What Happened In Vegas: Remembering The Old, Anarchic Summer League

This year's NBA Summer League broke ratings and attendance records. There's something to celebrate in that, but something real and fun has also been lost.
July 19, 2017, 8:08pm
Photo by Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

I kept thinking about the jersey. In writing about Lonzo Ball's transcendent and transcendently Summer League-y Summer League earlier this week, I was reminded of the moment during the 2008 Las Vegas Summer League when Nate Robinson's jersey was retired. Or, anyway, a ceremony occurred and three Summer League interns tacked the jersey to the wall of the Cox Pavilion, where it remained, barely, for a few hours. "I know it was on SportsCenter's Top 10, with a video of me and another guy holding it against the wall so a third could to hammer some little pins into it," the former Summer League intern Scott Schroeder remembered. "I know it started to fall down before people left the gym."

This all happened not just because Robinson was a great Summer League player, although he was both a great Summer League player and a greatly Summer League-y player. There was a reason for it, and that reason was because Robinson had returned to the league for four straight summers, through the entirety of his rookie contract with the New York Knicks and beyond. In 2008, when some authority figure or figures involved with the Summer League made the decision to retire his number, Robinson was the league's defending MVP.

But while the jersey and the ceremony were what leapt out at me first—that and the phrase "defending MVP Nate Robinson," which is surely one of the most beautiful in the language—it was the broader "why" of it all that really resonated. For all the reasons to have three interns retire Nate Robinson's jersey in a janky halftime ceremony, there is only one that truly explains it, or really matters at all. And that reason is that this was the NBA Summer League, in 2008.

Under the oversight of executive director Warren LeGarie, the NBA Summer League has gone from a goofy half-official backwater to an increasingly grown-up event. "Serious" isn't quite the right word for a league that is comprised almost entirely of blown defensive assignments, but in all the ways that would matter to a money-making entity like the NBA, the Summer League is serious. It has a corporate sponsor, and games that were once exclusively watched by bloggers, scouts, diehard weirdos, diehard blogger weirdos, and people that got lost on their way to other conventions are now selling out and airing in prime time on ESPN. It is no longer a league that is in the business of retiring the jerseys of players like Nate Robinson. But when it was, during the brief period last decade when the Summer League was both a cult and a scene, it was something beautiful.

But, again, "beautiful" isn't the right word here any more than "serious" is. "In the 10 years I've been going to Vegas Summer League what's not changed is the quality of play," SB Nation NBA League Manager Seth Pollack told me. "It still sucks." As Lonzo Ball's run in Vegas this year illustrated, it sucks in a slightly different and subjectively more enjoyable way than it used to; the individual and collective trends towards unselfishness driven by LeBron James and the Warriors in recent years have lately resulted in a league that's just as raggedy as it was during The Nate Robinson Administration, but with a lot less ball-stopping iso overdetermination. But, as the Vegas Summer League veterans I contacted admitted, the basketball always had less to do with what made the experience special, when it still felt special.

Believe it or not, this dude dominated Summer League in his day. Photo by Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

It was part of it, but it was also an accessible and intimate form of basketball that made it matter. If this seems to you like another way of saying the Summer League of old was a mess, but in a fun way, that's because it is. "Games didn't start on time," Pollack remembers. "Clocks weren't managed properly. Refs were even worse than they are now which, I suspect, is the real reason they allow 10 fouls." As the Summer League has grown and grown up in recent years—Schroeder believes the change has been most dramatic over the last two seasons—it has figured much of that out, and has become something different. Whether it has become worse for that is debatable, and as is generally the case with things like this a question of taste. But while there's still something inherently low-fi and goofy about the Summer League, the league's late-blooming respectability has conspired to build an invisible but perceptible wall where once there was, thrillingly, no barrier at all.

For Schroeder, as an intern, that meant being a part of basically everything that happened in the league. "I used to do a little bit of everything," he said. "Throw t-shirts on the court, play the same 30 songs (that we knew were clean and licensed legally) for 11 days straight and occasionally assist with retiring Nate Robinson's Summer League jersey." This was the hook for those people watching, for whatever strange reasons brought them and their lives to that pass, the barrier-free intimacy of it all—basketball games played, very loosely, by professional-grade players, in mostly empty gyms.

"It was more secret insider cult band in a smallish club than the mega ESPN produced arena event," Pollack told me. "It was Warren LeGarie and his band of low-paid interns and ops staff putting on an AAU tournament with slightly older players and about the same number of agents and hangers on. [And] you could walk into any game in either gym and sit a few rows up from the floor and experience future stars from a vantage point most can't afford. You could HEAR the game and learn how these youngsters interact. Who's a vocal leader (James Harden). Who's just a loudmouth (Brandon Jennings). And whose career was about to end (RIP D.J. Strawberry)."

Some of this, maybe much of it, is non-negotiable. Nothing stays the same, and while people like Pollack may be sitting in the same seats every summer, their perspectives were invariably different from one year to the next. Looking back at what the Summer League was—when it was a place where Randy Foye got buckets in near private, when it was a scene for young obsessives astonished to be as close to the action as they were, and when it was emerging as a shaggy scene in the NBA's fan culture—invariably requires looking back, and the lens of lost youth tends to blow out the colors and bow the edges of the frame outward. The cities we move through in our youth are not in point of fact bigger than the ones we inhabit later in life, but they feel bigger. The Summer League is different than it was eight or ten years ago, but so (hopefully) are you.

Actually maybe some things really don't change. Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

But there is still something to mourn in the Summer League's lost looseness. In the regular league itself, under the laser-guided dominance of the Warriors, there is both a sort of revolution in basketball reason going on and an emergent consensus. For all the inevitably uneven distribution of executive and on-court talent, the balance of power in the league reflects how well or how poorly teams have taken to that revolution, and come to understand that consensus. This won't last forever, but there is still the sense of a cooling and closing across the landscape, a sense in which all the ragged ends that have been raveled up aren't likely to relax ever again. If this has smoothed out the Summer League experience, it has also flattened it.

This is what progress, at least as businesses understand it, tends to do to the landscape. In some ways, this enhanced predictability is a positive for all involved. The players get a more organized and basketball-esque learning experience; scouts get a more predictable evaluative playing field; fans still get to see games up close, but those games start roughly when they're supposed to. But there is an element of mystery lost.

This is not a metaphor. I asked Schroeder how and why Robinson's jersey came to be retired, and this was his response: "That's a great question. I was told by my boss, but he was just a fellow intern. I feel like I saw Warren [LeGarie] and [Summer League VP of Business Operations] Albert [Hall] both explaining to him, but don't remember [the explanation]. I do remember we were told we just have to make it work until the games were over that day...and we failed." It's precisely that thrilling and strange sense of authorlessness, the edge of the uncanny and the startling strangeness that any of this is happening at all, that made Summer League what it was. Where there is ordinarily authority and order, there was once the happy chaos of pure uncoached anarchy; in its place, now, is a slightly smaller version of the usual. This is a small thing to miss, maybe, but you notice when it's gone.