Bernstein: Why Are We Following NBA Summer League?

By Dan Bernstein

Quick: Name last year’s NBA Summer League Champion. You have three seconds.

1… 2… 3… and there. If you failed to come up with “Chicago Bulls,” it proves that you have a properly functioning brain, one that either never recorded that information or deleted it automatically before storing it. An even better reason for not knowing is that you legitimately never had any idea in the first place, since you were not watching.

I happen to know the answer because I happen to be in Chicago and happen to follow sports for a living, so I have dual excuses. That Bulls team featured the recent draft picks of 2016 and other promising young players, and vanquished all opposition to claim the crown.

Keep in mind that the actual Bulls were then an embarrassing and disjointed mess that inspired the trade of their star player and a complete teardown.

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Summer League games are not even preseason games, or “exhibition games” as we used to call them, with an expanded version of the actual roster working out the kinks just in advance of the real games, wearing the real uniforms. Instead, it’s a smattering of rookies and minor-league bottom-feeders running around in practice gear. And still the cameras are on to present the product as if it is somehow representative of the league.

I give the NBA and its broadcast network partners all kinds of credit for pulling this off — really. They took what was long a ragtag affair closer to street ball and turned it into something that can be marketed as vaguely meaningful. It isn’t, of course. But the power of branding and the annual summer sports programming vacuum conspire successfully to make it seem so.

That’s the power of these logos, flashing on screens in the same format as the real games. With nothing else televised of consequence, something particularly noticeable during this week’s MLB All-Star break, the sports bars can still look like they might in November, save for the odd college football game or hockey somewhere.

Yet the disconnect for pro basketball, between the players that matter and the players that don’t, is what makes the spectacle even more absurd. We know exactly which super-teams have a chance to challenge for supremacy, having already acquired or developed the stars who will have the ball when it matters. Some of those in action in Las Vegas in July might get there eventually or might have done so in college. But the reasons for playoff wins are currently on beaches or at home catching up on Netflix, plotting future mega-trades and opt-outs via casual text conversations.

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Some are following the action and the outcomes nonetheless; the scores are included in the twice-hourly radio updates. And the poor beat reporters, who would rather be with their families are instead at the games, transcribing quotes from assistant coaches discussing the performance of bums destined for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

When a multibillion-dollar sports business as strong as the NBA decides it wants to sell something, enough people are always there to buy it.

Dan Bernstein is senior columnist on CBS Chicago and co-host of “Boers & Bernstein” on Chicago’s 670 The Score.

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