By: Alex Barker
Art by Nate Zemanek
Sitting up with a start in his bed Spitz said, “Pistons get Avery Bradley!” and I didn’t believe him. At this point, I’m immune to even decent Detroit basketball news.
Every year I watch the Pistons. I follow their progress on twitter. I drink the Kool-Aid, and every year it is the mediocrity that wraps its dark cloth around my neck. But not this morning! Bradley, previously an elite defender for the Celtics, is the kind of trusty sword any fan base would love. He tries hard, stays out of trouble, and he plays well. We flipped Marcus Morris, the tatted, mid-range-fadeaway, tough guy of our team to Boston for him, and I’m okay with this, but we get Avery’s expiring deal. He will have one year left on a contract with us; then he’ll be free to sign wherever. Here’s to hoping the new downtown Detroit Little Caesar’s Arena will be the perfect place for a first date and a brief courtship of a great talent. I love the Palace of Auburn Hills, but no young, freshly-minted millionaire player wants to text his friends, “I’m headed to Auburn Hills baby!” I think being in the city should help the Pistons.
Looking out our hotel window, just over our gorgeous volcano-view, we saw the dazzling yellow glare of a Denny’s sign and set course. A quick tango with 80 strangers across The Las Vegas Boulevard and we were well on our way to breakfast ahead of the crowd… well, most of them. A woman went streaming through a gap in the group towards victory after we had asked a worker outside if we were going the right way. When we got in to ask for a table, she stood proudly as her husband finally caught up, catching his breath and making his way to a table before us. I guess even asking for directions is a gamble in some places.
We plowed that food with little talking as we both booted up and checked the streaming twitter updates about Detroit’s acquisition, draining a few cups of coffee. Hovering down the escalator to leave we eyed the Walgreens just a few doors down and made our way for beer and cigarettes. One thing I love and admire about Vegas is that they own the entertainment feel as a community. On the radio, they thank you for being there and listening to music that weekend. I hate myself for saying this, but the Top 40 is a charming reminder that we’re all kind of the same no matter where we live. The Walgreens we headed to continued the theme: covered in light-up flashing hearts, as loud and showy as any other place on the strip. I really hadn’t been in a place that owns service and staying in character since I lived in Orlando during my time with the Disney College Program.
Spitz tossed me the bottle of SPF 50 Coppertone Sport with white globs of the stuff on his eyes and neck. “We may go through this entire bottle right now.” I took it, carefully running a line along all my limbs before rubbing it in like a fine leather craftsman oiling a hide.
“I always miss a spot,” Spitz chirped, grinning, “but I can never figure out WHICH spot it is while I’m putting the sunscreen on.”
Twenty minutes into our sunscreen session we came to a pretty tough realization. As two married dudes, asking any woman to sunscreen our back would be a no-go and asking any other man would send mixed-messages. Reluctant seems too tame for how we both felt about giving a little sunscreen message to each other, but we are whiter than white. I’m borderline see-through. My mom once posted on Facebook that she got a sunburn by sitting on the “sunshine side” of the car. Those are my genetics! Spitz did the true friend thing and complained to me the entire time while making sure each spot was covered.
Down at the pool, we were obvious rookies. Wallets and keys and shirts and seemingly every other possession we owned dripped out of our hands. We walked over to the lockers, but those were 10 bucks for the day, and we’re NBA fans, not players, so that’s a no-go for us right off the bat. Arriving around 10 a.m., we were sure we’d beat the hungover Vegas crowd. Nope. We took a real long stroll around the entire perimeter spotting hundreds of chairs covered with towels that mocked, “sorry, seat’s taken.” Bodies of all shapes and sizes glistened with water and every SPF our poor Coppertone Sport had to offer valiantly battled each of the 110 degrees Vegas offered up. I worried about my precious rainbows melting. Around the back of the perimeter, we spotted a few seats near the sign for the Bare lounge, the OG of topless pools, and set up a resort campground.
The University of Las Vegas Nevada’s (UNLV) Thomas & Mack Center holds a special place in NBA hearts. This is the place where many journeys begin since it is by far the biggest of the three NBA summer leagues. The Thomas & Mack becomes the venue for the shy first dance for so many athletes that have had a Basketball Jones since they could walk. Piling in the doors through the metal detectors, fans in all different colored jerseys drone on in a hushed mumble of hot takes as they make their way to the seats. The tickets were about $30 a piece, and are general admission, so it was first-come, first-serve with three games on slate for the day. Spitz and I got decent seats halfway down the lower bowl right behind some Sacramento Kings fans (they exist!) and right next to a family with young kids. I ran up the stairs to grab our first beers and some food and felt immense pride seeing Grand Rapids, Michigan’s famous Founders All-Day IPA on tap. They even have Founders in the literal desert almost 2,000 miles away.
I was just leaving the food station and walking behind the makeshift set for The Starters, a talk show on NBA TV, when I saw Rachel Nichols walking with a few other guys. I’ve watched Rachel Nichols report on so many different sporting events and on so many different stories that I’m sure I could have recognized her voice even if I hadn’t seen her. This woman walking by me was exactly the kind of little side-moments I was hoping for when I went to Summer League. I’ve always heard the basketball can be fun, and that it’s great to see the young players, but it also acts as a de facto industry convention for all the basketball writers, reporters, analysts, tv and radio personalities and more. Sure enough, I was holding way too much food, and she looked like she was in a hurry, so I didn’t say anything. Next time.
We started the day with Cavs-Bucks, and I didn’t have much of an interest in the game aside from seeing Thon Maker in person. If you never have, YouTube Thon. The 7’1” Sudanese-born Australian and Canadian raised Milwaukee Buck blew up the video site years ago when he started making the rounds in AAU tournaments, doing routine dunks, showing great handles for his size, and swishing more than a few jumpers. Last year destiny finally arrived for Thon, and he played some for the Bucks, but I hadn’t seen much other than the occasional struggle many extremely tall players run into: core strength, ball protection, and explosiveness. Thon’s sound fundamentally, but in the NBA they don’t go through the motions, they re-invent them. I wanted to see him get a little wild in his second year in the league.
They say your second-year players should dominate Summer League because they are the upperclassmen of a group that includes first-year guys and then some guys that have gotten an invite one-way-or-another through various connections, like playing overseas. Thon didn’t dominate.
During the game we noticed Floyd Mayweather courtside, eventually hanging with Isaiah Thomas of the Celtics and a random guy in a white T-shirt that happened to have a seat next to them. If I go back, I may splurge for the courtside-treatment. The tickets are $400 for an entire day, but stars are constantly coming in and out of the arena, depending on who’s playing, you never know who might take the seat next to you.
As the game went on, we started to notice more and more Lakers fans coming down the aisle to try and find seats lower and lower. Spitz and I chuckled in amusement at these poor schmucks that just thought for some reason they could show up later and still get the good seats. Who did these people think they were? A quick drive from LA and you can do whatever you want? Bah! Putting forth the effort we did, Spitz and I noticed we were becoming a little hoity-toity. Still, after a little bit, it was starting to become ridiculous the sheer number of people slinking down the stairs during gameplay. At several points, people were literally lining up to check for seats down below, despite noticing that fans doing the exact same thing were now headed up and leaving after unsuccessfully looking for their own good seats. We didn’t realize ahead of time what a cultural moment today would be for Lakers Nation. During halftime, new Celtics first-round draft pick Jayson Tatum made his way across center court in his green shorts to say hi to Isaiah, and an uproar of boos erupted. The 19,000-seat arena was filling up, and there was a lot of anxiety about the future of basketball, especially for the City of Angels down the road.
As the game dripped to a steady close, people started to chatter and gawk a little more. Athletes were starting to make their way around out of a big opening at the Northwest end of the arena, where one hoop was. D’Angelo Russell was full stealth-mode in sunglasses and a black Nets hoodie, just traded from the Lakers to Brooklyn along with Timofey Mozgov for big man Brook Lopez and the 27th pick in the 2017 NBA draft (which became Kyle Kuzma.) DeMar DeRozan, an LA-native who spends summers back home was also in the building. Finally, the Lakers came trotting out for their game against the Clippers, and the place went nuts. Towards the back of the line was Lonzo Ball, all oversized jersey, fade-fro, and Big Baller Brand shoes.
Seeing Lonzo look up into the lights and the crowd I couldn’t help but be reminded of the nervousness you see in kids in their first high school game on varsity. He had that look people have when they’re trying not to have any look at all. “Who me? Oh, just good ‘ol Lonzo, here to shoot some hoops and stuff.” Sure.
If you don’t know much about Lonzo, I’ll give you the short version: he has been the talk of the basketball world since the end of the college basketball season for 1,000 reasons. He was a hometown hero in LA that went to UCLA. He played extremely well there but crumbled under pressure in a few big games to other top draft prospects. His jump shot is completely wonky, and I mean weird. Normal shooting success profiles have players launching through the balls of their feet, having the kinetic energy rise from calves, up through the knee on the shooting-hand side, through the body, up the shooting arm (which is aligned with the shooting knee) and ends with the ball going up in rhythm with
Coming into the weekend, I was hoping to meet LaVar and get a picture with him in a headlock, or me in a headlock, or something else wacky, but now that this game was here I saw that wouldn’t be possible. Out of the tunnel walked LaVar and his two sons: UCLA’s new freshman, LiAngelo, and his notorious high-school son, LaMelo, along with a crew of several other entourage-types. Some booed. Some cheered. Melo beamed his Titanic braces as they walked to a special stage-like area where they would sit away from the general public—likely for safety reasons—like members of the King’s court watching a grand event. Lonzo’s thin little legs jogged through warm-ups like he was being watched. Oh was he.
“Clipper” Darrell Bauiley, a superfan for the Clippers was there too in a suit that was half-red and half-blue. The crowd busted on him repeatedly, and he goaded them on, dancing to warm-up music and talking light trash with anyone in purple or yellow. ESPN cameras whizzed around the court for the national television event. Please remember that, while Lonzo is here, the Lakers are also stocked with a few no-names we’ll never see again. National TV!
The Lakers won the tip, and right away the ball flows to Lonzo and the place cheers and cheers. Thin, fledged teammate Brandon Ingram took a backscreen from another teammate at the free-throw line and took off for a beautiful pass from Lonzo, and slammed home a vicious oop. Now people are hugging and high-fiving. What an awesome moment for everyone but Clipper Darrell. The rest of the game didn’t go Lonzo’s way… he shot 2-for-15 and took a few deep threes that looked silly since he wasn’t knocking them down. Spitz would later tell me it is speculated that he shoots from so deep since his funky release has him releasing a little lower, and he wants to make sure he can get it off. That is extremely believable. Despite putting up a stinker stat line, it was obvious why the Lakers drafted Lonzo, and Magic called him the future of the organization. While he showed a little anxiety, Lonzo was extremely smooth with his passes. He threw up lobs, floaters, zipped bounces. Words honestly can’t do it justice. Lonzo has the gift of extreme court vision, seemingly staying a half-second ahead of everyone in his own dimension, and he has the skill to layer in passes that are literally gift-wrapped points for teammates with an NBA skill set.
At halftime, I started to wonder if this was the most ingeniously marketed event of all-time. Who comes out for a friendly shooting competition but LaMelo and Clipper Darrell! LaMelo casually drained multiple NBA threes to win the competition before giving Clipper Darrell a friendly-bro hug. People laughed, and everyone was having fun. It felt a lot like the middle of wedding reception when everyone is kind of hitting their groove and loving life in the moment.
At the end of regulation the game was tied, and Brandon Ingram, dominating as a second-year player should be, took the final shot before coming down and hurting his leg. Everyone groaned as the ball careened off the rim, but then gasped when they traced it back to Ingram on the ground. Magic Johnson, who was sitting courtside came onto the court making the “he’s safe” baseball hand gesture, but mouthing the word “done” and shaking his head. Ingram wouldn’t play again in Summer League and the Lakers ended up losing to the Clips in overtime.
During warmups for Kings-Suns, we saw Vlade Divac and Peja Stojaković, chatting like the old basketball war buddies they are, which was cool. Spitz noted that the entire summer team for the Kings looked to be their actual normal team since they are so young right now. We also had some interest in Josh Jackson, since he grew up in Detroit. Josh came out wearing number 99, and Spitz was disgusted. He’s got this great theory that it’s rude to wear any digit over five because when the ref makes a call, they have to use their hands to signal the numbers, and that’s just a hassle after five. I laughed in the moment, but then I realized he is right and now I don’t like that either. Get it together, Josh.
We left that game a little early for our first real night on the strip, and Spitz got his own Who‘s-who moment. On the concourse, we walked right by Shams Charania, a story-breaking badass for The Vertical on Yahoo. If there is something going on in the league, that guy knows about it. Spitz was blown away, but seemed a little disheartened to have to explain him to me. I wondered how many I’d passed by that day not knowing who they were. After a brief foray into fantasies of what our life would have been like if we had grinded to become NBA insiders like that, we stepped outside into the laser heat and Spitz touched his left ear.
“Man,” Spitz groaned, “that’s the spot I missed. Every time.”