It is 11:30 a.m. Sunday morning, outside the Cox Pavilion on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a half-hour before the doors open to a day of hoops at NBA Summer League. It is 39 C, on the way to an afternoon high of 43. The phrase “it’s a dry heat” alleviates nothing.
A hundred or so basketball devotees are up against the building, waiting in a sliver of shade. The line is mostly male – boys and fathers, brothers and friends. Nearby, there’s a statue of Jerry Tarkanian, the long-time UNLV coach, immortalized in bronze, a towel between his teeth. “Look at Jerry T!” says an arriving fan to his buddies. “That’s awesome. Tark!”
This is a pilgrimage, and this is their church.
And this is where they can mingle with the people they usually see only on TV.
Summer League is 11 intimate days when the world of pro basketball gathers to hang out in Vegas to watch the kids: heralded rookies, undrafted players and those a little older scratching for their last shot. It is a hoops fest of sights and sounds – this year featuring a prominent contingent of Canadian players – yet with real consequences for careers. Only some of what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
‘I love you, Anthony!’
Anthony Bennett wasn’t here last summer. The No. 1 pick of the 2013 NBA draft, the first Canadian to ever reach such a height, had shoulder surgery and couldn’t play Summer League ball. The Cleveland Cavaliers had shocked the NBA when they chose the young man all his confidants call AB first overall. He had been a consensus top-five pick, but No. 1?
Everything went wrong. He piled on weight after surgery and stumbled through one of the worst rookie seasons a top hoops pick has ever played. He did not start a single game and averaged 4.2 points an outing.
Skeptics cackled with glee, the Internet a chorus of mockery. For AB, at 20 years old, it was a boyhood dream achieved and destroyed.
A year later, Bennett is rehabilitated. Warming up for a game on Sunday afternoon, he embraces the ESPN analyst and retired NBA big man Tim McCormick on the sideline. “I’m at the top of his fan club list,” says McCormick a few minutes later. “He’s got a lot of work to do, but I really think he’s going to be a tremendous player.”
McCormick pauses the conversation to say hello to two old friends, retired all-star Grant Hill and voice-of-basketball Marv Albert. This place is a fan’s fantasy: Hey, there’s Phil Jackson; hey, there’s Mark Cuban. The obsessed trawl for pictures and autographs.
Canada has invaded the desert. The United States dominates basketball and 269 of the prospects here are American. The next largest group is Canadian, 14, including back-to-back No. 1 draft picks Bennett and Andrew Wiggins. McCormick returns to the conversation. He’s from Detroit; he knows hockey, too. He predicts a roundball future for the red-and-white, the country that spawned the inventor of the game, James Naismith, so long ago.
Bennett, Wiggins and the rest are the children of Vince Carter, the Toronto Raptors showman who inspired what is poised to become a golden generation. “They saw NBA basketball,” McCormick says, “and started dreaming. Hockey’s a very expensive sport. Basketball, you need some shoes and a ball and you just dream.”
The game begins. Twenty pounds lighter than last year, Bennett bounds down the court with the gait one would not expect for a man 6 foot 8 and 240 pounds. He happily pops up threes. He throws down dunks. He grabs one, two, three rebounds. He finishes the first 10-minute quarter with eight boards. A female fan bellows out: “I love you, Anthony!” Late in the game, Bennett slams in an arena-rattling dunk. He bellows. He spent a year being laughed at. No more.
After the game, there’s a string of questions about Bennett to Cavaliers coach David Blatt – whose roster includes the more-famous Wiggins and, come fall, a guy named LeBron.
“What’s this, the Anthony Bennett show?” Blatt quips.
“Calm,” says Bennett of his mood in a scrum of reporters afterward. “I’ve proved to everybody I can play.”
A television reporter asks: “When was the last time somebody said, ‘I love you, Andrew,’ from the crowd? Did you hear that?” The reporter has confused Anthony and Andrew, Bennett and Wiggins.
“Aw,” says Bennett, a bit embarrassed, a bit annoyed, “I never heard that.”