How the NBA Las Vegas Summer League Became ‘America’s House Party’ 15 Years Later

In some respects, the 2004 Democratic National Convention was responsible for changing the game in politics and sports. For one, those four days at the FleetCenter (now TD Garden) in Boston provided the platform from which an unknown state senator from Illinois named Barack Obama would launch himself into the United States Senate and, eventually, on to the White House as the nation’s 44th president—and biggest basketball fan to hold that office.

That convention also helped to set the stage for what’s become one of the tentpole events of the NBA’s calendar: the Las Vegas Summer League.

Back in those days, the Reebok Pro Summer League in Boston was the epicenter of a scattered scene that included the Orlando Summer League, the Rocky Mountain Revue in Salt Lake City and the Summer Pro League in Long Beach, California.

The arrival of the DNC that July, though, put Beantown’s basketball league in peril.

“They forgot that the Democratic National Convention was coming in and all the [hotel] rooms were booked,” Warren LeGarie, the founder of the Las Vegas Summer League, tells CloseUp360.

Initially, the NBA considered moving its operations to Mohegan Sun, a casino resort in Uncasville, Connecticut.

“Teams didn't want to go there,” Warren recalls, “including Boston, believe it or not.”

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Before Las Vegas came into the picture, Boston hosted the NBA's biggest summer league. (Courtesy of HallPass Media)

As it happens, Warren had long been lobbying for an alternative league based in Sin City. 

In November 1999, he pitched the idea to Rod Thorn, then the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations. But the notion of hosting a league at a casino—namely, the MGM Grand, where tennis legend Andre Agassi had held charity tennis events—was a non-starter.

In May 2003, Warren pitched the idea again—this time to a bright, young executive at NBA Entertainment named Adam Silver, who saw the potential.

“You've got to credit Adam Silver who believed in it before anybody else in the league office,” Warren says. “He really saw this as something that made sense.”

Finally, in February 2004, during All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles, Warren got an audience—albeit briefly—with then-NBA commissioner David Stern. Between the growth of its population (including players in residence during the offseason) and the expansion of its overall scene beyond the Strip, Las Vegas would be a promising destination for the NBA. And with his knowledge of summer leagues (and understanding of what wasn’t working), Warren argued that he could beat the competition.

So when, in the spring of 2004, the NBA realized Boston wouldn’t be a viable place to stage a summer league, Stu Jackson, who’d assumed Rod’s post in the league office in 2000, knew who to call with approval for a backup plan.

Fifteen years later, that Plan B has become the A1 event on the summer sports calendar—one that its founders (Warren and Albert Hall) refer to as “America’s House Party.” But the path to success for the Las Vegas Summer League was anything but smooth and straight, and was as much the byproduct of pure chance as deliberate planning.

“This is why working hard is still not enough,” Warren says. “You've gotta have good luck and timing.”

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Warren LeGarie co-founded the Las Vegas Summer League in 2004. (Courtesy of HallPass Media)

Albert was used to odd jobs. As the person running the front desk at the Seattle SuperSonics’ practice facility in the mid-1990s, he had his hand in coordinating everything from team logistics for coaches, scouts and front-office personnel to player appearances and business operations.

So when, in 1993, George Karl, the head coach of the Sonics at the time, asked Albert to pick up his agent from the airport, he accepted the task, but had some questions first.

“What am I looking for?” Albert asked. “Who is he?”

“Just go look for a surfer dude,” George told him.

Sure enough, when Albert arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, he spotted a man in a Hawaiian shirt waiting for him. That man was Warren LeGarie.

“People don't know this,” Albert tells CloseUp360, “but that's all Warren wore was Hawaiian shirts, so he would stand out.”

“It was fortuitous,” Warren says. “But at the same time, you can see in Albert this guy who was a quick learner who didn't understand not getting something done.”

Warren, too, had proved to be a go-getter with an eye for opportunity. He represented George during the coach’s tenure with Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid. Through much of the 1980s and into the 1990s, he’d worked his way to become one of the pre-eminent basketball agents in all of Europe—with eventual Hall of Famer Drazen Petrovic among his top clients—following a decade-long career as a food broker in Mexico and Japan coming out of college at the University of the Pacific.

And how, pray tell, did Warren transition from hawking produce to hoops? At a summer league—specifically, the now-defunct one at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

“Loyola Marymount was the one that opened my eyes to what I really wanted to do,” he says. “That was the thing that said, ‘Whatever you've been doing up to this point, it won't be as meaningful as having a chance to be in this business.’”

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Warren got his start in the business of basketball by attending summer leagues in the 1980s. (Jesse Hudson)

It was at LMU that Warren met and signed many of his early clients—including his first NBA client, former nine-year veteran Steve Colter. It’s also where he saw the power of bringing the basketball world together, with players, executives and coaches rubbing shoulders with fans and aspiring professionals.

“Summer league was a way in which even if people didn't know you, if you put the time, energy and attention into what you were doing, they would at least be aware of you,” he says.

Over time, though, Warren witnessed the limitations of having disconnected three- and four-day events in different places that included only handfuls of teams at a time. Meanwhile, Tim Grgurich, a renowned “player whisperer” who had been an assistant on George’s staff in Seattle, was in Warren’s ear. “Grg,” as he’s known, had coached alongside the legendary Jerry Tarkanian with the UNLV teams that won the NCAA tournament title in 1990 and returned to the Final Four in 1991, and spent his summers training NBA stars from his home base in Las Vegas.

Between Warren’s desire to centralize the business of basketball and his own imperative to coach NBA players, Grg suggested bringing a summer league to Las Vegas.

“It wasn't like I was trying to come up with something new or something that was completely out of left field,” Warren says. “It was something based on a real genuine need.”

Once Warren finally got the go-ahead from the NBA in the spring of 2004 to start a league in Vegas that summer, he assembled a team to bring his dream to life.

Marni Colbert, who had run the Summer Pro League in Long Beach, came on to lead team operations. Gail Hunter, who worked at the league office in New York City, came on as the de facto commissioner. The late Chip Hooper—a music industry impresario who pushed the jam band movement while representing the likes of Phish and the Dave Matthews Band—helped Warren book Cox Pavilion, near the UNLV campus, as the venue. Bob Myers, then working under former super agent Arn Tellem at SFX Sports and now the Golden State Warriors’ president of basketball operations, brought in Reebok as the Las Vegas Summer League’s initial title sponsor.

And coordinating it all was Albert, who’d come on board as the co-founder and vice president of business operations.

“We might have an opportunity here,” Warren told Albert. “I did some talking with people. There may be an opportunity to do a summer league in Vegas. What do you think?” 

Albert’s answer? “Let’s do it.”

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Albert and Warren first connected in the 1990s, when Albert worked for the Seattle SuperSonics and Warren represented their head coach, George Karl. (Courtesy of HallPass Media)

With less than two months to prepare for that inaugural summer league, Warren managed to convince six teams to bring squads to Vegas. It helped that he represented Kiki VanDeWeghe, then the general manager of the Denver Nuggets, and Tommy Sheppard, who worked (and still works) in the Washington Wizards’ front office. It helped, too, that he had strong connections to power players within the Celtics, Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers organizations. A meeting with John Weisbrod, then the GM of the Orlando Magic, before the 2004 draft helped ensure that the top prospect, Dwight Howard, would be seen in Sin City.

“We had six handshakes and a box of flyers,” Albert says, “and we hit the streets.”

Literally.

Albert recalls braving triple-digit temperatures to distribute those flyers, be it by knocking on doors or handing them out to whomever came his way on Spring Valley Road. Did he at least have some sunscreen handy?

“Probably not,” he chuckles. “I didn't give a shit. We were hustling. We're trying to get butts in seats.”

Beyond their big-picture supporters, Warren and Albert had some help with the grunt work on the ground. Their first intern, a young staffer with the then-New Orleans Hornets named Dennis Rogers, had read about the startup league and decided to reach out.

“I love basketball, I love Las Vegas,” Dennis, who’s now the director of basketball communications for the Los Angeles Clippers, tells CloseUp360 at a recent summer league practice in El Segundo. “So I found Albert's info and I just hit him up and I said, ‘Hey, I'll come work for free, travel my own way. I'll do whatever it takes.’”

Still, skepticism abounded.

Vegas wasn’t yet home to a major league franchise. All the city had seen was a parade of fledgling leagues—including the rebooted American Basketball Association with the Las Vegas Slam—march in and out, disappointing fans along the way.

“People just were, like, ‘The NBA? What? The NBA is not in Las Vegas,’” Albert says. “We were, like, ‘No, this is going to be NBA teams and players.’ And they're, like, ‘All right, we'll see. We'll believe it when we see it.’”

LAS VEGAS - JULY 19: # of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots the ball against the Phoenix Suns during the NBA Summer League presented by EA Sports on July 19, 2009 at Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2009 NBAE (Photo by Jack Arent/NBAE via Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***

Blake Griffin was named the 2009 Summer League MVP. (Courtesy of HallPass Media)

The business community had its own reservations. Those previous leagues had soured potential relationships and left local interests wary of welcoming in unproven outsiders to set up shop.

“Vegas had already had an onslaught of fly-by-night promoters and people who made these incredible promises that they never delivered on. And most of them left a lot of unpaid debt, so a lot of people were skeptical,” Warren says. “So we had to come with cash on the barrel. We had to pay up front in order to get people to work with us.”

To ease those concerns, Warren plunked down $50,000 on his own credit card. He and his team had some money from Reebok and a bit of support from the city. Other than that, the burden was Warren’s to bear.

Not that he saw it that way.

“At that point, there was no looking back,” he says. “Once you feel like this is it, we've got our chance, let's make the most of it. And that's how you look at it. You look at it as an adventure, as an opportunity. You don't see it in terms of cost.”

For all of the Las Vegas Summer League’s success and longevity so far, its proprietors insist that there was no long-term plan to which they stuck.

“We literally looked at each year as potentially the last year,” Warren says.

Even that first year could’ve spelled the end of the league. Though Warren, Albert and company had most of the operation under control, they overlooked one not-so-minor detail: the basketballs themselves.

“We had forgotten about the balls,” Warren says. “We had to go scramble to make sure we had enough balls for that day.”

Attendance was a major issue throughout that first run. Despite Albert’s persistent canvassing—and the creation of VegasSummerLeague.com at the time—roughly 8,000 fans in total attended the 13 games staged inside Cox Pavilion, with its maximum capacity of 3,100 spectators.

“We had inflatable people in the stands,” Albert jokes. “There was no one there.”

That sparse audience left Warren with a loss on his credit card, but not without the requisite determination to press on. In Year 2, the league broke even as the number of teams and total fan attendance both more than doubled—to 16 and 20,000, respectively. By Year 3, the league turned a small profit, with Toshiba signing on as the title sponsor.

Still, it wasn’t all smooth sailing in Sin City, even after the NBA officially added its name to the marquee in 2007—the same year the league expanded into the Thomas & Mack Center, which shares a concourse with Cox Pavilion.

Key Moments in League History

1999: Warren LeGarie first pitches the idea of the Las Vegas Summer League to Rod Thorn, then the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations.

2004: Less than two months after the NBA gives its blessing, the Summer League tips off with six teams at Cox Pavilion.

2006: Toshiba becomes the Summer League's title sponsor.

2007: The NBA attaches its name to the Summer League, which expands from Cox Pavilion into the adjoining Thomas & Mack Center—just in time to host Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, the top two draft picks, respectively.

2009: The Summer League starts broadcasting its games via internet live stream, which eventually gets plugged straight into NBA TV.

2010: During a matchup between the Golden State Warriors and Washington Wizards, undrafted rookie Jeremy Lin outplays No. 1 pick John Wall.

2017: The Summer League logs its first sellout, when No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball plays for the Lakers.

2018: For the first time, all 30 NBA teams come to Summer League.

2019: The first two days of Summer League sell out in late June, with China and Croatia bringing the total number of teams to 32.

In October 2008, Turner took over NBA TV. The following February, during All-Star Weekend in Phoenix, Warren and Albert got some bad news: NBA TV, which had carried Las Vegas Summer League games in 2007 and 2008, would not do so in 2009, since Turner was busy moving the network’s operations from Secaucus, New Jersey to Atlanta.

“That became a little terrifying to us,” Warren recalls.

Rather than accept their fate, they sought an alternative. Albert had previously helped Yahoo! livestream the annual Nike Hoop Summit in Portland over the internet.

“I said, ‘I can pull this off,’” Albert recalls. “And so we went in, and between a lot of bubble gum and duct tape, we ended up having Summer League Broadband.”

“We were offering it at a minimum cost for all the games,” Warren says. “And one of the most remarkable things is to hear the pinging of people buying it.”

The livestream turned out to be so popular, and the quality of it so good, that NBA TV ultimately picked up the feed for its own broadcast.

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The Summer League started live streaming its games over the internet in 2009—the same year that Stephen Curry debuted for the Golden State Warriors. (Courtesy of HallPass Media)

To this day, interns continue to pay their own way to Las Vegas Summer League as the menu of career development opportunities has grown. There’s the Sports Business Classroom, wherein salary cap experts Larry Coon and Eric Pincus lead panel discussions, interactive activities and deep dives into the inner workings of the business of basketball. This year, the Summer League has expanded its affiliated educational offerings to include the Sports Science Classroom, led by Alex McKechnie, the director of sports science and an assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors; and the On-Air Classroom, wherein ESPN’s Mark Jones and Amin Elhassan and USA Today’s Trysta Krick will show students—including some from nearby Desert Pines High School—what goes into a live broadcast.

Through the recently established Tomorrow’s Stars Foundation, the Las Vegas Summer League will also host the Court Science Classroom, an initiative that aims to teach young children about math and science through basketball analytics. The annual charity ping-pong tournament will now be affiliated with Tomorrow’s Stars, after 10 years benefiting the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

Though the foundation comes as Warren and Albert’s own giveback to the Las Vegas community, the city itself has seen a tremendous benefit from Summer League. Last year, the event’s economic impact clocked in above $50 million. And though its founders won’t take credit for attracting franchises from the WNBA, NHL and NFL to Sin City, their efforts may well have changed enough hearts and minds in the region to make Nevada an attractive destination for major professional sports.

“To use a phrase that Warren often says, I think we ‘softened the beach,’” Albert says, “and there's no doubt, at the end of the day, we were the professional team in town for a long time. And I think people saw, look, if you build it, do it the right way, there's an opportunity here.”

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In 2017, the Summer League marked its first-ever sellout when Lonzo Ball, that year's MVP, helped lead the Los Angeles Lakers to the championship. (Jesse Hudson)

The NBA may be a long way from parking a franchise of its own in Las Vegas, but it’s used Summer League as an incubator for changes to and innovations around the game. Before the NBA changed the size of the lane and added markings for the restricted zone to its 29 courts across the country, it tested them out on its two floors at Summer League. This year, the Association will allow coach’s challenges in Las Vegas—after two years of trials in the G League—and introduce a slew of new technologies, including a motion-tracking chip embedded inside each game ball to gather more data and help illuminate the game for fans.

“For the NBA, they often call us their petri dish where they're trying to see new and exciting pieces to improve the game,” Warren says.

It’s only fitting that Las Vegas has become the NBA’s all-around proving ground. After all, Warren and Albert’s summer league was, itself, no guarantee to succeed but, with the right mix of hard work and luck, has evolved into basketball’s annual summer blockbuster.

“For us now to even put our heads up and realize it's been 15 years,” Warren says, “we're as amazed as anybody that it's really the case.”

 

Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.