The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Meet the NBA’s king of summer, who saw opportunity in Vegas when pro sports didn’t

Warren LeGarie (Joe Buglewicz for The Washington Post)
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LAS VEGAS — The concourse is quiet. On the eve of the NBA Summer League, workers are putting the final touches on the Thomas & Mack Center at the University of Nevada,  Las Vegas. A vendor hangs posters while the son of an NBA head coach, here as an intern, adjusts a sign. As these duties are performed behind the curtain of the NBA’s biggest summer spectacle, the ringerleader of the show sweeps into the lobby.

“I love it when we all get together! I looove that,” Warren LeGarie sings as he walks toward Dana Chapman, a senior designer and art director for the NBA, and Albert Hall, the summer league’s vice president of business operations.

As the summer league’s executive director, LeGarie has brought the basketball world together for 14 straight Julys. Along with Hall, his business partner whom he calls the “brains of the outfit,” LeGarie formed the inaugural Vegas league in under two months. It had only six teams. Vegas has since become the NBA’s premier offseason destination.

For the first time in the history of summer pro leagues, all 30 franchises sent teams of draft picks and dreamers to participate in this month’s 12-day, 82-game schedule that culminates with a championship game Tuesday (10 p.m., ESPN). The National Basketball Players Association and the Board of Governors held annual meetings in separate Vegas hotel ballrooms. LeBron James flew in to sit courtside. Coaches chatted in the bowels of the arena. Commissioner Adam Silver shared the landscape-altering announcement that the league is considering lowering the draft eligibility age. The NBA offseason, once quiet after the initial boom of free agency, has a marquee summer event stretching the league toward a year-round newsmaker.

LeGarie and summer league are now inextricably linked, and it started with him recognizing an opportunity others missed.

In 2004, organizers of the Reebok Pro Summer League in Boston, one of four offseason leagues at the time, failed to account for the Democratic National Convention taking over the city and its hotels. With no rooms to spare, that league planned to move to a small town in Connecticut. LeGarie, a longtime agent to many NBA coaches and executives, began calling his clients.

He received commitments from Washington, Phoenix, Denver, Cleveland and Boston, and convinced Orlando’s general manager that the team’s No. 1 draft pick, Dwight Howard, needed to play there, too. With that, Vegas had its sixth team and a non-affiliated league. A couple hundred fans watched games inside UNLV’s auxiliary gym. LeGarie feared they would ask for their money back. He lost thousands of dollars, and even more the second year. He still identified a chance to grow something.

“I saw a beach,” says LeGarie, 65. “Because ultimately when a rock is hit by a wave enough times, it becomes a beach. I realize that’s my life. It’s not going to come easy, but it’s through persistence, perseverance and grit, and ultimately it happens. This is 14 years, and it wasn’t like this the first five, seven years, and I had to persist.

“I had to see a beach. Nobody else did.”

It’s a fitting analogy for how LeGarie, a college dropout and onetime avocado picker, has built himself into one of the most powerful men in the NBA.

“He definitely has an interesting background,” says Mike Brown, a former head coach who now works as an assistant for the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors. “His life story could be a made-for-TV [film] or a movie or a book.”

‘Our business is touching people’

LeGarie should be somewhere resting but can’t stay out of the gym. A few days earlier, he pinched a nerve in his back while screaming into his phone negotiating a contract for one of his clients. Now he’s extolling the healing powers of the cannabidiol he’s been using for it.

“I’m better, actually,” LeGarie says to Chapman, shimmying. “F—! I’m back!”

LeGarie, for his part, is constantly asking about others’ well-being.

“How we doing, all right? Good with stuff?” he asks an intern, arena workers and a building electrician as he power-walks the concourse. Coming across an Italian contest winner who won an all-expense paid trip to be here, he expresses a similar sentiment, “Va tutto bene?”

LeGarie makes sure to extend his right hand to everyone.

“Remember,” whispers LeGarie, who learned about keeping clients happy while selling tomatoes south of the border, “our business is touching people. All the time. To reassure them. Every time.”

In the early 1970s, he attended University of the Pacific and walked on with the basketball team. Though with his long blonde locks, hippie philosophies and Hawaiian roots, LeGarie could have been cast in “Beach Blanket Babylon,” he cut a more rugged character on the court. He once wiped out a front row of folding chairs at the Stockton Memorial Civic Auditorium while diving for a loose ball and cold-cocked a teammate in practice.

“I remember him taking a swing at a 6-9 guy and popping him in the head,” says Leonard Armato, the starting point guard on those teams. “I mean, he wouldn’t back down from anybody.”

“He was an okay player, he wasn’t particularly tall, wasn’t particularly quick and not a scorer,” former teammate Andy Olivera recalls, “but he just got by on his moxie.”

LeGarie didn’t always agree with the coach, and he dropped out of school and moved to Mexico. While in college, LeGarie had remembered a man back in Oceanside, Calif., where he worked in the summers. That man always wore a nice suit while gesturing at the laborers and telling them how he wanted things done. He was a produce broker. So, without a degree or much direction, LeGarie fashioned himself into an apprentice produce broker.

After six months in Mexico, he moved to downtown Los Angeles to work a hand truck at a produce wholesaler. The job taught him how to think on his feet, understand leverage and retain customers.

“I can imagine him selling every fruit and vegetable,” Washington Wizards Coach Scott Brooks says of his agent, “and convincing you that it is the best in the world.”

The business of selling tomatoes, melons and bell peppers had grown for seven years, but LeGarie missed the thrill of basketball. He started hanging around Loyola Marymount University, home of the popular Los Angeles Pro Summer League.

“It was,” LeGarie says, remembering the feeling, “electrifying.”

He started thinking about running a league of his own one day.

“It made me understand I need to be in this environment,” LeGarie says of the L.A. summer league. “It was all the things I thought were missing in my world at the time and being in the gym made me feel back at home.”

Changing perceptions

In the 1980s, LeGarie shifted careers and became a sports agent. When most American agents overlooked international players, he saw a beach in Europe. LeGarie learned five languages to cut out the interpreters.

“I’m Italian,” Armato says, “and Warren speaks it better than I do.”

LeGarie grew a reputation for his mobile phone the size of two-liter soda bottle and the magnitude of his personality. Houston Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni, then a player in the Italian pro league, describes his first meeting with LeGarie as “almost a religious experience.” Dallas Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle remembers witnessing LeGarie’s heated phone negotiations.

“It was common to see him pacing around the . . . Loyola Marymount University gym virtually yelling in some high-volume foreign language convincing an executive in Spain, Italy, France, Turkey, Belgium, Japan, that his player was the right one to sign,” Carlisle recalls in an email interview.

LeGarie brought Fernando Martin to that summer league gym and convinced Portland to sign him in 1986 as the first Spanish player in the NBA. In 1989, LeGarie negotiated Croatian star Drazen Petrovic’s path to the United States, a huge step in the European migration to the NBA. Four years later, Petrovic was killed in a car crash in Germany.

“All of us walk around with holes,” LeGarie says, “and that’s one of my bigger holes.”

Over time, LeGarie concentrated solely on representing coaches. He now represents a third of the NBA’s head coaches, nearly 30 assistants, at least seven general managers and seven more assistant GMs. On some teams, he is the agent for both the head coach and the lead executive. Those relationships helped LeGarie take over the summer.

By the third year of the Vegas summer league, as Hall brought Toshiba aboard as the title sponsor, the NBA took notice. In the past, the four major professional leagues largely stayed away from Sin City. Summer league helped change that perception.

“I always say Warren deserves a commission from the NFL and the NHL,” Silver says of the two leagues placing teams in Vegas. “He demonstrated there was mainstream appeal for these games in Las Vegas. He demonstrated that it was acceptable and of real value to be playing these games in Las Vegas. I really do believe he paved the way for the other leagues to ultimately come to town.”

Though last year’s summer league set a record in attendance with 127,843, LeGarie has privately shared concerns about the league growing too big and losing its soul — “Like Coachella,” he’d say. But he welcomes the NBA using the summer league as a guinea pig for new elements such as the challenge system for coaches to contest an official’s call. That’s how Vegas stays current. LeGarie also finds new ways to keep Vegas as the summertime hub by producing roundtable talk shows for NBA TV, and one afternoon he must convince Cleveland Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue, who isn’t his client, to participate. LeGarie checks his phone and sees a missed call.

“Ty Lue is going to cancel on me,” a disappointed LeGarie mumbles to himself. He dials back and soon, he’s beaming again.

“Alright, sweetie,” LeGarie says to Lue, using his favorite nickname for both men and women. He’s gotten his wish.

Pacing around the arena later, LeGarie makes his way to the box office. An assistant hands him a bottle of San Pellegrino. He sips and massages his back again. When asked about the earlier negotiations in which he grew so heated that he threw his back out, LeGarie waves off the incident.

“I’m much better now. I got the deal done,” he says.

LeGarie smiles and takes another sip of Pellegrino.

“I got what I wanted.”

Indeed, va tutto bene.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Chicago as one of the Vegas Summer League’s original five teams and omitted Boston. The correct teams are Washington, Phoenix, Denver, Cleveland and Boston.

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