If you visit one of Orlando’s many theme parks, you usually follow a tree-lined path of pastel-colored clarity. Turn here and park there. Signs point cars one way and buses the other, while all leading toward the happiest place on Earth. I drove through a down-at-heel neighborhood that made for a sharp contrast—weed-owned yards, an abandoned church with broken windows, full-to-bursting shopping carts and chess games under an overpass.
And then, abruptly, you’re in downtown Orlando. Newly-bricked buildings house a French-style cafe, a hair salon and other upscale businesses. The just-paved roads still smelled of hot asphalt in the noon-day sun, reflecting heat waves on statues and other works of art that decorate the sidewalks leading to the Amway Center. I pulled into the secured parking garage, grabbed my laptop, and jaywalked across the flowered median to the arena. There are basketball games happening in there, even if no one in Orlando seems much to care about it.
The first game of the Orlando Summer League was already in progress, a thrilling affair that serves mostly as background noise while people engage in conversations revolving variously around basketball. There isn’t as much star power on the assembled rosters this year as there has been in the past, especially relative to the young NBA millionaires in the stands, a season or two removed from highlighting their skills in a similar format. Or the hall-of-famer-turned-executive there to see if their personnel decisions will measure up to their playing careers. They all generally spend more time staring at their phones than they do watching the game.
Orlando’s league is most significant in that it is the first-of-three such tournaments: the one in Utah begins a few days later and, lastly, the Las Vegas affair that’s the biggest spectacle of them all. But many coaches and executives say they prefer Orlando’s low-key approach because it’s easier to focus on the basketball; the temptations of the seedier stretches of Orange Blossom Trail do not compete with the glittering attraction of the Vegas Strip. The main difference, though, is that the Orlando Summer League isn’t open to the public so everyone in attendance is there because of a connection, however loose, to basketball.
That’s a big umbrella, and many of the people under it, and at the Amway Center, have bigger things on their mind than the Orlando Summer League. As such, the games sometime take a distant backseat to the rumors and distraction of NBA free agency, which started the day before Orlando’s league began. The futures of Kevin Durant, Al Horford, and Hassan Whiteside take precedence over the presence of players who are most likely be spending next season in Macedonia or the end of a bench or in the rotation of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. A dunk attempt that caroms off the rim draws groans from the bench, but furtive glances at most from the seats. Then it’s back down to work, which is on their phones.
Day 2 is in full swing as a buzz begins humming just beneath the surface din at the Amway Center. Durant’s meetings have concluded and a basketball insider hears from a trainer that Durant is unhappy with the moves the Thunder had made up to this point and is looking for a change; the consensus is what while Boston is a possible destination, the Golden State Warriors are now the favorites. As this conversation happens, Diamond Stone, a teenage center that the Clippers picked in the second round, manages to use each of his 10 allotted fouls in just 17 minutes of play. The Knicks, on just 34 percent shooting, scored 48 points in a loss.
By the third day of Summer League, the modest crowds there at first had started to dissipate. It’s July 4th, and some team personnel have moved on to Utah or for a visit home before going on to Vegas. Durant issues a statement confirming that he’ll be joining the Warriors and the action on the court, including a 2-of-14 outing from Detroit’s 2015 lottery pick Stanley Johnson, seems somehow even more insignificant than ever before.
It’s a widely-held belief by those in attendance that the 2016-17 season will merely be a formality and the NBA title is all but guaranteed to belong to Golden State. Debates about Durant’s motives and fit give Summer League the illusion of life, but there’s a Frankenstein-ian quality that’s hard to quantify. Teams have paid to be here, and those committed resources will keep them there, but there’s a pall over all of it. There are three days left, still.
As the initial shock of Durant’s departure subsided, the quality of play in Summer League provided an inexplicable sense of comfort. While it was clear that the Warriors were locks to win future titles, this hardly had any impact on the players participating in Orlando. Ask the majority of them and what they’re looking for, above all else, was something so much more humble than a legacy-defining ring or two. The players are looking for work anywhere they can find it and the battle for NBA supremacy was figuratively and literally miles away. Juwan Howard played for 19 years in the league but, now as a coach leading Miami’s team during Summer League, explains that his role now is “to help these guys display their skills and help them win jobs. I know that’s their goal and I wanna do whatever I can to help them get it.” He, and everyone else, was in Orlando for work.
By Friday, the last day of the tournament, there were only a handful of spectators left to appreciate this particular struggle. Final seeding had been determined the day before, and a battle for Summer League champion was set to take place; this is the sort of job fair that comes with trophies at the end. Players dove to the floor with desperate abandon, scaled incredible heights to pull down necessary rebounds, even shrugged off injuries that might have incapacitated players in an actual NBA game; playing time is precious and couldn’t be wasted seeking treatment. The game, in true storybook fashion, came down to a game-winning shot. In overtime, no less.
The actual champion mattered little, nor did the name of the game’s most valuable player. But there was an inescapable sense of joy to the way the members of the winning team happily accepted a t-shirt and cap commemorating the victory. Most of them hadn’t assured themselves of a job; this was the first step in a long and difficult road to that end. But they’d competed the best they could and there was something gleaming in their eyes that had been in short supply all week: hope.
As I pulled out of the parking garage into the blistering sunlight of downtown Orlando, I took the same raggedy route I had travelled on that first day, down hardscrabble Orange Blossom Trail. The country was reeling from an uninterrupted stream of bleak news and violence; the game of basketball seemed very small in comparison. But, the closer I got to the games, the more meaningful and great, in purpose and in hope, basketball seemed. It was a game, and it would not save anything. But in the struggle, and in the stubborn dream that animated it, there was something of the best in humanity. There was hope.