This past summer, I got the long-awaited opportunity to attend three days of Las Vegas Summer League. It turned out to be my favorite NBA experience ever (except for watching MJ play live in the ‘80s because come on … he’s the GOAT). Up to 8 games a day for $30 bucks? You can't beat that for value. But what I enjoyed most is that I got to appreciate the NBA and its players on a much more personal level.
Before I describe what I mean by that, a brief introduction. I’m a 41 year old, lifelong Washington Wizards fan originally from the DC area. Literally half of my wardrobe is Wizards apparel. Sad, I know. I also try to watch every Wizards game through my NBA League Pass subscription, and I'm a frequent commenter on Wizards fan boards. I’m kind of a loser. But I love the game of basketball and especially the Wizards.
So before the Wizards first Summer League game against the Memphis Grizzlies in Cox Pavilion, I was beyond excited. I was with my brother on a trip to celebrate his 40th birthday. (Don't worry, my trip didn't descend into The Hangover type hijinks. Unless you count the tiger in our hotel room. Just kidding.) My brother and I found seats two rows behind the Wizards bench, and I watched the players warm up.
I left to use the public bathroom outside Cox. (For some odd reason, I need to have an empty bladder before I watch a sporting event, go to a movie or even eat dinner. Does anyone else have this issue?) As I entered the men's room, Daniel Ochefu, a seven foot, backup center with the Wizards, rushed in. He was in full Wizards uniform. I kind of did a double take. He settled into a urinal two over from me.
Now, I know it’s not appropriate to speak with another man when he’s got his junk hanging out. And I’m sure “Chef”, as he’s known, wanted to just focus on his task and get back to the team. But I couldn’t not say anything either. It’s not every day that I run into a Wizards player, and I had an important message to convey.
“Good luck, man,” I managed, trying to act as casual as possible. I know it sounds corny, but I really, really meant it. I wanted Chef to break out of his funk and do well. I was hoping that he felt my Jedi mind trick.
For those who don't know him, Chef has the skills and size to be a contributing role player on an NBA team but often displays a frustrating lack of aggression. His shoulders are always slumped, like he’s carrying the world on his shoulders.
“Thanks,” Chef murmured back, not making eye contact. He had a weary and forlorn look on his face. We went our separate ways.
What separates a professional basketball player from an average rec league player? Of course, there’s height and athleticism. But there’s something else. As I watched the Wizards-Grizzlies game from practically court side seats, the answer hit me. It’s not something I could truly understand from watching games on TV or my usual nosebleed seats. These players play with force. Every single action has an intention. And players are constantly in motion.
Kevin Pangos was the Wizards starting point guard in this game. He’s what I would call a “body”. A former Gonzaga Bulldog, he - like so many other anonymous players - had no chance whatsoever of making the final roster. He’s undersized and doesn’t have NBA level talent. But every Summer League team needs a point guard to distribute the ball, and that’s why he was there. I was sitting next to Pangos’s family, and they beamed with pride. I started rooting hard for Pangos, a guy I wouldn't have paid attention to otherwise. I went to Summer League to watch the future stars, but it's players like Pangos that stuck with me afterwards.
By the way, are you curious as to what NBA coaches are always yelling on the sidelines? No, it's not a steady stream of expletives. The most frequent instruction for the Wizards Summer League coach: "Hands!" I heard it over and over and over again. As Mark Jackson says, "Hand down, man down!" It was good to hear that the Wizards were emphasizing defense, one of their weak spots last year.
The Wizards played a hard fought game against the Grizzlies but lost on a missed Sheldon Mac three pointer at the buzzer. Chef dominated as if he was the second coming of Draymond Green, finishing with 13 points, 5 blocks, 4 offensive rebounds, and at least 2 snarly faces. I felt proud. In my heart, I’d like to believe that my minor exchange with him had something to do with his performance, even though I know that’s absolutely ludicrous. But seriously, did it?
After the game, I went into the concourse and saw Wizards head coach Scott Brooks snacking on some popcorn and casually chatting with a Wizards beat reporter. I asked him for a photo and he happily obliged. I also asked him if he would sign the Summer League Program for my son, and he good-naturedly chided me, “You look like you’re 20.” He was so down to earth, I felt like I could have asked him basketball questions for hours and he’d have been too polite to decline. As fans, we're always clamoring for the coach to be fired or a player to be benched, but it gets harder to do that when you meet them in person. Sometimes, I wish fans would have a bit more empathy because most NBA players/coaches seem to be genuinely nice dudes.
I then went outside with my brother to catch an Uber to the Hard Rock Hotel for some lunch. Outside the Thomas & Mack Center entrance, I found several Wizards players waiting for their rides: Chris McCullough, Jared Cunningham, and Ike Diogu, a 33 year old journeyman on probably his last Summer League invite. Someone asked Diogu if he got to play. “Nah”, he mumbled, his head down. Defeated. My heart broke for him. Is this how it all ends? With barely a whimper?
As I went around the building to locate my Uber driver, I spied Kelly Oubre Jr., an up and coming wing player with the Wizards, and his Dad all by themselves in the parking lot. I approached Kelly for a quick picture. His cell phone rang. I was losing my golden opportunity! Apparently he couldn’t find his Uber ride either. He hung up quickly and apologized for the intrusion. He graciously took a picture with me, his arm draped over my shoulder as if I was an old pal from college.
I told him that I enjoyed a Washington Post article about his interest in fashion. You know, small talk with an NBA player. No biggie. He responded that, as a matter of fact, he was on his way to Fashion Week in NYC. He was so chill, but I decided that I wasn’t going to take up more of his time.
For the next two days, I watched players like Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson and Dennis Smith Jr. up close and personal. Some of the rookies struggled, others seemed like they'd been doing this for years. Tatum, Smith Jr. and Donovan Mitchell, in particular, looked to me right away like they could be special. But there's something I found curious as I put on my wannabe GM hat. Why is it that certain players who thrived in Summer League, like Malik Beasley of the Denver Nuggets or Wayne Selden of the Grizzlies, find it so difficult to get significant playing time on the main roster? Is it a numbers game? Is it luck? Or are they just not good enough? In any case, if I'm a GM, I'm keeping a mental Rolodex of players like these to include in future trades.
A huge highlight for me was all the NBA stars who paraded through to support their teams.
My last day of Summer League, I found a seat a few rows behind the Wizards bench in the Thomas & Mack Center for their next game against Big Bad Bam Adebayo and the Miami Heat. Two hardcore Boston Celtics fans promptly sat next to me. We engaged in some good-natured ribbing about our respective teams. That's another fun thing about Summer League. You get to talk shop with other basketball nuts. It's therapeutic because you realize that you are not alone.
At the time, Scott Brooks was talking with an assistant coach on the sideline. He looked up into the stands and recognized me. He waved. With everything on his mind, I was super impressed that he remembered me. It was a cool moment. A little while later, John Wall and Bradley Beal sat directly in front of me in the stands. I was in basketball heaven.
So that’s why I loved Summer League. In a small way, the event made me feel like I was a part of my favorite team. It brought out the kid in me because normally I'm the type of guy that's unfazed by celebrity and hoopla. It was the kind of experience, that as a fan, you can’t get anywhere else.
As you can probably tell, I highly recommend making the trip to Summer League at least once. If you get the chance to go, here are my tips for making the most of it.
1. To snag the best seats, especially in Thomas & Mack, get to the arena at least 30 minutes before doors open (usually at 12 pm). Seats are first come first served, and once doors open, it's a mad dash to get inside.
If I remember correctly, Section 105 is the “home” team bench and Section 107 is the “away” team bench. Those sections are on the opposite side of the arena entrance, so you'll have to hustle if you want to make it there before everyone else.
2. If the Lakers are playing, get to the arena even earlier. Lakers fans represent the largest fan base by far at Summer League. They are loud and annoying, but they also make the event fun. It was awesome to see Lakers fans getting amped up with each one of Lonzo Ball's passes and then to check out Lavar Ball's boisterous reactions.
3. Once you claim a seat, it's yours for the entire day until you choose to vacate it. That also means if your team is playing later in the day at Thomas and Mack, you will still need to arrive early to claim the best seats.
4. If you need to get up from your seat to go to the bathroom, grab some food, or take a selfie in your Jayson Tatum uni, have a buddy save your seat. If anyone asks about your seat, have your buddy say "taken" in a gruff Liam Neeson voice. Then have him execute a perfect chokehold and takedown.
5. A couple of underrated places to get player autographs/pictures are the arena concourse and the parking lot. Players are always milling about or looking lost trying to catch Ubers. In addition to Kelly Oubre Jr., I was able to get a picture with Mark Cuban in the parking lot. (He did not look impressed by my John Wall T-shirt.)
6. You can purchase an official Summer League program or ball for autographs at kiosks located in the concourse. But save yourself $2 and bring your own Sharpie. FYI, you can also bring your own bottled water.
7. Thomas & Mack features the marquee games but watching games at the smaller Cox Pavilion is a much more intimate experience. It’s like going to a high school game.
8. Go ahead and bring that DSLR (but without the telephoto lens). Or if you're daring, bring the telephoto lens.
9. The chicken fingers and fries at the arena are the best food on the menu. Or if you want to be healthy, I recommend the fresh squeezed juice place at the nearby Hard Rock Hotel.
10. If you're a Jerry Stackhouse fan, he loves himself some Sushi Samba at the Palazzo. Not that I was stalking him or anything!
Bonus tip: Hydrate and don't forget to wear sunscreen! It's over 110 degrees outside!
If you have any other questions, feel free to hit me up in the comments.