ORLANDO, Florida -- In the sphere of the NBA, there is no other event like the Orlando Pro Summer League. At face value, this exhibition series of young and prospective NBA players is an afterthought in basketball consciousness. At the end of the week, more than half of the league's players will remove their NBA jerseys and return to Europe, the D-League or elsewhere. The winners will be forgotten and the stand-outs may never crack an NBA rotation. Still, the basketball brotherhood is uniquely felt in Orlando, in a rare closed-door event that my camera and I were invited to experience.
10 teams took part in the Orlando Pro Summer League in 2014. 150 players and as many support staff, scouts and media personnel visit the Amway Center in downtown Orlando in a relatively small practice gym. The event is closed to the public, inviting all who attend to drop their guards and focus on the sport and its players. The only in-game cheers come from each team's bench, and the rest of the gym is silent and respectful. Everyone from the leading scorer to the general manager to the sports blogger with a camera are there to work. Egos are checked at the door. Everyone outside of the teams is approachable.
Last year, the 2013 Orlando Pro Summer League was the most exciting basketball experience I've encountered. As a fan, that moment registered higher than watching my 2004 Detroit Pistons win an NBA championship. I was given a front-row seat, right along the baseline, to watch my favorite players dominate in a fashion suggestive of a very bright future. I saw my heroes of the past, like Rasheed Wallace, stand behind me as his young Pistons approached their next game. I saw Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, Rodney Stuckey, Kyle Singler, Jerry Sloan, Lawrence Frank, Jason Kidd, Joe Crawford, Sam Presti, Larry Bird, Maurice Cheeks, Brandon Knight -- too many to name. Oh, and Mateen Cleaves. Each of them were, at times, as far away from me as the monitor on which I write this piece. As a fan, I was starstruck. As a credentialed writer and photographer, I handled it as gracefully as I could.
These legends of the sport (and Mateen Cleaves) aren't so relaxed and approachable with fans present. Here, in Orlando, they're basketball professionals like everyone else, and they were there to work. Just like me (although I certainly am not nor will I ever be a basketball professional).
Given the high water mark that was set for me in 2013, I didn't expect the Orlando Pro Summer League to be as exciting this year. Andre Drummond would not play. Greg Monroe would not be in attendance. Rasheed Wallace would not be on the sidelines shouting "Ball Don't Lie!" My expectations were lowered, but the event was still a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a fan.
I didn't expect to arrive this year to see a competitive, electrifying team without Andre Drummond. I was thrilled to see the breakout performance by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and just as excited to watch Peyton Siva command his spot on the roster with solid, veteran-level play. As a fan of the Pistons, I was encouraged -- and once again, lucky to be there.
The types of things you overhear at the Orlando Summer League are every fan's fly-on-the-wall dream. It's the scouts for a team I won't name sitting behind me, commenting on players' strengths and weaknesses and which ones are exploitable. Every player on every team appears to have a verbal file of sorts, and while many are accurate, you'd be surprised at the misconceptions. The comments I heard about Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, for example, seemed to change with every outside shot he made in Orlando this year.
There's also the coded playbook calls you hear on court but can't quite make out on TV. As Detroit inbounds the ball after an opponent make, coach Bob Beyer shouts a command to Peyton Siva who repeats it, which is repeated again by Caldwell-Pope as Siva crosses half-court. "Elbow Thumb," Siva shouts, and a pick-and-pop follows with Brian Cook attempting a three-point shot.
More Summer League
More Summer League
You pick up a lot from referees you don't hear on TV or in a crowded stadium. The refs are actively managing the tone of the game as best they can. It isn't just whistles and calls, it's a constant conversation with players to keep things cool, to avoid heating up and letting them know what will and will not be tolerated. It's back-talk at times too. I mentioned this in my write-up about KCP's rise, but a ref shouted back at Pope to drop his line of complaints: "that was YOUR teammate's hand on your back when you fell, leave it alone and move on or we're going to have problems." These conversations are parts of the game you don't experience in a loud gym with fans cheering -- and especially not on television.
This summer, the cast of characters at the Orlando Pro Summer League was different. No Rasheed, no Monroe, no Sloan, no Bird. However, it was still a who's who of NBA basketball. The whole Van Gundy family was in attendance, including Bill Van Gundy, the father of Stan and Jeff, and Michael Van Gundy, Stan's son. Michael was beside Stan for the entire event, watching and talking shop. Basketball is clearly a family business, and it's safe to assume that Michael will follow in his father's footsteps.
Beyond the family Van Gundy, a slew of sports personalities were in attendance. Doc Rivers, Shaq, Marcin Gortat, and Isiah Thomas rounded out the new arrivals, joining the annual cast that included Sam Presti, John Hollinger and others. Oh, and Mateen Cleaves.
One basketball figure I was personally excited to see for the first time was Arnie Kander. Kander and Mike Abdenour are the last remaining figures of the old guard, Detroit Pistons mainstays that will likely remain with the team indefinitely. It was exciting to see Kander in action, running a warm-up clinic to start the day on Sunday and meeting with players for treatment throughout the game. Kander is a celebrity in his own right in the basketball brotherhood. You name the figure, they approached Kander for a hello.
My visit to the Orlando Pro Summer League was cut short to two days this summer. I plan to return again next summer, but my hope is that these events are less exciting to Pistons fans in time. A great summer league roster is usually the mark of a lottery team. I hope, on the shoulders of players like Andre Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, that the days of exciting summer league play are limited. The less thrilling this week is every year, the more likely it is that the Pistons have better things to do in the summer. Things like celebrating a long playoff push.
I'll have more to come from my visit to Orlando soon. In the mean time, a special thanks to Matt Watson, Seth Pollack, Brian Packey and the SB Nation crew for making this happen. Oh, and if you weren't here to read this, I wouldn't have had a reason to go in the first place. So for the assist, I thank you. Count that baby and a foul.