NBA Summer League doesn’t get any bigger than this year’s opening night

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Wade Vandervort

Fans reach out to New Orleans Pelican’s Zion Williamson (1) after a game is cancelled due to an earthquake during the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League at the Thomas & Mack on Friday, July 5, 2019.

Thu, Jul 11, 2019 (2 a.m.)

"Two for five.” That’s the price quoted by a parking-lot scalper at the Thomas & Mack Center on the opening day of the 2019 NBA Summer League. For the price of $500, you get two tickets to that day’s entire slate of games.

The face value of a general admission adult ticket is $35, but the scalper has interested parties. Opening day has been sold out for a week, with New Orleans rookie Zion Williamson driving the hype to unprecedented levels. Fans want to see him make his professional debut, so the parking lot at the Mack is jammed in a way it hasn’t been in years. And the scalpers are doing business.

And you know what? Those absurdly overpriced secondary-market tickets might be worth it. July 5, 2019, turns out to be the single-biggest, most eventful day in the 15-year history of the Summer League in Las Vegas.

It starts off as any other entry in the always-fun exhibition series. Star players are roaming the concourse alongside fans (Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell is walking by himself), and front-office executives gather and gossip among themselves at floor level. The entire basketball world is waiting for Kawhi Leonard’s free agency decision, which adds another layer of buzz to the proceedings.

The main attraction is Williamson, taken with the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft just a couple weeks earlier. As a freshman at Duke, the 6-foot-7 whirlwind exploded onto the national scene by scoring 22.6 points per game and throwing down viciously powerful dunks with stunning regularity. He’s the most athletic—and most dominant—player to turn pro since LeBron James in 2003, and everyone wants to see him play in Las Vegas.

That includes James himself, who makes sure he has a front-row seat along the visitors’ baseline. If this game isn’t already the epicenter of the basketball world, James’ presence puts it over the top. He’s in full “King mode,” greeting and rapping with dozens of players, coaches, staffers, executives and administrators throughout the night. Everyone wants to kiss the ring. Even Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart, two former Lakers who were traded away, make their way over to genuflect.

How influential is James? At one point before Zion and the Pelicans tip off, a Summer League executive approaches LeBron to ask if he’s “OK with Derozan.” LeBron says yes, and a few minutes later the exec brings San Antonio Spurs all-star Demar Derozan to the court and seats him a few spots down from James. Poor Derozan can’t even get a seat unless LeBron OKs it.

The anticipation builds for Williamson’s arrival. Reporters gather in the tunnel to witness his entrance from the team bus, and the crowd rises to a full roar when Zion chugs out of the locker room and onto the floor for warmups. Every time Williamson hammers a dunk in warmups, the fans explode. It’s jarring to hear such full, unilateral support for one player like this.

Midway through the first quarter, the NBA Summer League hits its all-time peak. Newly acquired Laker Anthony Davis enters the arena and takes a seat next to—who else?—LeBron James. On the court, Williamson rips the ball away from a defender in the backcourt and slams down a two-handed power dunk. It’s a uniquely Zion play, and it draws an explosive ovation from the crowd. It’s the loudest the Mack has been in a long, long time.

That’s the pinnacle.

From there, the night tapers off. Williamson’s conditioning gets the best of him. Though he manages a few more dunks, he’s clearly laboring up and down the court. He checks out early in the second quarter and doesn’t return.

LeBron leaves late in the first half, taking the rest of the star power with him. The crowd thins. Early in the fourth quarter, an earthquake stops the action. An earthquake! The game is postponed; it’s almost as if the universe itself was done with the game as soon as Zion and LeBron made their exits. Why bother finishing? The fans got what they wanted.

The next day, the Pelicans announce that Williamson will not play again during the summer because of a “knee bruise” suffered in his first game. It casts a slight pall over the rest of the schedule—and maybe the future of the Summer League.

With all sports growing more cautious about overworking the players—the NBA is at the forefront of “load management”—it seems only a matter of time before Summer League takes a hit. Preseason games (and some regular-season contests) are already deemed unnecessary injury risks; it’s logical to assume that sometime in the near future, NBA teams will balk at putting their lottery picks on the floor in meaningless summer games.

Zion might end up being an unfortunate trendsetter in that regard. But the nine minutes he spent on the court went a long way toward making it the most memorable day in Summer League history.

Las Vegas was the center of the NBA world. And it shook.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.

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