“You can take the Summer League out of Long Beach, but you can’t take Long Beach out of the Summer League.”
That was the thought I had as I was driving my family home from Las Vegas last weekend, after 72 hours of nonstop basketball action at the NBA’s Summer League, hosted at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center. I grew up going to the Summer Pro League when it was at Long Beach State’s Walter Pyramid, which was its home from 1995 until it closed in 2007, due to the rise of the NBA’s Vegas event.
I’ve harbored a grudge for the last 15 years about the NBA picking Vegas over Long Beach, but ten minutes into setting foot in the Thomas & Mack I could see why they did. The central location in a tourist-friendly area (less than two miles off the Strip) meant that the Summer League could serve as a kind of NBA convention as much as it was a collection of games. Owners and coaches schmoozed with celebrities courtside, and current stars like LeBron James, Ja Morant, and Anthony Davis could pop over and check out a few games before hitting the Strip in the evening.
I was happy to note that there was still plenty of Long Beach flavor in this year’s Summer League, or at least in my experience of it. The trip was a birthday present for my son Vinny, who liked hearing my stories about Long Beach’s Summer Pro League, and who wanted to see recent Long Beach Poly alum Peyton Watson in some of his first games in a Denver Nuggets jersey.
Peyton had a strong showing at the Summer League, especially on defense, where he showed the intellect and physical skill set that led the Nuggets to take him in the first round. He had two big dunks in the game we went to see, and Vinny’s excitement over that was worth the 100-degree heat outside (something the NBA could avoid if they moved back to Long Beach, just saying).
We also enjoyed getting to spend time with Peyton’s family after the Nuggets’ game against the Clippers, which they won with great team defense. It’s a fun part of my job getting to watch families take their first steps in a pro sports journey, and I know the Watsons were thinking about all those training sessions at the JCC with Peyton and his little brother Chris.
Long Beach wasn’t just represented on the court, however. We also met up with Nailah Waterfield, who JJ and I covered as a volleyball/soccer standout at Poly in our first years as sportswriters, 15 years ago. Nailah is now the director of marketing for NBA powerhouse Excel Sports Management, which is coincidentally the agency that Peyton is signed with.
Nailah was a…talkative leader as an athlete and it’s been no surprise that she’s taken her 100-watt personality and spun that into a successful career in sports after playing volleyball at Duke. She was kind enough to sneak us down from the general admission seats to a front-row seat right behind the home bench, which meant that for his first-ever NBA games, Vinny got to sit behind the Warriors and Lakers benches for their ESPN-televised contests against the Celtics and Clippers. He was as happy to learn that he’d been on TV for four hours straight as he was that the Lakers won.
We also spent a little time with Eddie Kim, who last month stepped down after a ten-year tenure as Poly’s boys’ swim coach to pursue a career as a sports agent. Eddie was in Vegas working, and hoping to bring up some interest in Poly alum Drew Buggs, who he’s representing. We also got a couple minutes with AJ Diggs, a Poly alum and former assistant coach who’s now working as a trainer with the Clippers’ Norman Powell.
After a long couple of days of basketball, we walked outside the arena and I couldn’t resist getting a photo of Vinny with the statue of Jerry Tarkanian, the legendary UNLV coach who left Long Beach State for the heat of the Vegas desert.
On the way home my wife and I laughed about how funny it is being from our hometown, a place that feels like a small town and yet somehow gives you a half-dozen friends in every city you could ever travel to. The Summer League is finding out what so many of us know–when you have roots in Long Beach, you might leave the city, but the city won’t ever leave you.