LAS VEGAS — There’s no official start or end time, but the apex doesn’t reach fevered heights until well into the day. The boundaries are ill-defined, but it consists of the approximately 700 square feet of concrete behind the baseline all the way to the players tunnel. And it doesn’t have a name, but everyone knows it’s where to go to find someone.
As another summer league game is playing out not 30 feet away, some of the most influential names in basketball are connecting, reconnecting and generally carousing on the edges of Jerry Tarkanian Court.
On this night, agent Rich Paul is chatting with a peer off to the side. Klutch Sports’ announcement that LeBron James is heading west is only days old, but there’s still plenty to talk about. As Paul moves on to the next subject, the next discussion partner, he spots Warren LeGarie — the longtime agent and architect of the Las Vegas Summer League — carrying on several of his own conversations.
Paul loops by and the two embrace, shaking hands and continuing on. As Paul walks away, LeGarie lets out a boisterous declaration directed at no one and everyone.
“That’s a young me right there!”
Welcome to the schmooze pit.
At any given moment during the nearly two-week event, the pit is filled to the brim with coaches, execs, players, agents and media members bustling, catching up, investigating opportunities, congratulating each other and doing a bit of needling. It’s basketball’s equivalent of the hotel lobby at the baseball winter meetings.
“This place is getting more business done, nobody even knows it, they don’t see it, they don’t always understand it, but there are signs,” LeGarie said. “You can watch who’s talking to who, how they’re talking, what their reaction is. It’s the unknown known quantity of the summer league, but that’s our central nervous system right here.”
In years past, superstar free-agent destinations were still unknown as dealmakers and players alike sought out scuttlebutt just as much for rabid curiosity as for their own machinations. But with few teams possessing meaningful cap space this season and the star variables mostly resolved early, this season’s schmoozing is more about planting the seeds for the future than it is for any immediate movement.
The results are various impromptu conversations and reunions occurring in and around the pit. The 2018 No. 4 overall pick Jaren Jackson Jr. and 2015 No. 2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell catching up while waiting for the next game. Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni having a lengthy conversation with Shawne Williams, a former player from his New York Knicks days.
On one occasion, NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West made his way down the walkway into the pit prior to a game and, seeing Golden State Warriors defensive guru Ron Adams, walked up behind him for a playful bear hug.
Watching the exchange unfold, Warriors player development coach Chris DeMarco took a playful dig at Adams.
“Jerry, be careful,” DeMarco warned. “Last time I was that rough with him, he broke a [bone].”
Legends like West and Bill Russell spend a few moments each day catching up with friends and associates in the pit, but they don’t stay long as courtside seats await.
“You end up just talking to guys, talking to coaches, former coaches, GMs, presidents,” Rivers said. “A lot of GMs, they don’t know you, so they can only go off perception. ‘I heard that kid’s an a–h—‘ or ‘I heard that guy’s lazy.’
“It’s an opportunity for guys to actually get to know each other sometimes. It changes things.”
For longtime coaches like Gentry, the pit is where they actually have an opportunity to catch up with friends from around the league.
“[A crowded bar’s] a great comparison,” Gentry said. “You see guys and talk for five minutes and then you see somebody else and you see somebody else, and that’s kind of the way it goes.”
So what do the conversations revolve around?
“You know what it is?” Gentry said. “It’s mostly gossip if you want to know the truth. Yeah, it’s mostly gossip and bulls—.”
Moments later, D’Antoni affirmed the sentiment.
“Bulls— is high on the list,” D’Antoni said.
In his former life as an agent, Warriors general manager Bob Myers helped LeGarie build the original Las Vegas Summer League in the early 2000s and still can’t believe how important the real estate behind the baseline has become.
“It’s kind of a new phenomenon,” Myers said. “I think it’s kind of been born out of the last few years. I don’t know if it was like that before … so it’s funny to see how this has all developed.”
LeGarie isn’t sure exactly when the pit grew in prominence, but he understands it’s now one of the most sacred grounds at the event.
“Everybody was looking for a safe haven. For NBA people who are scouting we have Section 104, it’s a dedicated NBA section,” LeGarie said. “But for other people who aren’t doing that, there’s very few other places to go.
“[The pit] was a place where they could watch the game before their game came up. They could rest, they could be there, their agents could come up to them. Whatever it was, it was a nice nerve center. And then we did away with the chairs because most of the guys sort of liked to stand around and kibbutz about all the stuff that’s going on.”
“It’s mostly gossip if you want to know the truth. Yeah, it’s mostly gossip and bulls—.”
New Orleans head coach Alvin Gentry
And all the standing around makes for a curious confluence of exchanges between folks in the league, out of the league and those looking for inroads, as former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin discovered.
“I find it funny when people come up to me and they’re talking to me and [saying], ‘What do I need to do to get in the NBA?'” Griffin said. “I’m like, ‘What do I need to do to get in the NBA?’ The first idea for me is always judging how educated the people are with who they’re talking to.
“One of the things the Cavs did for me was they forwarded my email to my personal email,” Griffin added. “It is mind-numbing how many people still email asking me about a position with the Cleveland Cavaliers. So that’s why you turn the badge around [and hide your name] because you want to at least make them have to know who you are if they want to spend time.”
ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan has made plenty of trips to gyms all over the world, but Monday night marked her first trip to Las Vegas — and her first experience in the pit.
“I’m glad I dabbed on a little perfume before I arrived,” MacMullan said. “Because it gets really tight in there. And I think I did as many interviews as I conducted. A lot of great stories, none of which I can use — doesn’t that stink?”
She is the rare media member whose gravitational pull can be felt inside the pit confines. A string of league personnel welcome her, along with longtime fans of her work just hoping to get a quick audience. While MacMullan warmly greeted everyone she saw, nimbleness was the key as she floated from one group to the next, collecting for her own tasks.
“This feels like — the greatest cocktail party ever,” she said. “I’ve got the perfume, but I don’t have the long-stemmed chardonnay in my hand.”