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Summer League on firm ground

NBA Summer League director Warren LeGarie took it as a promising and satisfying sign Thursday when he pulled into the Cox Pavilion parking lot in the early afternoon and most every spot was taken.

"I had to park so far away, I needed a ride," he said kiddingly.

The lot wasn’t filled by UNLV students, but by basketball fans. It was the sort of dilemma LeGarie could only dream about five years ago when he started the summer league in Las Vegas.

Not only was parking tough, but seats inside were at a premium for much of the 10-day event, which ended Sunday.

"This is what we envisioned happening someday," said LeGarie, a Bay Area sports agent who in 2004 convinced the NBA and Thomas & Mack Center director Daren Libonati to give him a chance. "It’s not just the great players that people are coming out for. The event has now become the attraction. That’s the biggest thing."

Last year the NBA decided to join forces with LeGarie and his staff, putting its collective brand and marketing muscle behind the event. The summer league also expanded to include the Thomas & Mack, giving it two courts to use.

The NBA continued its relationship with LeGarie this year, resulting in record crowds and 21 of the league’s 30 teams participating. The event produced an attendance record of 40,368, beating last year’s estimated 32,000.

"We’re thrilled," said NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver, who attended for two days. "We consider ourselves partners with Warren. Without question it’s been the most successful summer league Vegas has ever had and it’s turned into a week of festivities.

"We’re doing golf tournaments, clinics, NBA Cares events, a charity dinner. We have 21 teams participating and in some ways it resembles the baseball winter meetings in terms of trade activity, media interest, discussions, both on and off the record. It’s an incredibly vibrant place to be."

Even teams that didn’t participate were represented. New Jersey Nets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe was on hand for a few days, and new Chicago Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro was here Sunday.

There will be more of the same next year, according to Gail Hunter, the NBA’s point person for the event who has earned the unofficial title of "Summer League Commissioner."

"We plan to be back," Hunter said. "This is a great place for this type of event. The fans are having a good time. The teams are enjoying themselves. We enjoy our relationship with Warren and his staff and we’ll work with them to make it even better next year."

That could mean expanding beyond 21 teams. LeGarie said with the availability of both the Cox and the Thomas & Mack, it’s possible to play more games. But the decision on whether to participate is up to the individual teams.

There is also talk of Houston starting a summer league to go with others in Las Vegas, Orlando and Salt Lake City, where the Rocky Mountain Revue is now under way. That could impact the number of teams that ultimately decide to play in Las Vegas in 2009.

But LeGarie said he is getting indications from around the league that he might need to make room for more teams.

"Chicago is coming next year, Boston is talking about returning and so is New Jersey," LeGarie said. "I think 24 teams is the max to maintain the quality of the league."

• NOTES — Denver, Golden State and Milwaukee shared the summer league championship, each finishing with 4-1 records. Cleveland was the only winless team (0-5). … Portland’s Jerryd Bayless averaged a summer league-leading 29.8 points and was voted the event’s top rookie. He sat out Sunday’s finale against New Orleans because of a sore left hand. … Minnesota’s Kevin Love, who missed the last two games with an inflamed left Achilles tendon, was the top rebounder with 13.5 per game. … Ex-UNR guard Ramon Sessions was the assists leader, averaging 7.3 for Milwaukee.

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