As the young Lakers Summer League squad started layup lines during warmups for the July 11th matchup with the Golden State Warriors, there was a palpable buzz in the Thomas and Mack Arena. Thousands of newly hatched Warriors fans, itching to show off their shining new bandwagon cards, piled into the arena side by side with thousands of decidedly not bandwagon Lakers fans. It was 7:15pm, 15 minutes to tip, as my wife dropped me off in the arena parking lot to walk the last hundred yards to the entrance in the 100+ degree Vegas heat. The UNLV athletic department and NBA had decked out the arena exterior and interior for summer league, and everything felt very official, like the jeans and Paul McCartney show t-shirt I was wearing meant I was dressed somehow, even though I fit right in.
Since tickets were general admission, I had to try and find a seat right before tipoff. I scanned the bowl for that perfect unoccupied seat in the ¾ full lower bowl, and I was lucky enough to find a section with several right on the half court line about 8 rows up. As a teacher in real life (when I’m not writing wildly popular and thought provoking articles for Lakers Pulse), the whole idea of sitting so close to the players I have watched, researched, written about, and argued over was both thrilling and surreal. This was not my first game, but it was my first Summer League game, and there is just an increased level of access with Summer League that you just do not enjoy as a ticket holder for a game in the regular season.
The whole vibe is unique. There was less security, the “NBA personnel section” was right next to open seating, and many of the people in attendance were fans of other teams. The arena was a melting pot of rivals, friends, families of players, and even curious tourists and locals, drawn in by the NBA logo and $30 price of admission. While many of the people in my section were fans of other teams, it was clear that a good number of them had extensive knowledge about the undrafted free agents, recently drafted rookies, and other young players looking to make a break into the NBA. These were the type of people who knew that 7’6’’ Mamadou Ndiaye of Golden State actually had a brain surgery to stop him from growing, and that Anthony Brown went to Stanford and new coach Luke Walton was an Arizona man: these were my people.
The basketball was exciting, encouraging, and full of hope. D’angelo Russell drained 3 point shot after 3 point shot, as I screamed “Swaggy who?” at the top of my lungs, inciting a smattering of applause and laughter from many of the Lakers fans in earshot.Rookie Brandon Ingram, though his legs looked liked chopsticks, played very well, showing no fear and putting his phenomenal shooting ability and tattoo portfolio on full display.
Ivica Zubac (aka the Zubacabra, Zublock, Zublocka, Zubacalypse, Zubat) shined and showed the surprising ability to hit mid-range jump shots. Even the often maligned Anthony Brown was able to shine at times, playing excellent perimeter defense and even showing aggressiveness offensively (while still somehow missing a great deal of shots).
As I walked out of the arena, I overhead a Summer League employee talking to some fans about how the Lakers are always the biggest draw at Summer League, and the fans are the most memorable. It is for that reason that I would like to close with a thank you. Thank you Lakers fans. Thank you for putting up with the hate, the envy, the ridicule, and the losing over the past few years as we rebuild this great franchise. Things work in cycles, and Lakers fans have been extremely fortunately over the last 30 years to collect so many championship trophies, while most of the other franchises in the league have yet to get their first. The hope that we have is not rooted in a process, or a fickle star, or giant selfies, or a band of super-friends. The hope that we have is rooted in the 16 banners that hang from the rafters at Staples Center.