazers coach who is an analyst for ESPN. “I’ve always said, you may not find out who can play (in the NBA) in summer league, but sometimes you can find out who cannot play.”

Coaches generally allow their younger assistants to run the LVSL team. Nate Tibbetts and David Vanterpool are sharing that responsibility with the Blazers.

“It’s a great opportunity to put the game plan together, draw up plays, handle end-of-game situations, talk during timeouts and before and after the games,” Tibbetts says. “It’s easy as an assistant. You just make suggestions. As a head coach, you have to make decisions.”

Jefferson High and Portland State grad Ime Udoka, who earned a championship ring as an assistant with San Antonio this spring, is coach of the Spurs’ LVSL team for the second straight year.

“To a young, up-and-coming coach, the experience is invaluable,” Udoka says. “It’s great to get a chance to run practice, look at some of our guys in a different environment, expand their roles and add my own wrinkles to our offense.”

“Attendance has increased through the years, and we’re looking at being 10 to 25 percent up this year — somewhere in the high 80 (thousands) to the low 90’s,” LeGarie says. “We had 9,500 for our championship game last year.”

Though the bright lights of the Vegas Strip can be alluring to players, most of the coaches says they’ve had little trouble with incidents here over the years.

“There’s temptation everywhere,” Shaw says. “We remind the players all the time what they’re here for. I went to UC Santa Barbara, one of the biggest party schools in the country. It taught me discipline. You have your time to play, but the guys who take it seriously and understand the responsibility that comes with being here have a better chance to make it. You either sink, or you swim.”

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