Las Vegas Sun

November 24, 2014

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Practice packs them in

Ron Kantowski sees interest in pro basketball growing in Las Vegas, as evidenced by Summer League crowds

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Sam Morris

The Sacramento Kings take on the Toronto Raptors on Saturday during the NBA Summer League at Cox Pavilion.

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Charlotte Bobcats coach Larry Brown, left, signs vintage photos for Jerry Ankenbauer during Saturday's game.

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A funny thing happened on the way to the mini-Forum — er, Cox Pavilion — Saturday afternoon.

A scalper approached and wanted to know if I had “any extras.”

Then a second one did the same thing.

And then a third.

“Hey Badge Man,” said the grinning fellow, who was sporting an unruly Afro and plaid shorts and sort of reminded me of former Golden State Warriors coach Al Attles. “Got any you don’t need?”

No. And I told him I didn’t have anything to do with the Kennedy Assassination; didn’t know Woody Harrelson’s old man; that, in fact, I was two time zones away from the grassy knoll and six years old when it happened. I told this proponent of the free enterprise system they gave me the badge when I started working for the newspaper.

“How much you want for it?” he said before we exchanged a laugh and a fist bump.

Scalpers at the NBA Summer League? Call the Warren Commission. This demands an investigation.

I don’t know how it happened, but Las Vegas has become an NBA Summer League town. Orlando, Fla., is also an NBA Summer League town, although it should be Tampa-St. Pete, because it sure isn’t a Major League Baseball town.

When it comes to live sports, Las Vegas has always been like Mikey, the stubborn kid from the old Life cereal commercial. We hate everything. Especially if the players are only wearing practice uniforms.

OK, we didn’t exactly hate the Summer League when it launched, or mostly fizzled on the pad, with six teams in 2004. We just ignored it. Maybe it was because Nikoloz Tskitishvili was the league’s leading scorer that year. He now plays for Siviglia Wear Teramo in Serie A in Italy. Serie A is a good place to play soccer. Not so much basketball. ESPN called the Big Nik — not to be confused with Patrick Ewing, who was the Big Knick — the worst lottery pick ever.

About the only thing I remember about subsequent Summer Leagues is they wouldn’t go away.

But that changed last year when Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, the top two millionaires in the NBA draft, showed up along with all those future stars of the Turkey Professional League. The Vegas Summer League even set attendance records. This year the top two lottery picks, Chicago’s Derrick Rose and Miami’s Michael Beasley, are playing matador defense at Disney World.

Yet a capacity crowd turned out Friday to watch O.J. Mayo leap a tall building — or at least what constitutes transition defense for New Orleans Hornets wannabes — in a single bound. Mayo’s rim-rattling dunk led the NBA’s version of the Spare Bears, the summertime Memphis Grizzlies, to a victory that, although counting for nothing, must have created a buzz for the next day’s game, because why else would I be approached by scalpers?

When I walked into the gym — er, Pavilion — I thought Barack Obama was still arguing foreign policy with Hillary Clinton. It was almost as packed as it was in November for the candidates’ debate, only there was no Wolf Blitzer, which is a good thing. There also were no Maloof Brothers because the game started at 1 p.m., which probably meant the Sacramento Kings owners were probably just getting to bed.

The funny thing about the NBA Summer League is that if you added a bracket, a pep band and Billy Packer, it would look just like the NCAA Midwest Regional. For every guy from Grand Valley State and VMI — or at least VMA, as the alma mater of the Mavericks’ Reggie Williams was listed as “Virginia Military Academy” on the roster sheet — there was one from UCLA and Kansas. There were two from Kansas (Darnell Jackson, Billy Thomas) on the Cavaliers alone. In fact, there are so many ex-Jayhawks here (I counted six) that I half expected Clyde Lovellette to show up with high-top Cons and a hook shot.

That said, the quality of play is a lot less intense than it is at the Midwest Regional. I’d put in somewhere between shirts and skins at Sunset Park and a good D-League game, which makes sense, considering there are 89 of ’em here — D-Leaguers, not shirts and skins, although C.J. Watson, the former Bishop Gorman star who is trying to keep his spot with the Warriors, deserves a spot in the Shirts Hall of Fame after wearing a long-sleeved one under his jersey Friday.

But for whatever reason, Las Vegans are spending $20 a pop to watch it. The average NBA ticket price is $48.03, but who’s to say the locals wouldn’t pay an additional $28.03 if Kobe and LeBron showed up wearing their actual uniforms?

Maybe we are closer to becoming an NBA city than I thought. If they ever put a shovel in the ground on that new arena we’re supposed to be getting, the Al Attles look-alikes doing business out front are going to be very, very happy.

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