LAS VEGAS — There was a time in this town when a high-roller, sitting on two kings in a game of blackjack, would ask for another card before the NBA would ask for Las Vegas.
The league wanted nothing to do with Sin City for a variety of reasons — betting was at the heart of it — but lo and behold, the NBA chose to stage a splashy new showpiece basketball tournament here with plenty at stake.
And if the final round of the In-Season Tournament is successful this week, what’s about to happen in Vegas could stay in Vegas a long time.
So we have a sweetheart’s dance between a city with no NBA franchise — for now, anyway — and a league that’s ramping up its business ties to a place it once kept in the friend zone.
Let’s survey the current (and cozy) relationship:
- The NBA Summer League is the annual July basketball carnival that draws thousands of fans fired up to see a few heavily hyped incoming rookies … and scores of dreamers who won’t cash an NBA gameday check.
- The NBA owners hold their yearly meetings in Las Vegas to coincide with Summer League, which means for a few days, the league headquarters shifts from New York City.
- Las Vegas serves as a spot for talent showcases. Last year, Victor Wembanyama made his first U.S. appearance when his French team played the NBA G League Ignite and Scoot Henderson.
- The WNBA is already rooted in the desert with the Las Vegas Aces — make that the back-to-back WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces — who have a devoted fan base.
- USA Basketball holds its training camp in Las Vegas, and every four years some of the best American NBA players spend a few weeks here to prep for the Summer Olympics.
With Las Vegas one of the country’s fastest-growing metros, some form of a relationship was inevitable. Besides, sports wagering is now all the rage, and with guidelines in place, fears have subsided.
After all, the NFL (Las Vegas Raiders) and NHL (Las Vegas Golden Knights) had similar concerns and are already here, with Major League Baseball soon bringing the Oakland A’s.
So, it’s on. And the bond began two decades ago when a colorful mayor gave an NBA commissioner an offer he couldn’t refuse (but he did anyway).
‘Get Lost, Vegas.’
When Oscar Goodman became mayor here in 1999, he had a few goals: Improve the educational and health systems first and foremost, and get a professional sports team.
He and a few staffers flew to Manhattan, headquarters of the Big Four leagues, where Goodman hoped to use his persuasive powers to plant seeds. Goodman was a character — charming with a dry sense of humor.
As a defense attorney, Goodman represented organized crime figures with shifty nicknames: Lefty, Tony the Ant and Fat Herbie, among others. He made a cameo, playing himself, in the movie “Casino” with Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro.
He lunched with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and was warmly received.
“He indicated Vegas was a terrific spot for hockey,” said Goodman, but there were no immediate plans for relocation or expansion.
Goodman and crew then walked a few blocks to the NBA office of David Stern, and it didn’t go so well.
“It’s not going to happen,” Stern said. “I won’t allow it to happen.”
Stern was hypersensitive about betting and anything that could threaten the integrity of the league, and this was before the Tim Donaghy scandal.
“Sports betting was the line in the sand for him and he showed me the door,” Goodman said. “Well, I might not be the brightest guy in the world, but I am tenacious. From that point on, I was like a little dog nipping at his heel every time I had the opportunity to do that.”
Then, after a few chance meetings over the next few years — interactions described by Goodman as “very cordial” — came a breakthrough.
“I guess I aggravated him so much that he came to my office and sat across the desk from me and said, ‘OK, you win.,'” Goodman said. “I said, ‘What have I won?’
“He said, ‘If you can get the hotels and casinos to say they would like to have the All-Star Game in Las Vegas, I won’t stand in the way.’”
Not ready for prime time
The 2007 All-Star weekend, in and of itself, was successful. The skills contests were well received. The game was competitive and Kobe Bryant won MVP.
Except none of that dominated the post-weekend conversation.
Instead, everything on the outside of Thomas & Mack Center was chaotic and simply insane. It was one of the few times, maybe the only time, that the city was unprepared for a big event.
Vegas was swamped with visitors. The Strip choked with cars and invited foot traffic instead. But the worst part? Foolishness ruled. There were hundreds of arrests. Late-night parties were forced to shut down.
“Some of those who attended the weekend stiffed the wait staff in tips, they went into the hotels and caused nothing but problems, breaking things, throwing things, getting into fights,” Goodman said.
This wasn’t a reflection on the NBA; the league only controlled what happened inside the arena. It was a black eye for Vegas. And a potential step back for Vegas.
“I spoke to the hotels that Monday morning and they thought we made a big mistake and never should’ve supported the NBA coming here,” Goodman said.
He reassured them, explaining the difference between having a team and having the All-Star Game, and how most visitors came to party, not to watch basketball.
Goodman stayed on Stern, who wasn’t discouraged by the behavior. He was discouraged by the arena. Thomas & Mack, on the UNLV campus, was unfit for an NBA franchise. T-Mobile Arena, host of the In-Season Tournament, wasn’t built yet.
Little did anyone know that Thomas & Mack would soon play a role in strengthening Vegas-NBA relations.
Summer hoop heaven
Warren LeGarie was fresh out of college, where he played at Pacific, and working in the produce industry when he stumbled upon a career-changing moment: Watching summer league basketball in L.A.
He never lost his love for the game, and traveling overseas on produce business in the mid-1990s, LeGarie soon found himself immersed in European basketball. He saw a void — players without agents.
One thing led to another, and LeGarie created an agency mainly geared toward representing coaches. He never forgot the summer league, though, and hatched an idea for putting one in Vegas.
Summer leagues then were privately run. LeGarie pitched his tent at UNLV because the campus had adjoining arenas that could simultaneously stage games all day and night.
“When we first started, everyone looked at us cross-eyed,” LeGarie said. “We had doubters. But if you work hard, do right, don’t worry about tomorrow and make sure you focus your energy on today, good things can happen. We like to think we’re an example of that.”
It was a great success. Teams sent squads of rookies and free agents to Vegas. Rival summer leagues perished. LeGarie had a monopoly that’s now almost 20 years old. And after selling Stern on the idea, LeGarie partnered with the NBA.
Stern retired and Adam Silver, the new and current commissioner, poured more league resources into the Summer League.
“Adam has a good vision,” LeGarie said. “There’s so much more beyond The Strip. There was so much more than the gambling. Ultimately it was a community looking for an identity.
“We like to believe we helped to develop that identity.”
The NBA Summer League — “See the stars of tomorrow today” is the slogan — is big on the NBA calendar and a hit with media partners. All the future greats of this generation — Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, etc. — were NBA-born in Vegas.
And Vegas has turned out for the Summer League as well.
“We do a standalone game for our championship night,” LeGarie said. “Everyone assumes we get 200 fans. We get 11,000 fans because it’s a meaningful game. We’ve surprised people for the last six to seven years by how many people come out in Vegas on a Monday night.”
Vegas strengthens its case
The three In-Season Tournament games this week in Vegas — two Semifinals and the Championship — should be well-received locally. The 2007 All-Star Weekend is a ghost of the past.
“Remember, we had terrific teams at UNLV under Jerry Tarkanian,” Goodman said. “Those games sold out. The Summer League sells out. So, it’s a basketball town.”
The end game, of course, is an expansion franchise. Silver has said expansion won’t be discussed until after the media rights deal, which expires in 2025, is settled. Most observers believe Vegas and Seattle are the favorites.
“I think it’s inevitable an NBA franchise will be here,” Goodman said. “No promises have been made, but it’s just natural. Las Vegas has everything for everybody. And now there’s a history of success in sports with the Golden Knights, the Aces, Raiders, UFC.
“The owners are all smart men and women,” Goodman said. “They know this is a very fertile area. Just a matter of time. It’s when, not if.”
LeGarie is less certain — “There are always moving parts to these things” — but he likes the odds:
“Everybody who has bet against Vegas, they lost. They don’t win.”
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