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Las Vegas NBA Summer league has record run

For 10 days, Larry and Georgia Mueller rarely left their seats in Section 118, Row A at Cox Pavilion, except maybe to use the restroom.

But even that couldn’t be confirmed. The Muellers didn’t travel all the way from Portland, Ore., to relieve their bladders. They were here to make up for lost time and watch basketball.

Apparently, they weren’t alone.

The return of the NBA Summer League to Las Vegas – after last year’s lockout forced its cancellation – brought out record crowds to watch the 24 participating teams. The 10 sessions drew 51,554 fans, an average of 5,155. The previous record was 47,000 in 2010.

Apparently, absence truly did make the hoops heart grow fonder.

"It was so disappointing not being able to watch the summer league last year," Georgia Mueller said. "It was like a member of our family had died. But coming back this year, we felt like we were coming home."

The Muellers, who own Portland Trail Blazers season tickets, have been coming to the summer league since 2005, the second year of the circuit’s existence.

"I missed seeing all the young guys," Larry Mueller said. "I was surprised they were able to come back as strong as they did after the lockout."

But with the NBA’s attendance and television ratings up, enough positive momentum had been generated going into the return of the summer league.

"I think it whetted the appetite," said Warren LeGarie, the sports agent who founded the league in 2004 and continues to run it for the NBA. "Television has been very important to us. They started promoting during the draft last month, and it reminded people we were back. And when you throw in NBA TV doing all the games and the use of social media to get the word out, we were able to come back stronger than ever.

"But we never took it for granted. Until the people show up, you never know."

And while longtime patrons such as the Muellers were back, new fans were being cultivated. The O’Mahoney family of Las Vegas saw what had been going on this past week and decided to check it out. It didn’t hurt that their favorite team – the Boston Celtics – was playing Sunday.

"It was either this, stay inside or jump in the pool," said Ryan O’Mahoney, decked out in Celtics green – as was his wife, Leslie, and 4-year-old son, Cooper – at midcourt three rows from the floor to watch the Celtics fall to the Los Angeles Clippers, 92-77. "We’re all big basketball fans, and where else can you sit this close for this kind of money?"

The summer league kept daily admission prices at $25 for adults and $15 for children, making it affordable for families such as the O’Mahoneys to attend.

"We’re still the best entertainment value in town, and we want to keep it that way," LeGarie said.

A record 24 teams participated in front of record crowds, but the league is looking to build on both numbers. Expansion to 26 teams is likely for 2013, and LeGarie said the move to the second week in July is likely to remain in place.

"We used to go July 4, and that wasn’t enough time for the new players to get in shape and be ready to go right after the draft," he said. "By having another week, the teams were able to get more practice time in, and I thought the quality of the play was the best it’s ever been."

Larry Mueller said he saw a difference in the quality of basketball from years past.

"After the first two days, the games were really good," he said. "Even the refereeing has been better."

And despite not having No. 1 overall draft pick Anthony Davis of New Orleans here (he was with Team USA preparing for the Olympics) and No. 2 pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist playing only one game for Charlotte after injuring his knee, it didn’t stop the fans from coming out.

"It’s like the old Sally Field line after she won her Oscar: ‘They like us; they really like us.’ " LeGarie said.

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.

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