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‘Hold on a second, is this for real?’: The rise of Las Vegas as the hub of NBA offseason activity

LAS VEGAS — Twenty years ago, the NBA offseason was forever changed.

Previously, after players were drafted, teams would send their prospects to various small summer leagues across the country. But in 2004, a new concept was born in Las Vegas with the goal of bringing the entire league together in one place.

Co-founded by player and coach agent Warren LeGarie alongside Albert Hall, the vision was to have everyone in the NBA universe convening in Vegas each July. Today, the league’s summer event is more than just a scouting opportunity for future NBA players. It has evolved into the epicenter of the NBA offseason.

Jerry West, the late Hall of Fame player and executive: It all began with a league in LA. Teams wanted to showcase their players, and there was immense buzz around young talents like Kobe Bryant. As teams sought to give their younger players a chance to shine, more teams started showing up. The move to Long Beach made things even more exciting, but the league lost momentum when it shifted back to LA and eventually fizzled out.

Warren LeGarie, Las Vegas Summer League co-founder: When I started, walking into a gym at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, I had no idea what to expect. At that time, I ran a successful business selling fresh fruits and vegetables on the streets of LA during night hours. Stepping into that gym changed my life.

Monty McCutchen, NBA Senior Vice President of Development and Training for Referee Operations: After three decades, I’ve witnessed various versions of summer league. When I started as a young referee trying to break into the CBA at Loyola Marymount, the energy was different, and it felt like a more casual affair. The current setup is far more dynamic and captivating.

Rod Thorn, former NBA Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations: As Warren pitched the idea of Vegas, it seemed far-fetched at first. But other summer leagues in cities like Salt Lake City and Orlando lacked that attraction. Vegas ultimately became the preferred destination.

LeGarie: The most popular summer league back then had 16 teams, including Boston. Players stayed in downtown hotels and competed in a small university gym, embodying old-school basketball spirit. However, a mishap during the Democratic National Convention led to a sudden shift in accommodations.

Danny Ainge, former Boston Celtics GM and current Utah Jazz CEO: Due to a scheduling conflict with a national convention, we found ourselves without a venue. After facing that challenge, Las Vegas emerged as the new hotspot.

By 2004, LeGarie’s persistence paid off, and with Stu Jackson’s approval, the Las Vegas league came into existence, replacing the defunct Boston league.

LeGarie: Following a meeting with David Stern during the 2004 All-Star game in LA, Stu offered me the opportunity to organize a summer league.

Thorn: The decision to greenlight the Vegas league was made after discussions with key NBA figures who saw the potential in the idea.

LeGarie: Securing approval was one thing, but figuring out the logistics was daunting. I turned to Albert Hall, with whom I had previously collaborated, and together, we embarked on this venture.

Albert Hall, Las Vegas Summer League co-founder: Warren assembled six teams, I focused on marketing, while Bob Myers handled sponsorship and team-related matters. It was a leap of faith, but we dove in.

West: Warren saw the opportunity to elevate the league from its previous iterations in Long Beach to the grandeur of Las Vegas.

Hall: The inaugural year was a leap into the unknown. We had limited resources but boundless determination.

Initially, the challenge was securing a venue for the tournament. To book the Thomas and Mack Center at UNLV, LeGarie enlisted the help of Chip Hooper, a prominent event booker in the music industry.

LeGarie: Chip’s connections at Thomas and Mack arena resulted in us securing the venue rent-free in our first year, thanks to his promise of bringing major acts like Phish to perform.

Hall: With just 45 days left, we still hadn’t secured accommodations. In a bold move, I sent a proposal to the New York-New York hotel on a size 20 shoe, urging them to consider hosting our teams. We eventually secured rooms at New York-New York.

To accommodate our staff, we arranged lodging at the Fairfield Inn, which came with a caveat – attending daily timeshare meetings. While the intention was to avoid these presentations, we soon found ourselves in the thick of timeshare seminars.

Dennis Rodgers, initial summer league intern and current Los Angeles Clippers Director of Basketball Communications: Despite humble accommodations near the site of Tupac’s shooting, we made do with what we had. From sneaking past the front desk to avoid timeshare pitches to shared facilities, it was a memorable experience for a young intern like me.

Becky Hammon coached the San Antonio Spurs to the Vegas League title in 2015. (Garrett Ellwood / NBAE via Getty Images)

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(Photo illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic. Photos: Chris Gardner, Ethan Miller, Cassy Athena, Allen Berezovsky, Bart Young / Getty Images)


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