As Vegas enters era of pro teams, summer league remains a constant
Sam Wasson / Getty Images Sport / Getty

LAS VEGAS - Certain cities have particular smells. The aroma of Las Vegas is one of air conditioning, perfume, and cigarettes.

It’s one of the most unique cities on Earth, and beyond the throngs of tourists and others cramming the strip at 2 a.m., breathing that distinctive air, there’s an authentic community - one to which professional sports remain novel.

Sin City's offering of major pro sports was relegated to the NBA's summer league until the Vegas Golden Knights burst onto the scene with an unprecedented run to the Stanley Cup Final this spring (the Oakland Raiders are also coming to town in 2020 via Oakland).

Growing from a handful of squads during its inaugural 2004 season, this is the first year in which all 30 NBA clubs are fielding a team. A permanent franchise here may never happen; the Tim Donaghy gambling scandal seemed to derail any talk of that a decade ago, and both the NHL and NFL have since beaten the Association to the punch.

Make no mistake, though, this remains a basketball town - and not merely because of UNLV's NCAA dominance decades ago or the countless NBAers, including DeMarcus Cousins and Tyronn Lue, who make their homes here.

And in the month of July, it’s at its apex.

"I mean look, all fathers love their kids, OK?" agent Warren LeGarie told theScore with a laugh Wednesday on the floor of the Thomas and Mack Center. The summer league is LeGarie's brainchild, as he was the first to raise the idea with former NBA commissioner David Stern almost two decades ago. As it’s grown, the event has become instrumental in further building the NBA’s brand and ensconcing it as year-round entertainment.

"It gets more daunting, (there’s) more demand, and like always we have to prove we’re up to the task, and we think we are," LeGarie said.

The summer league's success is impressive considering the quality of basketball can often be charitably described as atrocious. While top draft picks and sophomores looking to improve are the main draws, the rest of the rosters are filled out with players looking for a long-shot NBA contract. And with abbreviated practice time, it's common to witness a lot of pocket passes to nobody and behind-the-back dishes to fans in the first row.

Yet the event remains a must-do on the NBA calendar for the sheer amount of basketball know-how on hand. Only at the NBA Finals or All-Star weekend could one see legends like Bill Russell, coaches such as Steve Kerr and media insiders including Adrian Wojnarowski over a three-second span - many of them dressed for the golf course.

A major factor in its popularity among fans, however, remains the Los Angeles market - especially in the form of Lakers faithful. Only a four-hour drive through the desert, L.A. provided 38 percent of the summer league’s attendees in 2016, according to data cited by the New York Times’ Kevin Draper - and that doesn't even count last summer's circus when the LVSL set an attendance record of 128,000.

"Last year you had the whole Lonzo Ball effect, and when LaVar came through, people were going nuts," said Gilbert Manzano, a reporter with the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Manzano believes the unique niche that summer league caters to will always keep it as a Vegas staple in July, with fans bolting indoors as the concrete outside bakes in 116-degree heat. But as a reporter already on the Raiders beat, he thinks that pro football will ultimately reign supreme in Sin City.

"I get emails once a week saying, 'We’re not going to care for the Raiders, they’re not homegrown, not Las Vegas grown, we’re all about the Golden Knights,'" he said. "But it’s the NFL. Once the Raiders come here, they’re gonna be all about the Raiders."

Manzano does concede that local aggravation over public funding of the Raiders' new $2-billion stadium has left a sour taste in some mouths, but points out how short memories tend to be.

"They’re kind of mad about the whole tax thing on the stadium. But once they see the shiny new stadium on the 15 freeway I think the locals will jump on board," he said.

T-Mobile Arena - the Golden Knights' privately funded stadium - opened in 2016, a year ahead of the team's debut. It’s a state-of-the-art facility located steps from the strip. When asked if that sort of bling could draw the summer league away from the UNLV campus - the only home it's ever known - LeGarie left the door open slightly.

"We obviously stay focused on where we’re at, but we always try to keep an open mind," he said.

While ancient by today’s arena standards at 35 years old, Thomas and Mack remains a first-class facility, with the newer Cox Pavilion attached.

"This has been so successful because of the accessibility, in terms of fans, and between the two gyms, it’s so seamless," LeGarie said. "And with the amount of teams, you have to have two gyms."

While not an actual franchise, summer league has become part of the fabric of the NBA. But as far as pro teams - current and future - in Vegas go, Manzano doesn't buy the argument that the city can't support more than one.

"People just think Las Vegas is the strip and around it, but you’ve got Summerlin, Henderson, Centennial Hills," he said of the metropolitan area that houses 2.3 million people. "So if cities like Nashville can hold two teams, why can’t Vegas?"

Whether or not an NBA franchise ever comes here is immaterial because the Las Vegas Summer League has become a unique tradition all on its own. And like most of everything else in Vegas, it's for fun.

As Vegas enters era of pro teams, summer league remains a constant
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