Basketball fans who venture into the oven-like heat of Las Vegas to watch NBA Summer League know the actual basketball they watch is likely to be a gamble. The key to enjoying the annual summer tournament is to take in the entertainment value and make the most of the atmosphere.
Embrace the entertainment
Blazer fans were hungry for a win on Tuesday afternoon and the players took their time delivering it in true Summer League style.
Portland coach Dale Osbourne looked like he was working just as hard and sweating just as much as his young players. He threw his arms up, kicked his legs out, clutched his head, and twisted his body to try and will the ball into the basket. If he could have jumped in the game and made a play himself, I think he would have.
Just prior to the end of the first overtime, with the Blazers up by four, all three coaches jumped off the bench and waved their arms wildly. "Don’t foul! Don’t foul!" they all screamed.
And because it is Summer League, the Blazers committed a foul. Utah fans cheered wildly as Spencer Butterfield calmly hit his first two free throws, purposely missed the third, and allowed a fantastic tip-in by Trey Lyles to tie it at the buzzer.
And also because it is Summer League, the second over time was sudden death. Pat Connaughton ended the contest by burying a three (read Connaughton’s reaction to making the shot), and the Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Utah Jazz 92-89. (Timmay has the details in his game recap).
Enjoy the atmosphere
So check off the box for entertainment value. And now here is a recap of the atmosphere.
I walked the concourse for three days, ducked into nine different games (I think, I kind of lost count), piling up experiences like a hungry athlete in the buffet line. I saw tons of current, former, and up-and-coming basketball stars: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Rudy Gobert, Juwan Howard, Earl Watson, Steve Kerr, Terry Stotts, Karl Anthony Townes, Andrew Wiggins, Isaiah Thomas, Adam Silver, Kiki Vandewegh, not to mention Ben Simmons, Kris Dunn, Brandon Ingram, and Portland’s own Jake Layman, all of whom I watched multiple times.
I met moms, uncles and girlfriends of players and staff. I listened in on shop talk between agents and scouts (less interesting than I thought it would be). I attended a Lakers game and had a (gasp!) surprisingly good time. I listened to expert-level heckling from a 12-year-old, learned lots about Australian players, chatted with Jim Lynam, shook Bernie Bickerstaff’s hand, and heard stories about Jack Ramsay.
One of my favorite parts of the trip was meeting fans from around the league. The best place to meet them? At the cell phone charging station. Neither big-time European scouts nor proud grandmothers of the ball-boys are immune to the scourge of a drained battery.
On Sunday I met Sue, a long-time Denver Nugget fan who reports that Will Barton is just as popular with the Nuggets as he was with the Blazers. She is a sports and exercise psychologist from the Denver area. I talked Sue into watching the Blazers play the Jazz with me on Tuesday.
Sue shared some of her favorite basketball memories including meeting David Thompson after his 73-point game during the 1978 scoring race with George Gervin. She also told a story about being one of only two fans to see the team off at the airport as they departed to take on the Seattle SuperSonics in Game 5 of the first round of the 1994 playoffs. After the No. 8 seeded Nuggets' surprising win over the No. 1 seeded Sonics, there were thousands of fans when the team returned to the airport. Sue and her son were given VIP treatment and allowed on the tarmac with the wives and families because staff remembered they were there there to send them off.
During the game I also enjoyed sitting near Blazer fan Amanda who played college basketball and gave insightful commentary from a coach's perspective. She called the plays as they unfolded and named small adjustments that the players could make to sharpen their play.
Amanda has been a Blazer fan since the late 90s. Some of the most memorable characters for her were Zach Randolph, Damon Stoudemire and Rasheed Wallace. When asked who her favorite Blazer is, she thought hard before saying Damian Lillard. She cited the quality of his character, his approach to competition and how he owns being a leader of the team. After hearing her commentary I wondered what advice she would have for the team this coming season. She said she would remind them: There is no super team.
Summer League play ranges from brilliant to bust, often in the course of a single possession. What starts as a monster block on one end might lead to a missed dunk on the other end followed by a mighty collision under the basket leaving bodies all over the floor and the ball flying into the stands.
Summer League fans know what to expect and show up for the love of the game. We come back because we recognize kindred souls.