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Las Vegas devours basketball bonanza


It almost wasn’t fair.

The NBA Summer League in Las Vegas had for nine previous years grown in a positive direction. More teams. More fans. More interest. More crazy halftime shows of short men using trampolines to perform the sorts of dunks Michael Jordan probably still executes in his sleep.

Officials then announced this year’s schedule would include an opening day matchup of Cleveland and Milwaukee, of the NBA draft’s brightest jewels in Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, of a game that would certainly pack Cox Pavilion in a way the fire marshal’s heart might skip a beat.

That was before LeBron James informed the world he was going home.

On the morning of that opening slate of games.

“I would love to tell you all that was pre-ordered and pre-planned,” said summer league founder Warren LeGarie. “But luck and timing has a lot to do with anyone’s success and we’ve certainly had our share of both here.

“The way we have set up our league, it’s just as free agency is finishing, so signings begin. Any basketball related news is coming out of Vegas as we are starting up again. Clearly, this year, with (Wiggins and Parker) being here and then the LeBron news ... it was like a harmonic convergence.”

A perfect storm of good fortune.

The 10th and most successful summer league yet concluded with Monday night’s championship, when Sacramento defeated Houston 77-68 before 7,603 at the Thomas &Mack Center.

That’s right. The Kings were actually playing for something other than trying to avoid the cellar in the Pacific Division.

I’m guessing Sacramento fans haven’t been this happy since the Maloof family finalized a sale of the team last year, successfully completing a journey from being considered among the best owners in professional sports to near the worst.

It was an epic fall, for sure.

But much like the good vibes Sacramento produced for its franchise by winning itself a nice trophy and being the last of 24 teams standing this year, the league again capitalized on a local hunger for NBA basketball.

This time, like never before.

LeGarie and his staff work on a one-year contract to stage the league here, which is good in this way: The bigger and more successful it becomes, the more odds increase another city would consider itself a better fit and make a hard push to steal it from Las Vegas.

No one is resting on any laurels.

“We know what is expected,” LeGarie said. “We put pressure on ourselves to look at any areas we might have neglected, things we might have missed, so we can go back and fine-tune it and make this as close to an NBA real-game experience as we can for the fans.

“We know we have to bring it and can’t make any big mistakes. Our staff understands that. We’re like the players of the summer league. If you don’t play well, you get cut. If you don’t perform, your future becomes much darker. We always want to feel as a staff that we can make things better every year.

“I’m optimistically cautious. I know what people don’t want in a summer league. I’ve eliminated those things. The way we determine the impact we have on this city is one single game on a Monday night. How many people show up? That’s the affirmation for what we have done all week long. If we have a turnout like this one, we did our job.”

They did that and more at the gate this year, setting an attendance record for the summer league and creating the sort of buzz LeGarie could have only dreamed about when starting things a decade ago with just six teams.

It would be difficult for another city to wrestle the league away, but what about another venue from UNLV?

It’s tough (impossible?) to beat the current format, with fans being able to walk back and forth to watch games running simultaneously at Cox Pavilion and the Thomas &Mack, with practice space available for teams on campus.

But there is also a certain state-of-the-art MGM/AEG arena being built down the street, which you would think might one day have an interest in staging the summer league.

In this realm, LeGarie recently received some advice from Peter Guber, co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Golden State Warriors and chairman and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment.

“He said to be a digital fit, be receptive to all new things but never forget where you’re from,” LeGarie said. “I’m always open, but they would have to prove to me that (moving the summer league) would make sense. We have built a really good foundation so that we could handle everything, but this year was a significant jump than any previous years in all ways.”

It almost wasn’t fair.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.