2023 NBA 2K24 Summer League

From LeBron to Wembanyama, how Summer League has evolved over past 20 years

The annual summer gathering continues to reach new heights for teams, players and fans.

The newly-opened Las Vegas Sphere welcomes fans to NBA 2K24 Summer League.

LAS VEGAS – Nineteen years old, a source of constant improvement, with a wingspan wide enough to embrace the NBA, its stars, its hopefuls and fans of the game around the globe.

That description fits Victor Wembanyama, the San Antonio Spurs rookie and the league’s Next Big Thing. In this case, though, we’re talking about the NBA 2K24 Summer League that tipped off its 19th season in Las Vegas on Friday and runs through July 17, a total of 11 days in which it reigns as the center of the basketball universe.

Where else can someone vacationing in a desert city step inside from blinding sunlight and scorching temps into a cool arena, blink from the stands at the familiar NBA logo, then see the legend after whom it was modeled, Lakers great Jerry West, sitting courtside? Not only West, but at various times Hall of Famers past, present and future such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Isiah Thomas, LeBron James, and assorted active All-NBA players.

Where else can the entire league – players, coaches, scouts, referees, executives, staffers – convene during the offseason to work, sure, but also to network, dine, golf, gamble and otherwise socialize at this sliver of time each year when so many of these tightly wound competitors legitimately are able to relax?

What happens in Vegas, as it turns out, can ripple through the NBA’s 30 markets all season long.

“I like this because it’s the only time you’re looking to get together,” said Stephen Silas, Detroit Pistons assistant coach who has been working at Summer Leagues for more than two decades. “All-Star Weekend, you’re trying to get away. This is the only time you’re able to connect with guys from other teams, have meetings, and re-connect with people you’ve worked with. It’s relaxed, everybody is 0-0.”

Silas, by the way, ran the Cleveland Cavaliers’ summer entry back in 2003, when the phenom bursting on the scene then was LeBron James. James made his Summer League debut in Orlando, then traveled with the Cavs when they participated in the defunct Reebok Summer League in Boston.

Look back at LeBron's top plays from the 2003 Summer League.

There was buzz then – James hit the NBA straight from high school and was the subject of such hype, his first game was moved from the usual closed gym in which that summer league operated into the old Orlando Arena, with about 13,000 fans paying $5 each to claim “first!”

Wembanyama, arguably the most touted prospect since James, topped that. His games Friday and Sunday were sold out, with 17,500 people paying $45 or more (secondary ticket prices reportedly reached $96) to see the 7-foot-3 French teenager’s first bits of NBA action. Despite suffering from silly digs on social media after the opener, the kid came through – 36 points in the two games with 20 rebounds and eight blocked shots.

Victor Wembanyama shined in his second Summer League game, dropping a 27-point, 12-rebound double-double.

He came through for the league, its ESPN TV partner, and the event organizers, too. There had been four sellout sessions in Las Vegas Summer League history prior to this year; there were three more this weekend.

LVSL is the brain-child of co-creators Warren LeGarie and Albert Hall. The former was and is an agent for coaches and players, the latter was a young employee of the Seattle SuperSonics 30 years ago working the front desk of the team’s new practice facility. They met when new coach George Karl asked Hall to pick up his agent at the airport and told him to look for the “surfer dude.” That was LeGarie.

The pair worked together off and on for the next decade, clicking as business partners and friends. “Albert and I are kind of  ‘Why not?’ people rather than ‘Why,’” LeGarie said Saturday, pausing for an interview during a matinee game.

Otherwise he is in constant motion, working the sidelines at both the Thomas & Mack Arena and the Cox Pavilion where the 76 LVSL games are played. If LeGarie isn’t checking in on VIPs or answering somebody’s question at the broadcast table, he’s touching base with league honchos or offering a restaurant recommendation to some random reporter. At one point Saturday, he came down from the stands with a couple of empty concessions trays and a pair of discarded popcorn boxes, some on-the-fly janitorial work not beneath him.

This is, after all, his and Hall’s baby. They first pitched the idea to have Las Vegas serve as the showcase summer league in the late 1990s to former NBA commissioner David Stern. A series of summer leagues had operated at sites such as Loyola-Marymount in Los Angeles, at Princeton, N.J., in Salt Lake City, Sacramento and Orlando, none of them lasting very long or attracting more than a handful of teams.

Stern, however, wanted no part of Las Vegas, its casinos and the gambling atmosphere at a time when North American leagues still were leery of being associated with sports wagering.

Times changed. Las Vegas began reinventing itself as a leisure destination that might appeal to families, promoting shows, recreation, dining and sports. LeGarie and Hall tinkered with their proposal, and Stern softened in his view of the city, even scheduling the 2007 All-Star Game in Vegas. The two entrepreneurs made their pitch again in 2003, steered to then-deputy commissioner Adam Silver.

This time, they got greenlighted. Good thing, too, since the Reebok League in Boston had to give way to the 2004 Democratic Convention. LeGarie and Hall rushed the Vegas plan into place, starting with just six teams playing a total of 13 games. An estimated total of 1,700 spectators showed up.

We’ll do the math: That’s less than 10% the number of customers who crowded in Friday just for 2023’s opening day. The numbers for 2022 were staggering – more than 135,000 tickets sold, with about 70,000 hotel rooms filled and an economic impact to the market of an estimated $125 million. Greater than an All-Star Weekend, Silver has said.

And this year’s stats will break all those records.

Could have fooled LeGarie, based on what he saw in 2004 built on “six teams willing to take a chance.” That number doubled to 12, later reached 22, and eventually all 30 as an all-inclusive offseason draw unmatched by baseball in its Arizona or Florida spring sites.

Still, LeGarie recalled, “We certainly didn’t want to do a second year like we did our first year. That was about 30 people and mostly family and friends. But like most things, if you keep your head down, work your tail off, don’t be cheap and treat people the way you’d want to be treated, you have a chance to at least grow it a few more [years].

“I could say, ‘Yeah, I saw this coming, because I’m such a genius.’  No. Nobody could have imagined this. Because it still not real basketball.”

By real, LeGarie means these games don’t count. They’re as vaporous as preseason clashes, like spring training in baseball or the NFL’s forced purchases on season-ticket holders before its regular season.

But three factors have helped overcome that underlying meaninglessness. First, most of the participating players find great value in these games. They’re the free agents, G League veterans and undrafted players scrapping for a job or at least one more look. They play hard. And they offer compelling stories, guys rising up from their schools of hard knocks rather than the one-and-done basketball academies.

Second, the opportunity to get an early glimpse of a lottery pick – James back in 2003, Lonzo Ball filling the Thomas & Mack with Lakers fans in 2017, Zion Williamson selling out the gym two years later and now Wembanyama – entices a growing number of fans. Just like college hoops has a following that loves the recruiting more than the actual games, the NBA has folks who love the offseason as much as or more than the season.

Said LeGarie: “We’ve always said, ‘Stars of tomorrow today.’ People say, yeah, that’s just a marketing tool. No. The last All-Star Game in Utah – except for LeBron, who’s an anomaly – every player came from here.” One of the hallways to the players’ locker rooms at Thomas & Mack sports murals of the league’s stars who cut their teeth at LVSL, including Steph Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Scottie Barnes.

The third factor that keeps fans coming, in LeGarie’s view, is the quality of the operation. “We know it’s not an NBA game, but it’s a genuine NBA experience,” he said. “You look here, production values and everything else, you feel like you’re in an NBA gym. Sight lines, impressions and perceptions. That becomes a lot of people’s reality.”

Celebrities in the seats, baby races at halftime, replays on the video board, all of it replicates what gets served up 41 times a year in each of the 30 NBA markets. An “NBA Con” event featuring appearances by former players and panel discussion was added this year, another destination for fans not unlike the extravaganzas staged during All-Star Weekends for people who couldn’t score tickets to see the Sunday game or Saturday events themselves.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West discuss their NBA journeys during a panel discussion at NBA Con in Las Vegas.

“We’re trying to create an atmosphere where more and more people are going to say, ‘I’ve got to go back’ and ‘I’m going to tell my friends about it,’” LeGarie said. “The best marketing in the world is word of mouth because it’s genuine.”

There are other challenges. The climate is rough, especially for seniors or those from more temperate locales. “It’s hotter than heck,” LeGarie said. “You worry about people coming in because the parking is far.”

Security is a priority as well. LeGarie believes that the current approach with local police and NBA security has shifted efforts to prevention rather than reaction.

“The NBA is a great partner. They support us, they get us the resources,” he said. “Ultimately, the NBA is the one who says we’re authorized to use their logo. We understand they’re the bosses.”

Oh, one more thing: The basketball. The inspiration for summer leagues, after all, was to develop players and find some unpolished gems from the sport’s outskirts. Provide a newcomer orientation for draft picks and coaching staffs, while pointing players toward training camp with workout regimens and playbooks.

Now they’re doing sideline interviews, providing network content (all games are televised), signing autographs, taking selfies and posting them on Instagram. Scouts and executives have to share the gyms with thousands of spectators – even the small Cox Pavilion holds about 3,500 – compared to the sparse crowds or no-fans policy at older, rival summer leagues.

New Pistons coach Monty Williams is one of several peers a little wary of the entertainment takeover at LVSL. “I liked Orlando,” he said. “I loved Utah. I think anytime you can get your players in the gym, it’s beneficial. Especially young teams.”

Silas recalled, 20 years ago, how loud it was at UMass’ gym. “I remember trying to yell to LeBron before the jump ball, and it was so loud in there for a summer league game,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘This is different.’”

But that was a one-off, a joint that seated about 2,500 and rarely drew that many. No TV, no social media.

Now, with Summer League definitely staged in upper-case? “I think it’s still worthwhile because of the practice time you get with ‘em,” Silas said. “They get to know you, you get to know them. These are just the games. Just a small part of it. The practices and the camaraderie that’s built, and the relationships, those are the biggest things.”

Las Vegas continues to get mentioned as a likely choice for NBA expansion, with James already trying to call dibs on the market, T-Mobile Arena as an existing possible home and a development company, Oak View Group, pitching a $3 billion arena-and-casino complex as an option in the near future. The NBA’s alliance with the city will continue in December when the semifinals and championship game of its inaugural In-Season Tournament will be staged here.

In the meantime, the LVSL thrives and expands, with some concern that it might outgrow its current footprint on the UNLV campus. Might it get too big one of these summers?

Said LeGarie, smiling: “Let’s hope so.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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