July 20, 2012

Summer League Side Trip: The Boneyard

Neon Museum Sign: N from the original Golden Nugget; E from Caesar's Palace; O from Binion's Horseshoe and N from the Desert Inn.
For years, I have been insisting that the only reason I have left to visit Las Vegas is to see the Neon Museum's Boneyard. While this isn't really completely true, since I'll probably go back to Vegas as long as the NBA Summer League is held there, I have wanted to visit the Boneyard for years and decided 2012 was the year. In case you haven't heard of it, the Neon Museum was established in 1996 to collect and display neon signs which they describe as the classic Las Vegas art form. The museum doesn't yet have a traditional museum building but instead displays its signs in three locations: an open gallery at the Fremont Street Experience; a stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard between Sahara Avenue and Washington Avenue; and the Boneyard, an open lot littered with about 150 old signs. My Saturday morning in Vegas was spent at the latter.

Sassy Sally's: While the casino is gone, Sassy Sally remains in place on Fremont Street.
When I go on vacation, I usually get to know as much as possible about my destination. I research history before departing; visit significant historical and architectural sites; learn about the local cuisine and music; and generally understand where I am going in depth so I can fully appreciate all that the place has to offer in the little time I am choosing to stay there. 2012 represented my 14th trip to Las Vegas and I have never, EVER done any of that. I typically just show up, wander around, gamble a little, maybe go to a show, eat and then leave. I suppose in a way that is what Vegas is all about but I've always felt a little guilty about not understanding more of the history of Las Vegas. I think my visit to the Boneyard starts to scratch that itch a little.

The original Binion's Horseshoe sign with some goofy guy in front of it.
If you are ever in Vegas and looking for something different to do, I'd recommend taking the trip up to the Boneyard. It's about a half a mile north of Fremont Street and takes an hour to tour and hear stories about the signs and the history of Las Vegas in general. It should be no surprise that the history is full of colorful characters. The tour guide will fill you in on Benny Binion, Howard Hughes and everyone else who had a hand in the early days of Las Vegas. The collection features some fairly significant signs from historic casinos in Vegas including the Desert Inn, Binion's Horseshoe and the Moulin Rouge. The Moulin Rouge was the first racially integrated casino in Vegas. Apparently other casinos used to spy on patrons in the Moulin Rouge and would terminate their own employees if caught in the place. Sad how the history of segregation affects even a place like Las Vegas.

The tour includes some great stories about casinos. I think my favorites were about the Stardust and the MGM Grand, probably because I have spent time in both those places over the prior 11 years since I first visited Las Vegas. The MGM Grand apparently used to have a theme park in the rear of the casino and featured a Wizard of Oz theme to the casino, which totally makes sense considering the shade of green (emerald?) which emanates from the hotel at night. The Stardust, though, had a more bizarre story. The casino name and sign was apparently inspired by the nuclear bomb testings that were being conducted in Nevada during the 1950s. The original sign was shaped like a mushroom cloud which you can see if you look closely at the picture at the bottom of this post. That's not the bizarre part. As one of their promotional packages, the hotel used to take guests on bus trips to watch the atomic bomb testings. I guess in those days you just washed away the fallout in the shower when you got back to the hotel??? I imagine that's one idea someone was regretting with the benefit of hindsight.

The way the neon is crafted to represent the flower in the yucca plant is a lost art.
There are other signs in the collection besides casino signs. Dry cleaners, restaurants, motels, trailer parks and wedding chapels are all featured at the Boneyard. Each one is bold, distinctive and for the most part instantly memorable, which is something I have always loved about commercial graphic art and signage in particular. I love things with clear content which are both simple and complex in their design.

The Stardust T with a series of other signs.
The artform displayed at the Boneyard is uniquely American in origin, which is something else about signs and neon signs that appeals to me. I remember emigrating to the United States as a kid and being struck by the neon signs that announced seemingly every business and storefront. We just didn't have that same kind of blatant and obvious commercialism in England in the 1970s. I've always loved how over the top America has been with its approach to commercialism and advertising.

LOVE the duck!
The Neon Museum hopes to move into a permanent facility later this year. They relocated the concrete shell from the old La Concha motel lobby to serve as their museum entrance. I'd love to go back when they open it. In the meantime, the Boneyard and the signs displayed in the median of Las Vegas Boulevard just south of the museum serve as the exhibits. The signs on Las Vegas Boulevard are fully illuminated and must look incredible at night. I imagine their display collection will grow as funding comes in. They told us it takes about $100,000 to restore a typical sign and get it ready for display.

Barbary Coast, Desert Inn, some Sahara letters and the Stardust cloud.
If you go, go early. There were several tour groups in the Boneyard by the time we finished our tour but as the first group, we had the place to ourselves initially, which made for some great pictures (I think) without having to deal with people in the way.

The original Stardust letters. Had to get a picture of me with these.

July 18, 2012

Summer League 2012

This past weekend I made my (almost) annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas to take in some NBA Summer League action. I managed to catch a 6:15 a.m. flight out of BWI last Friday which put me in Vegas in plenty of time to see the Wizards play the Atlanta Hawks in the first Summer League game of the year at 1 p.m. that afternoon. I also managed to take in our Saturday and Sunday night games before having to head back to DC Monday morning on a 6:10 a.m departure. Not loving the flight times but at least they were direct.

In case it wasn't obvious, I absolutely love Summer League. It's definitely a highlight of the basketball year and this trip reinforced all the reasons why I love this event. All three of our games Friday through Sunday were held at the Cox Pavilion, which is the more intimate of the two venues at the Thomas and Mack Center. The proximity to the court; the sounds of the game in what was sometimes at most a quarter-full arena; and the conversations with fans, players, general managers and coaches make this an anticipated annual experience for me.

Me and Chris Singleton.
Wins and losses in Summer League are completely inconsequential and that's a good thing considering the Wizards' on court perfomance during the long weekend. Our starting lineup featured three players with significant court time during their rookie years and the number three overall pick from the 2012 NBA Draft but you would never have known it from their performance in the Friday game against the Hawks and the second half of the Sunday game against the D-League Select team. Turnovers, inopportune fouls, lack of defense and poor rebounding sunk us. We were thoroughly outplayed by the Hawks, losing by 20 in a game that was over long before the final quarter and managed to fall behind to the D-League select team by 21 points in the fourth quarter after leading at the half, before realizing how embarrassed we should be and rallying for a seven point final margin of loss. The Saturday game against the Houston Rockets was a solid win where our guys executed well for the most part at both ends of the court.

On an individual level, our players experienced mixed results. Shelvin Mack, Jan Vesely and especially Chris Singleton played a lot in their rookie campaigns. All three logged double digits in minutes played per game last year with Singleton leading the three at over 21 minutes per game in 51 starts. In addition to those three, I was especially interested to see Bradley Beal and Tomas Satoransky, our recent draft picks, play.

Chris Singleton at the line. Not sure about the pink shoes. The arena is packed, right?
Of our three rookies from last year, Chris Singleton definitely fared the best. I thought his performance was aggressive in all three games, like Chris felt he had something to prove, but the results of that aggressive play were uneven. In Friday's game against Atlanta, he was called for a couple of turnovers, some fouls and an out of bounds screening violation in the first half before calming down in the second. I talked with Chris after that game and he talked about the officiating hampering his game. The team was obviously trying to experiment with him running the point and that had good and bad results, with Sam Cassell at one time telling him "Chris, you gotta pass the ball, man" after a turnover. The Saturday and Sunday games brought better results: he played tough defense, rebounded well and had an explosive dunk in the game against the D-League Select team. If you look carefully in the video, you can see me in the third row aisle seat.

Vesely really had a Summer League to forget. He struggled at the rim to score and rebound, missing several dunks and got really pushed around in the paint, especially by Houston's Royce White, who was just way too big for Jan to handle. On the positive side, he showed off a jumper which looked far more confident and effective than he showcased last season and his passing skills are still just incredible. He had a couple of gorgeous touch passes that barely touched his fingertips before being sent to the open man.

After this Summer League, I'm not sure Shelvin Mack is going to be around long as John Wall's backup at the point. He played solid defense over the weekend but didn't impress with his ball handling skills. When I compare Shelvin to Tomas Satoransky, our second round pick in this past draft, Tomas has better ball handling skills but has a good four or five inches of height on Shelvin. Satoransky, by the way, can distribute and he can get up there. He had a dunk in the Houston game that was impressive.

Singleton, Vesely, Mack and Beal: Future of the team? Shavlik Randolph is deliberately omitted.
Bradley Beal, our third overall pick from this past draft, was impressive but also even keeled no matter how the game went, which after the moping of JaVale McGee and Nick Young the past few years was comforting to see. Bradley was just solid and gained obvious confidence from game one to two and two to three. I thought he ran the floor well and handled the ball well when he had to. I think good things are in store for us from this rookie.

As usual, our players on the court weren't the only members of our team who showed up for Summer League. Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor, recently acquired in a trade with the New Orleans Hornets, arrived early to touch base with the coaching staff and offer encouragement to their new teammates. Jordan Crawford arrived in the second half of the Rockets game complete with gold-rimmed sunglasses and a bright orange shirt (it was dark outside, by the way) as did Trevor Booker. And just before tip off of the Sunday game, John Wall sat down courtside trying to maintain a low profile in thick rimmed glasses and wearing a towel around his neck. His low profile was busted by Sam Cassell and about five kids in minutes.

Emeka Okafor and John Wall sitting courtside.
Head coach Randy Wittman and general manager Ernie Grunfeld were also in attendance. I managed to talk with both Randy and Ernie about the status of James Singleton, whom I hope we bring back after his second partial-season stint with the team in the last three years. While both said they'd love to have him back and that he's still in play for the team, I wonder if the front court isn't just a little too crowded. I hope I'm wrong. I also asked Ernie if he would tell me which way he was leaning with Andray Blatche. He didn't, but after we released Andray via the amnesty provision in the CBA on Tuesday, I know the answer anyway.

One of the things I love about travel is the chance encounters with strangers and almost every basketball trip seems to have one. This trip's encounter was a cab ride from the arena to the strip we shared with Hosni Ali, a former basketball player at NAIA Division II Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida. Hosni played last year in Egypt and talked about his efforts over the past week working out for various teams while in Las Vegas. He  turned down a contract offer to play in Egypt for three years for $3,000 a month. From what I have read about contracts overseas, it sounds like that was a smart move. He might make more than that in the NBDL which he was also exploring, having been offered an opportunity to try out for the Texas Legends by assistant coach David Wesley. A guy like Hosni is likely never making an NBA roster, but I love that he's still chasing his dream to play professional basketball. He's hoping to catch on with a team in China.

Oh...by the way the odds of the Wizards winning the NBA Championship: 100 to 1. I didn't place a bet.

July 17, 2012

Adios, Andray Blatche

As expected (hoped for?), today the Wizards released Andray Blatche via the Amnesty provision in the NBA's collective bargaining agreement. It brings a close to seven years of (mostly) unfulfilled promise and is another step in the right direction for the franchise. For what it's worth, below are my top 10 Andray Blatche memories, on and off the court, in chronological order.

September 26, 2005: Less than three months after being selected as the Wizards' sole pick in the 2005 NBA Draft, Andray is shot in a bungled carjacking attempt while returning home from a club in Alexandria. In the car with Dray is Peter John (or Party John, if you prefer) Ramos, the Wizards second round pick from the prior year's Draft. Apparently the two got set up by two women they met at the club. This would not be the last time Andray got into trouble because of a woman.

February 20, 2007: The Wizards beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 112-110 at Verizon Center. Andray dominates Kevin Garnett despite KG going for 26 points and 13 boards. Yes, I said dominate; check KG's other stats that night: two travels, a palming violation and a defensive three second violation. And this was not the 36 year old Garnett we just saw in the 2012 playoffs; this was Garnett in his prime. Dray got into KG's head that night and played some awesome D. When Garnett was asked about Andray's performance after the game, he replied simply "next question." Dominated! Finally we found our power forward of the future, right? Umm...maybe not. Keep reading.

Friday, August 2, 2007: Andray is arrested and charged with soliciting sex from a female officer in the prostitution enforcement unit of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department. While Andray claims he was actually arrested for driving with a suspended license and it was his friend who was arrested for solicitation of prostitution, he is sentenced to a day long seminar for men who solicit prostitutes anyway. Dray is a restricted free agent at the time. His contract value suffers considerably as other teams stay away. 

August 3, 2007: In the wake of Andray's arrest the previous day, Ivan Carter of the Washington Post relates the following story:
I'm reminded of an episode from last season. We were in Miami. Pregame. [Antawn] Jamison walks into the lockeroom fresh from a round of lifting weights and getting up extra shots. He spots Andray sitting in front of his locker stall munching down a plate of nachos and generally sporting the look of a guy getting ready to watch a game rather than play in one.
Antawn, looking down at Andray: "You have a $16 million contract already or did I miss something?"
Andray offers a blank expression but knows where this is going.
Antawn: "You came over on the second bus right? I've never come over on the second bus. I'm a vet but I always come over on the first bus, don't I?" (Translation: Teams typically roll from the team hotel to the arena in two groups. The first group usually consists of guys who want to get settled early, take extra shots when the court isn't so full and lift weights. Jamison is always on the first bus)
Andray: "I got extra shots up at shootaround."
Antawn just shook his head and started getting ready for the game.
Three years later, I talked dietary habits with some of the Wizards scouts in a bar in Las Vegas. All they had to say about Dray was that he likes to eat. No kidding.

May 5, 2008: My friend Mike and I talk Wizards over beers at 51st State in northwest DC with Ivan Carter, who was then the Washington Post Wizards beat writer. Ivan offers up the following quote about Dray: "All Andray Blatche wants to do is party and f*ck whores." Enough said.

July 14, 2009: Andray wears number 7, rather than his number 32, for the first time as a Washington Wizard in a summer league game. Dray explains "I'm wearing 7, and that means 7 days [a week] of hard work, 7 days of being focused." So before the switch, he was not focused seven days a week? You're a professional athlete, for God's sake!!!! You are supposed to be about hard work every day. You're being paid millions of dollars and season ticket holders like me are counting on you working hard. I know he's a kid, but come on!

March 11, 2010: Dan Steinberg indirectly calls me a psycho for owning an Andray Blatche jersey (http://voices.washingtonpost.com/dcsportsbog/2010/03/the_end_of_agent_zero.html). Thanks, Dan! As if I didn't feel bad enough about my decision already. Although he's probably correct; I don't know what I was thinking. Note Dan also calls my friend Mike, owner of a JaVale McGee jersey, a psycho.

March 23, 2010: Andray gets into an argument with head coach Flip Saunders on the bench during a game and refuses to participate when Saunders calls for him to go back into the game. Seriously, Dray? After the game, Saunders calls out Blatche for bailing on his teammates but in a move indicative of the enabling atmosphere on the team at the time, Dray is not suspended the next game. Seriously, Flip?

May 3, 2011: Andray hosts "Lapdance Tuesday" at the Cameo nightclub in Miami. I just don't have any explanation or elaboration for this one. Just shaking my head at this point.

March 21, 2012: Andray is listed on the official Nets - Wizards box score as "Not With Team - Conditioning." I am not aware of any other time a player has been listed on an NBA box score as being out of the game because he was out of shape. Andray would shortly thereafter be shut down for the season and never play for the Wizards again.

Obviously, there are not a lot of positive memories. And I even left out Andray being suspended for fighting with teammate JaVale McGee during the 2010-2011 season and him criticizing the play calling after the first game of the 2011-2012 season when he announced he was a team captain to the Verizon Center crowd before the game (he wasn't). I hope for his sake Dray has saved some money from his time with the Wizards. Let's move on.

July 4, 2012

NBA Draft 2012

The 2012 NBA Draft was held last Thursday night in Newark, New Jersey. The Draft is the annual meeting where NBA teams select rights to players who are eligible to play in the league. For the most part, either college basketball players who have completed between one and four years of college ball or international players younger than 22 years of age are selected and assigned to teams for a contractual period defined in the NBA's collective bargaining agreement.

Reduced to its simplest form, the Draft is essentially an event where names are announced, with up to a five minute gap between names in the first round of 30 and up to a two minute gap between names in the second round of 30. That's it! 60 names being read! Literally, nothing else happens. But for NBA fans, and especially fans of teams that are not so good or even awful, the Draft offers hope. Hope that things will get better. That maybe, just maybe, my team will get lucky enough to select someone who will turn the franchise into a perennial playoff team and if things go really well, a championship contender. I don't know much, if anything, about the players who are being drafted, nor do I think anyone, including the so-called experts, can predict accurately how a player will perform in the NBA, so nobody will ever know the night of the Draft whether a team has made the right selection or not. But for me the Draft is all about hope and that is why I watch.

As recently as 2000, the Draft was held in NBA arenas on a rotating basis, but starting in 2001, the location became fixed at the Theater at New York's Madison Square Garden. With the MSG Theater under renovation the last two years, the Draft has shifted to the Prudential Center in Newark, an arena large enough to allow space for enough fans that they actually sell tickets. Since I'd never been to the Draft and tickets were available, I decided this was the year to attend, especially since the Wizards held a high pick as a result of having the distinction of the second worse record in the league.

So last Thursday morning, I put on my Jan Vesely shirt, packed up a couple of days of clothes, and headed to Union Station to board Amtrak's Northeast Regional to Newark to see if the Draft in person would be at all exciting. I managed to talk my friends Mike and Bryan into coming with me; God love those guys for coming on trips like this with me, although I realize that if there were no beer available, I'd definitely be going solo. The trip up was flawless: our train was on time, we checked into the Newark Hilton and were drinking beer at the Edison Ale House right outside the Prudential Center at about 5:15. The crowd in the restaurant was just as I expected: NBA fans of many different teams including the Celtics, Trailblazers, Sixers, Knicks and a contingent of Milwaukee Bucks fans featuring a guy in a Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson jersey. I wonder how many times a year that guy wears that jersey. We wondered if we would see fans of every NBA team at the Draft and thought if any franchises would not be represented, it would be the Charlotte Bobcats and the Sacramento Kings.

The Prudential Center: The Jewel of Downtown Newark, NJ.
The Prudential Center opened in 2007 as the new home for the New Jersey Devils, although the arena played host to the New Jersey Nets the last couple of years before they turned their back on Jersey and moved to Brooklyn as soon as the 2011-2012 NBA regular season was in the books. I have been in my fair share of sports arenas in this country in my life but I am not sure I have been in one built in quite the same manner as the Prudential Center. I assume funding was scarce during the construction. I haven't seen gypsum board walls or what appeared to be corrugated metal decking used as wall covering in any other NBA or NHL arena. The appearance of the place is completely unimpressive and the lack of wayfinding signage is confusing. I actually walked past our section until we realized you had to push aside the curtains dividing the concourse from the seating to access the seats. It appears the only thing that money was spent on was an inordinate amount of New Jersey Devils logos on the floors, walls, seats and even the urinal and water closet flush valves. I think I would have skimped on some of the logos and splurged for CMU walls in lieu of the gypsum board walls which are already showing signs of premature age. You can always add logos later.

Were the New Jersey Devils logos on the flush valves really that essential??
The Draft was actually interesting. No, seriously. I'm not sure I'd ever go again but I wouldn't rule it out either. It's definitely different in person than it is on TV, even though the ESPN broadcast is taking place in the arena. You can watch what you want to watch, rather than being restricted to watching what ESPN wants you to watch. The audio commentary, including analysis of picks and interviews with players and others, is mostly inaudible in the upper level of the arena, which was disappointing. Fortunately, we could still hear the names being announced (that's the whole point after all, isn't it?) over the cascade of boos that commissioner David Stern elicited every time he stepped to the podium.

The rumored trades involving the first few picks of the draft which promised to re-shape the NBA landscape never materialized so we ended up filling the time between names being called by talking to other fans, which is always one of the best parts of traveling. We swapped our own analysis of the picks with the Knicks fans behind us and the Sixers and Suns fans in front of us, even though we knew we wouldn't understand how the picks would work out for years. Surprisingly, a lot of the fans around actually seemed to think the Wizards had things going in the right direction, which is a perspective I can't get being so close to the team in DC. I hope they are right.

The event was full. I'd actually say close to being sold out. I'm not sure we saw paraphernalia from all 30 NBA teams but we did see the Bobcats (Gerald Wallace still counts, even though he's two teams removed now, right?) and Kings (there's always one Jimmer Fredette fanatic) represented. I think the most confusing sight of the night was the guy with the "Bring back Darius Miles" sign and his five different Darius Miles jerseys. After making his case for Miles in vain, he eventually settled on his Jason Thompson jersey, which was equally confusing, but which added representation for the Sacramento Kings in a way that somehow seems appropriate for that franchise. 

Our view of the Draft stage from our upper deck seats.
As for the Wizards, they drafted Bradley Beal out of the University of Florida with the third pick, who was the guy we wanted all along. There was some anxiety that the Bobcats would trade down and allow another franchise to draft Beal at number two, but that never happened. We traded for Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor the week before the Draft so shooting guard is the only spot in our lineup with a clear talent deficiency and Beal was generally considered to be the only superior shooting guard in the draft. We left over a full minute on the clock when we selected Beal, which I think was the most of any pick in the draft. Hopefully, he and John Wall can solidify our backcourt for years to come.

In the second round, the Wizards selected Tomas Satoransky, a 6'-7" guard from the Czech Republic, who will probably wait a couple of years before coming to the NBA, which might allow us to re-sign guys like James Singleton, Cartier Martin and Roger Mason, Jr, all of whom did what I thought was a good job at the end of last season.

Summer League starts July 13. Vegas, here I come!

The completed first round Draft board. The upper deck closes after round one. It's open seating downstairs after that.