The aroma of chicken fingers and fries teased its way through a line of people waiting for an autograph session with newly drafted NBA player Cody Zeller.
It was Sunday, day three at NBA Summer League at the Thomas and Mack Center; on the court, the L.A. Lakers were beating the Portland Trail Blazers.
Amber Hesson, 22, didn’t care.
The Indiana native is less of a basketball fan and more of a Zeller fan. She arrived half an hour early to secure the fourth spot in the autograph line. It snaked its way through the food court, serving as an obstacle course for fans to navigate as they carried beer and nacho-laden trays back to their seats.
The summer league games — featuring new NBA talent, would-be pro players and young players who already have spots on team rosters — are great, Hesson says. Especially for the $25 ticket price.
But the real fun for her? Getting the chance to meet a basketball god from her home state. Zeller played for the Indiana Hoosiers.
“I’m hoping he’ll take his picture with me, if security will let me,” says Hesson, who was in Vegas to celebrate her college graduation. “He’s kind of big in Indiana.”
Boyfriend Alex Kempf, 21, stood on the other side of the stanchions. He did not want the former Hoosier star’s autograph.
“My dad went to Purdue so I don’t think that would go over very well,” Kempf says.
Even thousands of miles from home, basketball rivalries run deep. Kempf heard about the Summer League a couple of months ago. They love basketball, he says, so they decided to check it out while they were in town.
The couple has attended NBA games back home but they’ve never been able to interact with players the way they have here, Hesson says.
That’s the draw for NBA Summer League, says spokesman Albert Hall. Not only do fans get to see up to eight games in one day, they also get the chance to meet current players, NBA stars, former players and, occasionally, basketball legends.
Organizers try to provide a complete fan-friendly experience, Hall says. Autograph sessions are held after each game with fans receiving free, signed posters. Kids can also participate in pick-up games or compete for prizes.
During halftime of one game, 12 kids ran onto the court for a quick game of Blue versus White. Each team was made up of six kids, all representing a range of ages and sizes. The pace was fast and loose but a few got to show off some skill. The smallest boy matched up against the only girl, who won the tip. With her pony-tail bobbing and only seconds left on the clock, the little girl dribbled the ball from one basket to the other. She weaved through traffic and scored a layup at the buzzer. The crowd erupted into cheers over her nifty ball-handling skills.
Kids who want to participate in events can sign up at one of the vendor kiosks, Hall says.
Rick Vasquez, a local father, has made summer league an annual ritual with his three sons. They have attended every Summer League since it first started in 2004.
“It’s fun, especially money-wise when you’ve got three kids. There are so many games to watch and a lot to do and see,” Vasquez says.
He held a shoe from a table full of merchandise. It belonged to NBA center Brooke Lopez and was one of several items being auctioned for charity. The shoe was a size 20. Vasquez and his sons marveled over it.
“I think I could fit into this shoe,” Vasquez says.
This is one of the joys of Summer League, he says. Where else could you hold a shoe that belongs to an NBA player?
Every year, the boys bring a white jersey and a marker and try to get as many signatures as possible, Vasquez says. He nudged his son, Jonathan, 12, towards a tall guy in workout gear. Jonathan held the jersey out, got a signature and came back to his family, showing it off. When asked “who was that?” Jonathan shrugged.
“I don’t know,” he says.
Knowing their names doesn’t really matter. You just identify a basketball player by his height. “They’re huge, that’s all I’ve got to say. And I love basketball,” says Jack Silberman, 9.
Wearing his LeBron James jersey, Silberman carried a new basketball purchased by his mother at a souvenir kiosk. There were a few signatures on it and he planned to get even more.
His mother, local Kristen Silberman, trailed behind her son, smiling. She enjoyed following him around, snapping his photo with players.
“This is so much fun and so cute,” she says. “It’s a great mother-son activity to do.”
Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at email@example.com or 702-380-4564. Follow @StripSonya on Twitter.