‘The NBA’s Coachella’: how Summer League became an unmissable event

I’ve never been on the surface of the sun, but I’d imagine it doesn’t feel too dissimilar from Las Vegas in the middle of July. The heat can only be described as oppressive, a sense of urgency to reach the safety of air conditioning assaults you the second you step into it, and you can feel anything on your person that’s made of a plastic-like material warping and deforming in real time.

The irony is, of course, that the metaphorical side to the “close proximity to a star” coin is also what makes summer in Vegas so alluring … for basketball fans, at least. Because for 10 days every July, the entire NBA extended cinematic universe descends upon Sin City for the most stress-free, jovial and widely attended event on the league’s annual calendar: Las Vegas Summer League.

Diehard NBA fans are no doubt familiar with the event, where rookies, third-stringers, G League players hopeful to make the leap and undrafted diamonds in the rough representing all 30 teams play in a series of games that ultimately have no impact on regular-season records. But even those familiar with the competition might not understand what makes it so special. The games, as it turns out, are sort of the least crucial facet: the basketball being played, after all, is hardly at the highest level. But it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that anyone who’s anyone in the world of the NBA is in Vegas for Summer League. That means players (yes, even the biggest stars), coaches, execs, media and even ownership show up to schmooze in the Mojave.

When I asked my media colleagues what they love about Summer League, the answers varied but the general sentiment was incredibly consistent. It was described as “the Coachella of the NBA” or “the NBA world convention”. Several people referenced a “family reunion” atmosphere. Kevin O’Connor of the Ringer summarized it well over a game of Topgolf at the MGM Grand: “This is the only place where everybody from the NBA universe gets together,” he told me. “It’s like all of our digital avatars are at one place at a time. To walk through the casinos and see random NBA players, to go to games and see these guys that are gonna be in the league for 10, 15 years. Everybody who’s here, it’s a lot of people who love the NBA. It’s a lot of people who dedicated their life to basketball who work in the league. So it’s just a really cool experience overall: seeing all the people here, including players, and watching some exciting, fun, sloppy basketball.”

The general mood is that of levity and ease: something you’d be hard-pressed to find at any event during the regular season, when tensions are high and everyone’s jobs are on the line. And the league’s biggest and brightest aren’t just hiding in a VIP section somewhere, or hovering in a luxury box like they would be at another sporting event. The games take place at the Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion, two very humble (and tiny) arenas on the UNLV campus, and everyone, fans and insiders alike, is predominantly staying and luxuriating at the same five or six resorts on the Strip. The highest echelon of NBA elite rubs shoulders with fans and patrons at this event to a degree I’ve never really seen in any other context. One minute you’re grabbing a hot dog next to Scottie Pippen, the next you’re shooting craps across the table from Ty Lue (the latter of which actually happened). You truly can’t throw a stick without hitting an NBA player when doing a lap around either of the arenas during the day or any of the casinos at night, and it’s a bit surreal: like living in a weeklong simulation where Tom, Dick and Harry become Dame, Ja and Melo. For any fan of the NBA, from the casual to the devout, it’s a singular experience that should be done at least once.

Of course, that “exciting, fun, sloppy basketball” is still part of the appeal. One of the perennial perks of Summer League is being able to say you were there when a star was born, as heavily hyped draft picks (and some pleasant surprises) make their unofficial NBA debuts. The talk of the town in my time in Vegas this year was Paolo Banchero, the Orlando Magic rookie who silenced any doubters that he was deserving of the No 1 overall pick in last month’s draft with his Summer League performance. Banchero’s scoring, something he was lauded for leading into the draft, was, of course, on display. But his savviness and passing acuity, all the more impressive given his towering frame, also came into sharper focus this week. “He’s just huge,” I overheard one exec comment. “I didn’t really know he could pass like that,” another insider observed.

For those fans who enjoy the inner workings of the league, the ones who prefer to play couch GM and tinker with the trade machine over catching every regular-season game, Summer League is also the perfect place to tap into NBA gossip from the front lines. This is where many transactions are done, relationships exploited and deals consummated. It’s truly like being a fly on the wall, an opportunity to witness first-hand the environments that foster those notorious summer Woj Bombs (or Shams Projectiles or Chris Haynes IEDs). One day I saw Lakers GM Rob Pelinka chatting with Nets GM Sean Marks in the tunnel. The next, Adam Silver was doing a walk-and-talk with Mitch Kupchak.

Summer League won’t ever be the ultimate destination for the pinnacle of basketball (the NBA finals hold firm on that distinction). And Vegas in the summer isn’t for the faint of heart (where staying hydrated is as important as standing on a hard 17). But for true basketball junkies who want to be surrounded by heroes and fellow hardcores alike, it really can’t be beat. And if anyone needs me for anything in mid-July 2023, it’s a safe bet I’ll be back on the Strip.