Inside the NBA’s version of Comic-Con

Somewhere under the lights of the Mandalay Bay Convention Center over the weekend, the Jabbawockeez danced during a TV special that could have been an email as part of “the most culturally relevant basketball experience on the planet.”

At least that’s what the signs called it. It was the first ever NBA Con, the league’s riff on Comic-Con. The basketball-themed Lollapalooza was a three-day smorgasbord of fashion, music and basketball.

But seen through a different lens, the convention was an intriguing window into how the league sees itself as a business.

For the NBA, stars are bigger than the games – cultural presences far beyond the floor. The NBA took advantage of that by holding the convention during its summer league in Las Vegas, where dozens of union stakeholders, retired players, owners, general managers, players, sponsors and fans come to Nevada.

“When you ask people about the NBA, to them, it’s not a company,” said Mark Tatum, the league’s deputy commissioner. “That’s life. That’s their culture. The NBA is this culture of music and fashion and entertainment and style.”

More than 25,000 fans attended, mostly paying $30 to $250 to enter. But really, cultural relevance is priceless, especially when sponsored by Michelob Ultra. (They were there too.)

The convention floor was set up to evoke the spirit of New York City with park benches, Jenga, cornhole and pickleball courts. There were neighborhoods titled Drip, Collection, Network, Park and Convos.

The Drip, where sponsors set up shop, was the real core of the convention.

Sure, a convention helps the league reach fans in a way it wouldn’t otherwise at a time when LeBron James isn’t playing every night. On Saturday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver described a new season tournament during an inflated television special. But throwing an NBA Con meant the league also created an opportunity for new intellectual property. It sold NBA Con merchandise and set up a new Twitter account, though the account had fewer than 2,000 followers Monday, compared to nearly 44 million on the league account.

There was an AT&T booth where a sign read, “Step into the spotlight and show off your fire fit.” Fans lined up and shot slow motion videos of their outfits under a fancy spotlight.

Another booth, run by a memorabilia company, MeiGray, sold game-worn jerseys. Its main podium featured a mannequin wearing a jersey worn by Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic in Game 2 of the NBA Finals last month. It sold for $150,000. Next to it was a smaller podium with a jersey worn by Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler during Game 3 of that series. It sold for $17,500. To the victors – the Nuggets – go the bigger boxes and higher prices.

Tucked away in a back corner of the conference room was an exhibit called “Rings Culture,” from jewelry store Jason of Beverly Hills. It displayed several replica championship rings. It could have been the perfect location for a heist in a movie like “Ocean’s Eleven.”

The night before the convention, the NBA held a briefing for reporters. Tristan Jass, a YouTuber known for trick basketball shots, showed off some of his skills on a makeshift court. But before he did, he described his rise to fame.

“We just left a trail of inspiration around the world,” Jass told the audience.

His first shot was a pull from a spot on the side of the court behind a chain-link fence. He missed the first two attempts, but hit the third. It was impressive. His second shot was a full-court effort from the opposite corner. This one didn’t go so well. After at least 20 misses, some observers – the uninspired ones, obviously – moved on to the rest of the trip. As a shot rang out, Jass muttered, “They hurt.”

The biggest draw of the weekend was a panel discussion with Victor Wembanyama of the San Antonio Spurs and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar moderated by Isiah Thomas, the former Detroit Pistons star. There were a few hundred seats, but a long overflow line of spectators trying to catch a glimpse of a basketball torch being passed. Wembanyama was the much-heralded No. 1 pick in the NBA draft last month.

There was also a larger background: Abdul-Jabbar’s conversation with Wembanyama in the 30-minute panel was more time than he had spent chatting with James in the past two decades combined. Last month, Abdul-Jabbar told reporters in Los Angeles that he had “never had a real chance to talk to LeBron, other than two or three minutes.”

At NBA Con, Abdul-Jabbar said he was amazed at how much the game had changed.

“The different duties and what is expected of different players in different positions,” he said. “It’s really been through a huge change and for more than a few minutes I was just sitting there thinking, ‘Would I be able to compete?'”

Abdul-Jabbar spent 20 seasons in the NBA and retired in 1989 as the career leader. James surpassed his record in February.

“However, it would have been nice to be able to fly from city to city in a charter plane like these guys do,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I didn’t make it. I could have played longer.”

To that end, the convention served not only as a branding exercise for the NBA, but also the players themselves. Scoot Henderson, the 19-year-old drafted third overall by the Portland Trail Blazers last month, is part of a new generation of stars with a marketing reach that players from Abdul-Jabbar’s era would find unrecognizable. Most players are active on social media, which has given them expanded ways to build an audience. Henderson was interviewed on a panel by former Knicks star Carmelo Anthony — and delivered a signal that the league saw Henderson as the next in line for stardom.

“I’ve been thinking of myself as a business for a minute,” Henderson said afterward. “The name. A company—that’s who I am.”

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