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The Kings of Summer League

A trip to Las Vegas revealed the joy of Summer League.

“Mr. West, excuse me, Mr. West,” my voice cracked as I attempted to get the attention of the imposing West Virginian quickly passing us by. An aide was scurrying him through the corridors of the still relatively empty Thomas and Mack Center, but he stopped and looked our way after my second, high-pitched salutation. “Can you autograph these basketballs for my sons,” I managed to ask while he glared at me. He glanced disapprovingly at the aide but then grabbed one of the balls. My youngest, Cash struggled to get his Sharpie out of his bright-pink-Spurs Coyote face plastered shorts and handed it to the man in a hurry. “It felt like it took me ten minutes,” Cash said later.

Jerry West was a larger man than I imagined him to be. I ferociously bit my tongue when the still alive clickbait blogger devil on my shoulder began begging for me to ask him for his thoughts on the brutal HBO series “Winning Time,” that had earlier in the year cast him as a half-crazed, winning-obsessed-but-perpetually-losing-window-smashing maniac that didn’t want to draft Magic Johnson in 1979. Fortunately, the kid-focused angel on my other shoulder won the day and I simply thanked him for his time. He didn’t say a word and the aide quickly whisked him away. My sons, Cade, age 12, and Cash, age 10, had just bagged perhaps their finest auto-hunt trophy from The Logo himself.

It was the first full day of the 2022 NBA Summer League, and we were all in. For the uninitiated, Summer League in Las Vegas is a spectacular mixof glammed-out NBA royals smashed together with geeked-out fans of all stripes and spread across the Las Vegas desert like delicious champagne cream cheese on an all-everything bagel. It’s a middle-aged white guy in a Kawhi Leonard Clippers jersey and jorts looking for an upfront seat so he can snap a picture of Rui Hachimura courtside, decked out in matching neon green shorts and t-shirt. It’s the Star Wars Bar Scene set inside the hottest night club in Miami. And it is spectacular.

We’d been hoping to attend for the last several years and were happy to finally make the trek this time. My sons were excited about the basketball and the auto-hunts (autograph hunting), and I was hoping the trip would push me to write again. After several years of transferring virtually every thought that crossed my mind into words on the internet, these last couple of years have been as creatively barren for me as the Las Vegas desert. So, I set a goal for myself. I set out to find the king of Summer League.

Warren LeGarie is a former vegetables broker and Euro League agent. He is also the father of the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern (with a lot of help from current Commissioner Adam Silver) gave LeGarie the go-ahead to self-finance and start-up his league in the desert in 2004. Jared Zwerling summed LeGarie’s dream up succinctly in a profile he did for Bleacher Report in July of 2014.

LeGarie believes the summer league’s most noble accomplishment is how it can connect with the type of fan he once was, sitting in the stands.

“The one thing that we’re most proud of about the league is it is as close to a real NBA game-like experience that you’re ever going to find outside of going to a regular-season NBA game,” LeGarie said. “For $25 for parents, $15 for kids, up to eight games a day, there’s nothing like it. You’re walking elbow to elbow next to players. It really resonates. It’s what we’re really proud of. It’s made the game, as I first saw at Loyola Marymount, extremely accessible and it gives everybody the ability to dream.”

I watched LeGarie tirelessly work the area just behind the courtside seats all the way to the media area behind the basket near the tunnel entrance. He glad-handed everyone from media interns to Rob Pelinka and vigorously worked to ensure any veteran NBA player that showed up, and his entourage, had a courtside seat. It was a spectacle to watch LeGarie size up the situation and the play-by-play call from Mike Breen I imagined in my head during these situations was quite humorous. “Cole Anthony and his boys are here!” Breen’s voice boomed in my mind. “Oh no, there are only three seats and LeGarie needs four!”

“LeGarie, scans the scene. There’s an agent with two guys he doesn’t know in the corner—BANG!” “They’re gone! And Anthony has seats!”

It was a fascinating watch—LeGarie, relentlessly working to make sure the stars were front and center. When a seating issue would arise, he’d approach the offending B-listers and whisper discreetly in their ear. They’d awkwardly get up and wander away, leaving the seats for those more deserving. After giving LeGarie a big hug, they’d sit and stare at their phones. Warren LeGarie, was there, big smile and flock of silver hair, presiding over his kingdom. But was he the king of Summer League?

Kyle Kuzma walked through the tunnel and dapped up long-time friends and acquaintances from around the league. Warren LeGarie pointed him toward his section on the opposite end of his court and Kuzma, dressed in a silky gold jumpsuit with matching golden hair, made his way slowly toward his seats. Perhaps only a golden cape or some wings would’ve improved his look but nothing else. He stopped and said hi to everyone he came across, often with a long hug and lots of back slapping. He chatted up his best friends near his seats and then darted to the corner of the bleachers where kids waited with golden basketballs and playing cards for Kuzma to sign. He scribbled his name on a couple dozen items with a huge smile on his face and a fluidity of movement that demonstrated his athleticism. Wanting to leave them kids hungry, he only signed about half of the autographs before heading back to greet more of his best friends in the league.

Kuzma sat and endured a beat-down of his young Washington teammates for three quarters at the hands of a very long and athletic Pistons team. But surprisingly, the Wizards closed the gap in the third quarter and had a real shot at a win going into the 4th. Unfortunately, Kuzma had to leave before the quarter started. He walked in front of the courtside seats on his way out, dapping up very few, letting his silky gold flow in the blowing AC before disappearing into the dark tunnel. Could Kuzma be the king?

During timeouts I’d watch the ushers and security guards. Their gait was different. The Thomas and Mack Center is not and official NBA stadium and these weren’t your official NBA watchmen. One ol’boy I was watching was as star struck as the rest of us. He was snapping pics with players and NBA illuminati that crossed his path. Meanwhile kids were piling on the steps in the bleachers and generally just hanging out in places you aren’t used to seeing them. To be honest it’s a refreshing change from the stuffy NBA arenas where ushers are trained to chastise you for leaning on a banister incorrectly or lingering in an unpaid for spot for too long. After all, it’s still Vegas, baby. Perhaps the part-timers and the union guys should be the kings?

Back at our hotel the action was equally as compelling. We stayed in the same hotel as several teams, including the Spurs, so the traffic in the lobby was always interesting. There’s LaVar Ball over by the elevators, his voice booming, posing for picture after picture until no one was left there to ask. Here comes Bill Walton, big smile, and pained walk, flashing a peace sign to those who engage him. Josh Primo at Starbucks. Cade Cunningham chatting up my boys. Agents and coaches and NBA execs trying to find a quiet spot in the corner of the lobby to talk shop or game plan or just catch up like old friends do. It was all so compelling to watch. And in the middle of it all were my two boys, heads on a swivel, waiting for their next encounter to politely ask for an autograph. They’d point out to me undrafted rookies getting a shot for a team or Jaden Ivey trying to grab a snack.

Las Vegas can age you. 72 hours can feel like 72 days and this trip was no different. The heat combined with excess and a very confused inner clock can drain you. Add on top of that a virtual NBA Valhalla and sleep is less than optional, it’s frowned-upon. We soaked up every minute of it. Warren LeGarie made the game accessible, and it pours over you in Las Vegas every July. I encourage all NBA fans who haven’t, to make the trek and all who have, to do so again. It’s an experience like no other.

In the last three days I saw a sudden-death overtime game and Dame Lillard wandering around a casino in his green Oakland A’s cap. In the few seconds I was in his presence he probably made $240,000 and he wasn’t gambling. I saw wanna-be show girls on the strip and Johnny Davis in front of the Bellagio fountains when it was way too late at night. I saw Chet Holmgren and Paolo Banchero and Blake Wesley play ball. And I saw the passion and love for the game in my boys.

When we were about to board the plane on Saturday night, I noticed both had tears in their eyes. They weren’t ready to leave, not yet. I promised that we’d be back, that we would make the trek again. But a part of me felt sadness, too. A year from now it could be different. They will be older. If the 23rd pick in the draft walks by, will there still be the same magic chasing him down to sign? Will they grow out of this phase—the time they enjoy watching the game, studying the game, the time they spend with me? Will we always have this? I realized then I’d be able to write. I realized then that my sons, my heroes, my everything were the ones. My sons are the kings of Summer League.