Vegas Baby, Vegas: How Warren LeGarie Made Sin City NBA's Summer League Hot Spot

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Vegas Baby, Vegas: How Warren LeGarie Made Sin City NBA's Summer League Hot Spot
Bleacher Report

Five minutes. That's all I need.

That's what agent Warren LeGarie was thinking as he waited for former NBA Commissioner David Stern in the lobby of the Beverly Wilshire hotel, where they both were staying for the 2004 All-Star weekend.

This was not a planned meeting. LeGarie was hoping to catch Stern to present his master plan: establish an NBA summer league in Las Vegas, which this week entered its 10th year (the latest lockout nixed the 2011 event).

LeGarie had first shared the idea with Rod Thorn, the NBA's former executive vice president of basketball operations, during a Portland Trail Blazers game in November 1999. LeGarie envisioned the Vegas Summer League taking place in the MGM Grand's 3,000-capacity arena, where tennis great Andre Agassi had hosted an event. But soon after, Thorn relayed this message from Stern to LeGarie: "No summer league can be involved with a casino."

LeGarie kept pitching the idea to the NBA. But "it was totally deaf ears for a couple of years, no question," he said.

Then, in May 2003, at the Euroleague Final Four in Barcelona, LeGarie ran into former deputy commissioner Adam Silver, who didn't discourage him from pursuing it. Silver recognized, as LeGarie recalls, "There was a chance that Vegas could develop." LeGarie said he would approach Stern at the following All-Star weekend, and Silver said, "Go for it."

John Minchillo/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
Warren LeGarie had to get his Vegas Summer League pitch past Adam Silver (left) and David Stern before anyone else.

The stage was set for his encounter at the Beverly Wilshire in February 2004. After "stalking him" all weekend, as LeGarie recalls, he finally saw Stern emerge.

"I remember saying to him, 'David, I need five minutes,'" LeGarie said. "And he said, 'Just walk fast and you've got it.' I went along and it ended up being 15 minutes, which means he was actually listening to what I was saying. I gave him the facts that Vegas had the fastest-growing school district, the community itself had outgrown the strip, there were so many players that were located there because of the tax incentives and most people were really struggling with how to structure summer leagues. Vegas would be a place where people would want to come.

"He looked at me and said, 'We'll stay in touch.' I felt that was the breakthrough that I got him to consider it. It was the first time I was ever able to talk to him about it. Up to that point, I had no traction. After that, I had traction."

The following month, LeGarie received an approval letter from the NBA confirming Stern had given him the green light. It was all in his hands from there.

"I was like, 'Holy f--k,'" LeGarie said. "Here's the good news: I've got a league. And you know what the bad news was? I had a league."

Stu Jackson, who took over for Thorn in the summer of 2000, said because the NBA was not in the business of creating summer leagues—they were not a company initiative—the league was fine with outsourcing Vegas to the well-respected LeGarie. And it would all be privately funded. LeGarie and his right-hand man, Albert Hall, spent around $30,000 from their own pockets to cover the initial costs for the event, which took place at UNLV's Cox Pavilion.

"Why try to do something that someone else is doing better?" Jackson said. "And Warren knew Vegas, he's in this community. From a business standpoint, he secured sponsorships, he secured teams, he secured facilities, he started to build a fanbase and he was doing it better than we would have if we started it."

 

An unexpected entry into summer league

The man who had the idea for the Vegas Summer League actually started in the food produce industry in 1974 after leaving the University of the Pacific, where he played basketball while studying the humanities. Over the next 10 years, LeGarie worked in Mexico as a food broker dealing fruits and vegetables, and then in Japan as an employee of Nissin Foods, a company that makes instant noodles.

At some point in the early 1980s, LeGarie went as a spectator to one of the NBA summer leagues at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he was living at the time. Though still working with produce, he had a sudden inclination, and a vision for a new career.

"That was my first summer league experience, and it made a huge impression because it was this total immersion world," LeGarie said. "It was basketball from all around the world in this one little place on a college campus. It was remarkable to me. Everybody that you would want to meet was literally at your elbow. It just inspired me, and I said, I think I have a shot at doing this."

This, at first, was wanting to become an international NBA agent. LeGarie recognized that the summer league was a showcase for potential clients to be placed overseas, as many of them wouldn't get NBA opportunities. So he traveled to Europe to try to make some business connections, despite having no experience in the basketball industry.

But he got "really lucky" when he went to a coaches' clinic that he read about in Bologna, Italy, where Bobby Knight was speaking. That's where he met coaches from all over Europe and started to build his connection base.

"In Europe, it was like the wild, wild west," LeGarie said. "There were no rules, no standard contracts, no set way teams could get players—mainly through touring teams. There were no NBA agents who had a hold on the European marketplace."

Quickly, LeGarie was able to connect with what he believed was an underserved market of talent with an approach he had perfected on the wholesale food circuit.

"Produce is a lot like the sports business," he said. "You're dealing with perishables. A player's career is perishable and you try to get him a fresh deal, like you're dealing fresh fruits and vegetables."

LeGarie's first client was Fernando Martin Espina, considered to be one of the best Spanish players ever, and his second was NBA legend Drazen Petrovic. By the early 1990s, LeGarie was representing close to 100 players throughout Europe.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
The late Drazen Petrovic (right) was one of LeGarie's first international clients.

LeGarie also started working with George Karl when he was coaching Real Madrid during that time, and then he signed Rick Carlisle and Mike Dunleavy. Today, LeGarie is the top agent for NBA sideline bosses, representing more than 50 in the NBA and the D-League.

While LeGarie was overseas seven to eight months out of the year, he always planned his summers around the summer league schedule to expand his business. However, over time, LeGarie and his industry contacts felt the summer league scene was becoming increasingly flawed. For one, too many of the leagues that emerged—notably ones in Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, L.A., New York, San Antonio and Utah—overlapped.

"If you traveled to one, you may have missed people that you wanted to see at another," LeGarie said. "It was almost impossible to coordinate your schedules to see everybody."

Also proving problematic was the lack of structure and activities surrounding the games.

"Games were not running on time. Nobody was really putting a professional spin on it," he said. "They weren't built to be anything more than just a quick exhibition. You would come in and watch a couple of teams play. There was nothing else going on around it. It just seemed like people were always looking at their watches when it came to the summer league, like, 'When is this over?'"

In the late 1990s, LeGarie began drawing up a plan for a centralized, all-purpose summer league that would include NBA front-office personnel, agents, scouts, fans and entertainment. While living in L.A., LeGarie had his eye on Las Vegas, where close friend and longtime NBA assistant coach Tim Grgurich had made a name for himself with his private basketball instruction for NBA stars.

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images
Longtime NBA assistant coach Tim Grgurich, who worked with Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets, helped inspire LeGarie's Vegas vision with his player instruction business in the city.

 

The beginning: Persistence, connections and a little bit of luck

Stu Jackson recalls the first phone conversation he had with LeGarie just before the 2004 All-Star weekend, when he brought up the Vegas Summer League. "It sounded like a real novel idea," he said.

After LeGarie's talk with Stern that weekend, he was able to book a meeting with Jackson at the NBA's New York City headquarters. Jackson was in charge of the summer leagues, and there were three at the time: Boston, Orlando and Utah. That was a main reason—along with the casino culture of Las Vegas—why the NBA was initially against adding a fourth, especially in Sin City.

But soon after LeGarie's meeting with Jackson, which went well but ended with no decision, Boston had to close because the Democratic National Convention was coming to town in July. Initially, Boston considered moving its league to Connecticut's Mohegan Sun resort, where the WNBA's Sun plays. But, according to LeGarie, teams said they preferred to be in a big city.

Around that time, Silver stepped in to move LeGarie's Vegas idea into action. The plan wasn't without its risks, considering the location and the fact that the league had to sign off on the event just months before it would actually commence.

"Adam's a very forward-thinking person and he felt that this was something that could become a big NBA event," Jackson said. "When posed with the idea, he was all for it and he wanted to go gangbusters ahead, and he put the NBA's event department on board to work with Warren to really blow this event out. It's where it is today in large part because of Adam."

Courtesy of Warren LeGarie
After Adam Silver (second from right) pushed for Vegas, LeGarie (center) and some of his business team (from left), Albert Hall and Marni Colbert, made it happen.

There were two other factors that influenced the NBA to loosen their reins on Las Vegas: the emerging AAU scene there, and the league's plans for a future All-Star weekend in the city, which took place in 2007.

"Vegas was and still is the mecca for high school basketball in America during the summer," Jackson said. "There were three huge high school tournaments that encompassed about 800 teams during the summer. So [Vegas] seemed to have done it pretty well."

Given the NBA's OK, LeGarie then set out to convince at least six front-office members to send their teams to Las Vegas. He thought that number was the best for competition considering the short time frame he faced to get the league off the ground. The first five were easy for him, as he utilized existing relationships to lure Danny Ainge in Boston, Jim Paxson in Cleveland, Bryan Colangelo in Phoenix, Kiki Vandeweghe in Denver and Tommy Sheppard in Washington (the last two of whom LeGarie represented).

The sixth took more effort, but offered perhaps the biggest reward: the No. 1 overall draft pick. Prior to the 2004 draft, LeGarie flew to Virginia for the Portsmouth Invitational, where Magic GM John Weisbrod was considering the team's options with the top selection. While there, LeGarie spoke to Weisbrod about how the competition in Las Vegas would greatly improve Dwight Howard, the consensus best prospect. Boom, Weisbrod was on board.

LeGarie recruited not only teams, but also people to help run the event: Sidekick Albert Hall, who worked with Karl when they were with the Seattle SuperSonics, would manage the operation; Marni Colbert, who had run the Lakers' summer league in Long Beach, was added to work on the structure and scheduling; music executive Chip Hooper was put in charge of entertainment; and Bob Myers, now the GM for the Golden State Warriors, was tasked with expanding a relationship with Reebok, which became the league's first title sponsor.

Courtesy of Warren LeGarie
The first Vegas Summer League in 2004, featuring No. 1 draft pick Dwight Howard and Al Jefferson (front).

Also key was getting three individuals who, LeGarie said, "could ultimately sway public opinion about something in the NBA for good or for bad," out to Las Vegas. They were longtime scouts Dick Baker, Dick McGuire and Scotty Stirling.

"My job was to cater to people who I knew could ultimately make or break our league," LeGarie said. "I made sure they were taken care of. We had a nice VIP section and hotel partnerships in the city. After attending, Dickie convinced the Knicks to be there, and by 2007, MSG Network, with Mike Breen and Walt Frazier, were broadcasting from Vegas."

Despite the fact that games were on only during the day, there were some technical problems and the stands were half empty—LeGarie and Hall struggled to pass out fliers in town—league officials were pleased with the league's first year. Some teams, such as the Jazz and Lakers, were unhappy with the attention Vegas generated, but the momentum for the event was clear, and welcomed by the NBA, which also saw an opportunity to train its younger referees in a lower-pressure setting.

"Warren was focused on expanding the summer league and getting as many teams as he could," Jackson said. "What he calibrated correctly was that he felt teams would want to go to summer league in Vegas—not only just the teams, but also coaches, front-office personnel and, in some cases, owners. And on that point, he was correct."

Rocky Widner/Getty Images
Walt Frazier and Mike Breen started calling Vegas Summer League games for MSG Network in 2007.

 

The evolution of the Vegas Summer League

After drawing an attendance of 8,000 in 2004 with six teams, Las Vegas saw an increase to 20,000 and 16 teams the following year. The NBA at the time capped the number of teams out of respect to the interests of Orlando's league and the Rocky Mountain Revue.

"Vegas grew from word of mouth about the experience from those six teams [in '04], and Warren aggressively promoted the product face-to-face with team reps," Hall said.

The attendance rose to 27,000 in '06, when Toshiba signed on as the title sponsor.

"[Toshiba] was a game-changer because they were an NBA partner," Hall said. "The NBA was like, 'Wait a minute, this thing is getting big. Let's maybe consider how we're going about this.'"

By '07, the NBA had officially branded the Vegas Summer League, and not only was MSG Network on site for the first time, but NBA TV was, too. In addition, the event expanded beyond the Cox Pavilion for games, adding the main arena on UNLV's campus, the Thomas & Mack Center. That helped increase the attendance to 62,128 last year with 22 teams in action. Halftime shows—with performances from Vegas entertainers like Clint Holmes and American Idol contestants—have also boosted interest through the years.

Courtesy of Warren LeGarie
The Vegas Summer League setting today inside UNLV's Cox Pavilion.

Today, LeGarie said the overall economic impact of the summer league, which now has an operating cost of more than $1 million, totals $30 million to the city of Las Vegas, a number that includes outside entertainment.

This summer features 24 teams (one is the D-League Select squad) playing 67 games over a total of 11 days. Notably present for the first time are the Jazz, who shut down their Revue in 2009. That leaves only Orlando as a summer alternative to LeGarie's creation.

"Orlando maintained a niche," Jackson said. "And that niche is teams that want to play in a relatively secure environment absent of fans, and focused in on simply the games and skill development. But everyone else since that time, they've gravitated to Vegas."

Indeed, a cottage basketball industry has grown up surrounding the summer league. NBA teams conduct private workouts for free agents. The NBA Coaches Association holds a Ping-Pong tournament. The league has ownership and Competition Committee meetings. USA Basketball hosts a training session right after the event on UNLV's campus. Even the Korean Basketball League has its draft around that time.

Courtesy of Warren LeGarie
The NBA Coaches Association Ping-Pong tournament.

"Vegas just evolved and developed into the basketball capital of America during the month of July," Jackson said.

LeGarie believes the summer league's most noble accomplishment is how it can connect with the type of fan he once was, sitting in the stands.

"The one thing that we're most proud of about the league is it is as close to a real NBA game-like experience that you're ever going to find outside of going to a regular-season NBA game," LeGarie said. "For $25 for parents, $15 for kids, up to eight games a day, there's nothing like it. You're walking elbow to elbow next to players. It really resonates. It's what we're really proud of. It's made the game, as I first saw at Loyola Marymount, extremely accessible and it gives everybody the ability to dream."

 

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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