To preface: Be sure and read all of Ian Dougherty's work from all his Summer League coverage, as well as all other contributors' posts, right here before jumping into this piece.
An extended trip to Las Vegas isn't supposed to be normal, I'd guess. The very "lose yourself in it" mentality of the typical Sin City excursion precludes it from being so. We may travel there every July for reasons not typical of most of its visitors, yet we always seem to find ourselves right in their midst. But to truly experience the NBA's Summer League, you wouldn't take it any other way.
For the second consecutive year I had a chance to jump on a plane from Texas to Las Vegas (this time with a girlfriend I met at ... ahem ... Summer League), and after another eight days in one of the planet's best worst cities I can tell you it was just as difficult to leave this time around. And once again, here's the story that came from it.
The first leg of our flight out west — a quick hop from Houston to Tulsa, Okla. — was a simple appetizer, because from Tulsa, we boarded a packed-to-the-gills flight heading out to the Nevada desert. It just goes to show: No matter where you're coming from, if you're flying to Las Vegas, even from Oklahoma, your flight will be filled to capacity. But in an effort to possibly elude the main thickness of the traveling horde and achieve the ultimate goal of any airline customer, which is finding a row with only two people per three seats, something we had done on our first flight, we made a crucial mistake. We sat toward the back of the plane.
A word of advice: While waiting at your gate prior to boarding, be observant and take inventory of your future fellow passengers. If there are multiple families and more than a small handful of children and babies, avoid the back of the plane at all costs. Mostly out of respect to the other travelers involved and the close proximity to the bathroom, It is baby-ville back there. We screwed up royally, as our decision to sit toward the rear of the cabin put us right in the middle of it all.
No more than 30 minutes into the flight, a small child in the middle seat directly in front of me vomited. Her parents rushed to her aid and all was well, but the damage had been done. The smell wafted through the back of the aircraft and lingered for a stinky second or two before dissipating into the recycled air. The little girl apparently had issues with motion sickness, which is unfortunate. I had that problem as a child. I never threw up in a car or airplane that I can recall, but I can attest to the discomfort.
A couple of minutes later, though, as I was hammering out an offseason piece before landing, the little girl I named 'Puke Baby' stood up in her seat and turned around to look at everyone in the row behind her. As she smiled and wiped away the final remnants of gastric content from the corners of her mouth, all I could do is envision the worst possible scenario: Unaware of her own discomfort, Puke Baby would suddenly regurgitate whatever was left in her tiny stomach all over me and my laptop. I generally don't engage in fisticuffs with children, but I'm always open to trying new things.
Thankfully, nothing happened. We made it safely to Las Vegas after experiencing some gnarly turbulence flying over the mountains and into the desert valley. But upon landing, we were notified there was a plane still parked at the gate we were supposed to occupy. The temperature outside was well over 100 degrees, and anyone who has flown a reasonable number of times knows that when an airplane comes to a standstill on the tarmac the air conditioning essentially becomes nonexistent. The flow of air in the cabin would've been more substantial had every passenger been equipped with auto-rotating propellor hats. Twenty minutes later, the confined space became the sweatiest, most baby-filled confined space in the city. I'm certain of it.
But we survived, and as we exited the jet we found ourselves in the midst of one of the funkier scenes this country can offer a traveler. Walking through the Vegas terminal, the empty spaces you normally see occupied by restaurants and vendor stands in most airports are lined with slot machines and video screens that yell, "Wheel. Of. FORTUUUUUNE!" every few minutes. And people are actually gambling. In an airport! The scene is so bizarre, hysterical and sad all at the same time.
There's something about the city, though, beyond the decadence and debauchery, where the arrival of Summer League in mid-July provides a level of comfort in a place far from home. All of the people you spend most of your time communicating with through e-mail threads and Twitter exchanges gather in one place, and a distant familiarity with friends and acquaintances is now tangible at a much more personal level. Everyone is ecstatic to be part of it, not for the partying and gambling, but for the company they'll keep and the opportunity that lies ahead. Not only is the majority of the basketball media industry in attendance, but the access to players, coaches and front-office folks in unmatched.
It's a relaxed, low-key atmosphere at the Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion on the UNLV campus. The basketball is a far cry from the NBA Finals experience of a little over a month ago, but the story opportunities are plentiful. Still, while it's business and casual fun inside the arena, the party is ongoing elsewhere.
Upon checking in to the Palms, the midday drinking and clothing-optional atmosphere on a Saturday afternoon was in full effect. The Jack Daniels and Coca-Cola were flowing in glasses the size of flower pots, and the blackjack tables were fully occupied. At the front desk, the clerk asked if there was any interest in gaining access to the weekend pool party. There was a DJ and everything.
"Is that where all the bloggers hang out?" I asked (maybe silently in my mind).
As drunk chicks and dudes in window-blind sunglasses filed through a hallway to the right, I decided the answer was "Probably not." The room was on the 24th floor, where there was a great view of the pool below and the Vegas strip in the distance. Even from hundreds of feet in the air, the bass from the party's speakers was penetrating. As Rihanna, Macklemore and Justin Timberlake blared from far beneath us, I decided I'd have been better off packing subwoofers in my suitcase and placing them behind my bed.
The room shook as herds of people partied to the music and filled the aquatic wonderland like cattle attempting to escape the sun's heat in a man-made tank
"Man, when the hell did I become so old?" I thought, before opening a fresh bottle of prune juice and setting aside my supply of geriatric medicine.
But for us, the real action was several miles away. There's an open concourse that acts as a connector from one arena to the other at the UNLV campus, and upon entering its space you realize the players and media members aren't the only ones there looking to do work. There are families with children doing everything they can to get autographs from current and future professionals, and there is no hesitation from 12-year-olds to ask players coming off the court for game-worn shoes and jerseys. (It's surprising how often these guys acquiesced to their requests.)
The best part of the people-watching experience, however, was how many people are holding tryouts themselves. Basketball groupies were positioned strategically throughout the concourse, scantily clad and putting out the vibes. This was their one chance a year to impress rookies, minimum-salary NBA players and European journeymen, so the effort was the "leave it all on the floor" kind. Their strategy and technique seemed to come from years of experience and coaching, and their effectiveness was evident. It's as if they'd done this before. Like, a lot. We were all rooting for them.
And before tip-off of the event we'd all come to see, the next waves of talent took center stage. National Anthem recording artists made their marks in what was apparently a competition in who could transform the Star-Spangled Banner into a show that rivaled Handel's Messiah in length and was as bearable as a Dane Cook standup act. Two- and three-syllable words were stretched out to form new contributions to the lexicon of the English language, and limits to how long a human could sustain one exhalation were pushed. And as they finished, it was the arena's "buzzer guy's" turn.
It's difficult to imagine a place where the clock buzzer is used so liberally. It was as if, at any moment, there was a threat of the unsuspecting invasion of one of the loudest noises you had ever heard, and it wouldn't stop until the person pushing the button had sufficiently gotten the attention of everyone in the building. I'm now hearing buzzers in my sleep and during every waking moment of my day. Surely the NBA scorers table talent evaluators took note.
But after all the important acts had left the stage, the NBA hopefuls took the floor for upwards of eight or nine hours a day. The Summer League is such an interesting event in the sense that, even as casual as it is, the careers of so many young men hang in the balance.
Stay tuned for Part 2 in the coming days.