LAS VEGAS—There is a giant sphere – “the largest in the world” of course at 111 metres tall and 157 metres wide because they don’t do anything small here — that’s all dressed up as a ginormous basketball and it looms over The Strip like one of the giant casinos.
There’s NBA Con, which may not be Comic Con yet but it’s only its first year an immersive party that blends entertainment, sports, personal appearances by current and past players to feed into the frenzy.
Britney Spears gets bumped trying to touch Victor Wembanyama as he walked away — turns out she inadvertently struck herself in “our first instance of the new flopping rule,” The Athletic’s John Hollinger joked in a tweet — and if that wasn’t enough to truly emphasize what the NBA Summer League has become, it’s hard to imagine what would.
“All the worlds collide here, I guess,” Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said.
Truer words were never spoken.
Part fan fest, part job fair, part basketball and 100 per cent a measure of modern marketing wizardry, the Summer League that’s unfolding here — the NBA2K24 Summer League because no good idea shall go unsponsored — has become this celebration of the league and the game that few could have ever imagined.
It’s grown from six teams in 2004 to all 30 in the league today and has become this homage to image and feeding fans who probably didn’t know they were starved for summer basketball content until they were inundated with it from here.
Each of the 82 games spread over 11 days will be televised somewhere, fans come from all corners of the world to soak up the atmosphere and maybe see an NBA star in a relaxed atmosphere. It has become this thing, this monster of an event.
“When we first envisioned it, we just wanted to run a good league,” Albert Hall, who co-founded the event with long-time NBA agent and Las Vegas native Warren LeGarie, told the Las Vegas Sun last week.
“Now it has become more of a celebrity-driven hot spot. It’s Las Vegas — there’s a lot of sizzle behind it.”
Music stars in the front row at most games. Sellout crowds — they sold 7,900 tickets for the entire first year; they sold 52,500 for the first three days alone this past weekend — creating a secondary ticket market that drove the price of a ticket to Wembanyama’s first game to almost $300 (U.S.) for a 40-minute Summer League game.
NBA stars drop in and out all the time — DeMar DeRozan and Fred VanVleet watched their teams play Friday and there was a gaggle of Raptors in the front row of seats for the team’s first contest.
Every game draws a crowd of some substance.
“The stars never used to come and now, every single game, the celebrities, the stars are all there,” Webster said. “It’s just crazy.”
And from such humble beginnings.
The “league” began with six teams in 2004 in what was a private enterprise of LeGarie only sanctioned by the league. It grew to 16 teams in 2007 when the league lent its name to the show.
Since 2018, a league-wide phenomenon with all 30 teams represented. And so much more than just basketball.
Nothing has made that hit home than this season and the over-the-top hype around Wembanyama, the seven-foot-four French phenom who made his debut with the San Antonio Spurs.
The game drew a sellout crowd of nearly 18,000 to the Thomas and Mack Center at UNLV and even if Wembanyama didn’t play particularly well, that didn’t really matter.
It was an event, a thing to be at. It was about the scene, not the game.
“We were playing in the other gym and nobody was there because everybody was getting ready for the other one,” Webster said.
Time was, it was just the games and the hopes of young undrafted, unproven players that caught people’s imagination.
General managers, personnel directors, coaches, executives of every ilk would be easily accessible, even if for just a quick hello and a handshake.
That’s no longer possible, the crush of people is just too much.
“Now, you can’t sit in the stands and watch, there’s too much going on in the stands to just go sit in the stands and try to watch a game,” Webster said. “You have to be down by the court to focus on it.
“There’s just so many distractions. You get bothered, there’s something going on over here, something going on over there. Some famous person is there.”
It’s also made it harder for NBA talent evaluators — and those from European leagues who might be looking to pick up a player just below NBA skill levels — to get away from the hype and distractions.
Players fight it, too.
“It’s a business trip for me, just try to take care of that,” Toronto’s Joe Wieskamp said. “You have to keep the main thing the main thing.
“You love basketball, so there’s nothing wrong with going to watch other games and learning, seeing how other teams are playing. That’s fine. But the other things? I’m not interested in.”
It’s impossible to pinpoint one, or two reasons for the growth the Summer League has experienced in the last half decade. Las Vegas is a huge draw, of course, for its nightlife, the ancillary distractions and its proximity to areas where established players tend to spend their summers.
Toss in the NBA’s marketing power, the need for television networks to fill dead summer hours, an insatiable appetite for basketball among even casual fans and the NBA’s marketing savvy and it’s not all that surprising.
Whether it can continue to grow is a question. There are too many games now — the top draft picks seldom play more than two of five — and there’s only so much hype to add.
But from where it was to where it is?
“Crazy,” Webster said. “Just crazy.”
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