LAS VEGAS — Late in the fourth quarter of the Suns’ 71–53 Summer League win over the Magic on Monday, Phoenix forward Jack Cooley stepped to the foul line for his lone pair of free throw attempts in the contest. As he dribbled through his foul shot routine, a thunderous “MVP” chant emanated throughout the lower bowl of the Thomas & Mack Center. The foul shots gave Cooley 10 points for the evening, in addition to five rebounds and one assist—numbers far from ovation worthy.
Yet Cooley is objectively a Summer League legend, competing this week for the sixth straight year. Philadelphia knocked off Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs on Thursday, but the Notre Dame product will still make his 32nd career Las Vegas Summer League game appearance in a consolation matchup on Friday, tying Dionte Christmas's all-time record. “I’m basically the Vegas NBA player,” Cooley says. The MVP chants are more of an homage from the crowd than a rallying cry. “I’m like their adopted son,” Cooley jokes.
For a player like Cooley, a 6’9”, 260 pound rebounding machine, perennially on the cusp of the NBA, appearing in Las Vegas is vital. After going undrafted in 2013, his strong play at Summer League led to a lucrative contract in Turkey, where his club, Trabzonspor, paid for a car, provided a full-time driver and comped exorbitant road meals. And when you include the several-day team minicamps that precede the actual Las Vegas tournament, accepting a Summer League invite essentially equates to an experience worth thousands of dollars for many who will likely never play meaningful minutes in the NBA. “If you had a chance to increase the percentage that you get your dream job, and all you have to do is take a paid vacation to Las Vegas, stay in a five-star hotel, and play the game you love, you’re telling me you wouldn’t do that?” Cooley says. “The economics get pretty nutty.”
Teams fly players from virtually anywhere in the world to their practice facilities for minicamp—some organizations arrive four or five days early in Las Vegas to host their training preparations. Cooley was vacationing in Honolulu with his wife when he got a phone call from his agent, learning that the Suns had extended an invitation. He flew directly from Hawaii to Phoenix, where the Suns provided two team meals a day and housed their 14-player roster in a hotel. Players are subesquently flown from minicamps to Las Vegas, and are granted a return ticket following Summer League to any destination in the country, often to a city that launches a vacation. This year, the Warriors and Heat split a $52,000 chartered plane, complete with full catering, for 69 players and staffers to fly from Sacramento's California Classic to Las Vegas.
Players receive a total of $1,500 in per diem during the 12-day league. Teams can distribute that cash in one complete payment upon arriving in Sin City. Some choose to provide the funds on a daily $125 or bi-daily $250 basis. Many players will eat their private meals at cheaper fast-food chains like the In-N-Out on UNLV’s campus in order to pocket more cash. As Cooley mentions, each team is housed within luxurious hotels and every player is granted his own room, typically priced at $115 per weeknight and $210 on weekend evenings. The Rockets have often stayed at the Golden Nugget, which is conveniently a property of their new owner Tilman Fertitta. It’s standard practice to provide two team meals per day, breakfast and lunch can bookend morning practices and shootarounds. One night this week, the Suns took their entire roster and staff to Hibachi Grill, where Cooley says each member dined on $100 worth of food. When the Bulls won the Las Vegas championship in 2016, Cooley ordered a $200 off-the-menu steak at STK during the team’s fully-expensed victory dinner.
One team equipment manager says his club paid $6,100 for game uniforms and roughly $5,000 on player practice gear. As each item is printed with the players’ last names, teams gift the threads to players following Summer League. Oddly enough, Nike required equipment managers to file orders for this July's Summer League all the way back in January 2017. When you divide the composite cost of travel, meals, per diem, and apparel by each team’s 14 roster spots, one Summer League invite costs an NBA team roughly $6,500. “There’s a lot of things you get,” Cooley says.
Just bringing a team to the Las Vegas event costs each organization a $15,000 registration fee, several league executives say. The NBA requires any team that competes in the Utah or California Classic Summer Leagues to play in Las Vegas, as well. Some clubs rent a fleet of SUVs—one ordered nine cars for this week—which can cost roughly $100 each per day. Adding to the list of expenses, many teams fly 20 or 30 extra staffers to Summer League, decking each employee in several different-colored, custom-embroidered polo shirts. One equipment manager says his club paid $11,000 for his team’s order. On the ground, teams spend as much as $800 per day renting a coach bus to shuttle players back and forth from the hotel to practices and games. Team staffers also receive per diem, although some opt to decline the benefit in order to expense lavish meals.
Most owners jet to Las Vegas to take part in the action. Many teams front the bill for their star players—virtually the entire Jazz roster attended Utah’s games this week—to visit for several days, sitting courtside and donning the latest trend in backpacks. It’s common for an organization to rent gym space at a local high school or basketball facility for its veterans to gather sans coaches and workout together. Every corner of the NBA collides in Las Vegas during these two weeks. “It’s the one focal point of basketball that’s narrowed down to one location worldwide,” Cooley says.