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Summer League Fans City's Hope for NBA

The success of the nine-day event, which has grown from six to 16 teams in three years, underscores Las Vegas' pro basketball push.

July 13, 2006|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Summertime in the desert meant the temperature was still 104 degrees on a recent evening as the shadows stretched out from Cox Pavilion. It was a time for baseball, with the major league All-Star game displayed on the big screens of the sports books in the nearby casinos. It was a time for boxing, with Fernando Vargas and Shane Mosley appearing at the MGM Grand Hotel in preparation for Saturday night's junior-middleweight fight.

But inside Cox Pavilion, although the NBA title has long been decided and the NBA draft is history, it was still basketball time.

This is a city that is lobbying heavily for its own NBA team. There is hope steps are being taken in that direction. Next season's NBA All-Star game will be held here. The U.S. men's basketball team will convene here later this month in preparation for the world championships in Japan, with a game against the Puerto Rican squad scheduled for Thomas & Mack Center, next door to Cox Pavilion, on Aug. 3. There will also be a reunion of 200 former NBA and ABA players here later this month.

And for the past week, this has been the center of the NBA universe as owners, general managers, coaches, scouts, players and fans have descended on Cox Pavilion for the NBA-sanctioned Vegas Summer League, consisting of 40 games over a nine-day span that concludes Friday.

In its third year, this has become the premier summer league in the country with 16 teams competing. It has snatched the spotlight away from the Long Beach summer league, which is down to four teams including the Lakers.

To the casual observer, the scene inside Cox appears to be quite less stressful than a typical NBA game, even an exhibition. Ten teams shuttle in and out to play the five-game daily schedule in a playground atmosphere. The quarters are only 10 minutes long. Fans and front-office personnel are dressed as if they just came from the pool.

Even the scoreboard operator isn't fully focused, giving two points to the Clippers in a game Tuesday night before realizing they should have been awarded to the Houston Rockets.

But not everybody succumbs to the laid-back feeling. This is serious business for:

* Amare Stoudemire of the Phoenix Suns, who is here to sharpen his skills after sitting out all but three games last season because of knee injuries.

* Andrea Bargnani of the Toronto Raptors, the NBA's No. 1 draft pick, who is getting his first feel for the NBA hardwood.

* Ron Artest of the Sacramento Kings, who is happy to be out of the heat of controversy and focusing on basketball.

It's not, however, as if the pressure is entirely off simply because this is a low-key event, in which the won-lost record is inconsequential and no champion is crowned.

Clippers owner Donald Sterling has been sitting courtside, checking out his future talent.

Portland Trail Blazer owner Paul Allen has a private telecast of his team's games, complete with announcers, beamed to him.

The NBA network is televising 22 of the league's games and the Madison Square Garden network is showing all five of the New York Knicks' games live.

Along with stars like LeBron James, who stop by to schmooze, the stands are filled with scouts from Italy, France, Spain, Russia, Japan, China, Argentina and Korea, hoping to sign players deemed not quite ready for the NBA's prime time.

"This is now the hot stove league of the NBA," said Albert Hall, a former member of the Seattle Supersonics' front office, who helps run the league with agent Warren LaGarie, its founder and chief executive. "There is a lot of business being done here."

LaGarie said he pushed NBA Commissioner David Stern to agree to a Las Vegas league in an attempt to emulate the summer league that once ran at Loyola Marymount. "That was the gold standard," LaGarie said.

With complaints about the structure and organization of the Long Beach enterprise, the Vegas operation has mushroomed from six teams in its first season; Long Beach has shrunk from eight teams.

Of course it hasn't hurt that Las Vegas itself, with its casinos, glamorous hotels and golf courses, serves as a backdrop to attract players.

But the success of this league doesn't guarantee this town a franchise. Issues of operating in a gambling town and a new arena must still be solved.

Until then, Las Vegas can at least brag about the nine days every year when it is truly NBA central.

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