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Dribbles and dreams

Hoop hopefuls hit town with that classic Vegas vision— leaving richer

Image
No. 1 NBA draft pick Blake Griffin.
Photo: Justin M. Bowen

Nearly 3,000 have crammed themselves into the Cox Pavilion—the smaller venue connected to the Thomas & Mack Center—to watch basketball.

At 2 p.m. On a Monday. In July.

They’ve come more than four hours before next-big-thing Blake Griffin, the first pick in last month’s NBA draft, will make his professional debut by scoring seven points in 71 seconds. For now, they watch journeymen basketball players wearing mesh reversible jerseys, similar to those distributed at the beginning of gym class.

They hear the squeak of high tops on the hardwood floor. The whistles. The deep voices calling “ball” or “pick.” And, for all the mystique of the crack of a wood bat on a ball, they hear what may be the quintessential sound in American sports: the deep thundering beat of a basketball being dribbled.

There are worse places to ride out a 110-degree day than an air-conditioned gym. And you can’t get much more for $25 in this town.

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From the Archives
What happens outside of the NBA Summer League, stays off the record (almost) (7/22/08)
From the Calendar
NBA Summer League Schedule
Through July 16
various times
$15-$25 for day passes
Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion
NBA Summer League 2009

Over the span of nine days, the NBA Summer League—combined with a mini camp for the USA Men’s National Team July 22-25 and series of high-level high school tournaments later this month—turns Las Vegas into the international crossroads of basketball. The summer league, featuring 22 teams and more than 250 players, makes the UNLV campus a one-stop shopping mall for team owners, coaches, scouts, agents, players, media types, groupies, autograph hounds and various other hangers-on.

It fits Las Vegas like a headband cocked just so.

Basketball and Vegas both thrive on showmanship best enjoyed in television highlight reels. Jaw-dropping ally-oops and aggressive blocks entice basketball junkies, not unlike the way the panorama shots of the bright Strip lights lure tourists.

The city and the game are both packed with the promise of excitement. The hope that a few rare moments will make your jaw drop momentarily, giving you a story to tell. In between these moments lies everything else: the cab rides and losing hands; the missed three-pointers and foul calls.

At the summer league, 15 minutes after one game ends, the next begins, and the focus changes from frustrated first-round pick Jonny Flynn tossing a headband into the crowd following opponent Robin Lopez’s 24-point, 16-rebound performance for the Phoenix Suns to the Griffin debut across the hall at the big arena.

The players disappear beyond the bleachers into makeshift locker rooms, basically corners of the gym covered by translucent red drapery. Most will never be heard from again. They are here mainly to audition for the dozens of thick-accented men recruiting for overseas teams.

Not so for Griffin. The only time he might play in Europe is in the 2012 Olympics in London. Griffin is the headliner, the Bette Midler of the summer league. Dozens wear red, white and blue Los Angeles Clippers No. 32 jerseys. The fans got Griffin shirts, it seems, before Griffin did.

On cue, he wins the opening tip, jogs down the court and scores. He follows with the kind of bank shot you’d have to call in a game of H.O.R.S.E. Then a long three-pointer.

At 6:16 of the first quarter Griffin gives his jersey-clad followers their moment. He takes a pass, turns around a helpless defender, dribbles once and slams the ball with two hands. The rim springs back to life as he turns away with a smirk.

Despite the raw beauty of the play—to be seen hundreds of time on cable television—few people will remember the specifics of this game in a week, much as they can’t recall what, exactly, they witnessed at Cirque du Soleil.

They just know it was special. Someone doing something better than just about anyone else on the planet, whether it’s a contortionist, a lounge singer or a 20-year-old kid putting an orange leather ball in a 10-foot-high hoop.

People will talk about having seen something unique. Which, after all, is the premise and promise of Las Vegas.

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