By the start of the fourth quarter of Friday’s 2 p.m. Bucks-Nugs game, the lower bowl in the Thomas & Mack Center was mostly full. There was a man in the row below me wearing a white Wembanyama Spurs shirt. Crisp, bleached ivory white. He had a tattoo of a sarcophagus on his left arm and went about some chicken killers. So excited, anxious, ready. There was one more game to go before the French aliens’ debut, but the mood was raging. The man in the new shirt dictated messages on his Apple Watch and jumped to “Hats off.” One text said, “Sometimes you have to bend over.” Another said, “I love you.” He smiled at his watch, ate another roach, and chimed in. . . .She knows what I can bring to the table.”
The arena was ready. Lots to see, lots to hear. Tim Duncan jerseys, Tim Duncan shirseys, a tank top with the Halloween image of Duncan and a Tony Parker eyepatch pointing guns at a fake Joey Crawford. Back to shirseys. So many Duncan shirseys. Get on the field at the right time and you’d think they were walking them out the door. Wembanyama was also well represented in the sartorial sense. Lots of No. 1 San Antonio jerseys running around. A father in a Wemby jersey sat next to his son in a Jeremy Sochan jersey. Both wore backwards hats and the son fumbled with a hot dog. Skee-Lo’s “I Wish” was playing over the speakers and the father was in it, nodding his head and pointing to the court. The boy followed the direction of his father’s hand, looked where he was told, also began to nod.
Other things seen: Tarkanian in the rafters, the Wembanyama Metropolitans’ 92 jerseys, the Michelob Ultra Courtside Experience and a kid who says, “For some reason the blue Sharpie shows up better.” There was a whole lot of sweat, a whole lot of throwbacks, a whole lot of cross-body bag and bucket hat combinations. So much Austin Reaves gear. A terrifying amount. There was a man in a purple Kobe jersey, Tommy Bahama sun hat and yellow fanny pack. The shirt was unbuttoned and he wore a fanny over it, wrapped around his waist like a belt on a dress.
An older man and wife walked by in matching Wemby jerseys, looking like they’d been waiting for this day since Kawhi left. There was a man with arms like sycamores wearing a McDowell’s All-American jersey and two Polo’d guys talking in the beer line.
“Shall we take a nap after golf?”
Behind them was a woman in a Boogie Cousins Kings jersey. She had a tattoo of a giraffe on her arm and discussed the absurdities of the San Francisco housing market with one of the concession workers. She ordered two Coors Lights, “For myself and a friend.”
As it neared tip-off, I looked for a place to set up the game. There was a guy on the walkway in the upper bowl who recorded a video of himself saying, “I’M HERE AFTER BETTING 2,000 DOLLARS THAT HE’S [unintelligible bro-ish warbling], I’M HERE AT HIS FIRST GAME,” and the flow of traffic in the hallway forced me down the stairs. I stopped at the bottom of the stairs to watch him some more. He was young, maybe in his early 20s, wearing shorts with what looked like ice cubes on them. He was not satisfied with his first take and went again. A friend held the phone for him while a sweet family of six waited to go to their seats. There was a mom, dad, two Giannis jerseys and two Booker jerseys. The father stared at the child recording the video with extreme disgust, looked like he was going to throw him through the floor, said nothing.
Saw the kid later and realized it wasn’t ice cubes on his shorts but cubes. He passed Alvin Gentry. Standing in front of Coffee Works on the main concourse, right next to a sign with $15 acai bowls, Gentry called out to someone, “Hey, how’s your son?” I didn’t wait for the answer. There was basketball to watch.
A summer league crowd is ready for anything and will love. They will scream. They want to be loud. And the good people at Thomas & Mack were thirsty for the Frenchman, ready for the start of the rest of their basketball lives. The place was pretty much packed. There were a few patches of empty seats at the top of the arena, weird Tetris blocks with limited space, but for all intents and purposes it was a fully loaded Wemby. Minimal applause for all Hornets starters. The Spurs contingent were a livelier bunch. Wembanyama for some reason got the fourth place in the announcements by the PA guy. Poor Blake Wesley got the hammer spot. The fall from the roar for Wemby was significant – the sound dropped off a cliff.
Sometimes you go to the amusement park and it rains. The jumper just didn’t fall. A crowd of Lakers fans filled Wemby with drunken complaints and advice. Really developed things like “Send up” and “It’s a vibe you can’t buy.” Every time he caught the ball the place vibrated with anticipation, ready for him to do shit. The ball would be in his hands not half a second before the calls for him to shoot would begin. If he had the defender one-on-one, the arena would go party hungry and start calling for heads. Every time he touched it, the place reacted as if he was just a few points away from an all-time record.
Wembanyama’s performance was not all bad. Nine points, eight rebounds, three assists and five blocks on 2-of-13 shooting. There were some flashes, sauce, moments of invention, clarity. And to see him in person, even from the top of Thomas & Mack, hundreds line up, the proportions are cartoonish; defensively, it’s clear he’s equipped with one hell of an eraser. But he was also passive and not exactly flying around out there. It was mostly an inexplicable yawn of a performance. A confusing skirt.
Wemby tried to rattle off a remixed Dream Shake around the five-minute mark of the second quarter and lost the lane footwork-wise and ended up on his keister. One of the Lakers guys stood and put his hands on his face like Kevin in Home aloneand screamed as if he had witnessed a murder.
There was a clanged 3 off the backboard. Turnover. Uncertainty. Midway through the third, Kai Jones and his Marcus Smart hair flew in from the rafters to catch a lob over Wembanyama. And the arena sounded like a jet plane taking off. Jones’ finish was so impressive and he felt himself so much afterward that a possession or two later, after getting fouled and falling to the floor, he did a kip-up to get back on his feet. A kip-up is always fun because it’s never necessary. Unless you’re doing karate or street fighting, it seems a lot of times it’s faster to just stand up normally. Sick athlete though.
Later in the third, Wemby had his ankles torn when Brandon Miller crossed him and put him on his ass. And it’s so hot outside and it’s Vegas and you wonder if you’re seeing things. Your eyes present you with images that seem like lies. You look around the arena and mumble, “What’s going on?” This man was here nine months ago and put on one of the more surreal shooting displays in recent basketball memory. Now he’s being played by Kai Jones for a long time? [Rubs eyes.] An electronic ad wrapping the arena says Donald Sutherland is a perfect place to live. But that doesn’t make sense either. [Rubs eyes again, looks back at the ad.] “Downtown Summerlin is a wonderful place to live.” [Rubs eyes again.] “Donald Sutherland kicks ass Clute.” Another missed shot by Wemby. [Rubs eyes again.] “Space Cowboys is a good movie.” What dark magic is this? What’s going on?
By the end of the third quarter, Thomas & Mack sounded like a wake. The crowd had become so excited by the wonder, so excited to see this new impossibility enter the league, so ready for him to dominate, to perform. It was to be a radical new beginning. They came to the entertainment capital of the world to be dazzled, and they weren’t.
Near the end of the game, I saw Dice Shorts and his cameraman walking up the stairs in the upper bowl a few sections away. They looked dejected, filmed reaction shots, tried to cope. Sometimes it was a shot of Dice Shorts on his phone. Sometimes he clapped. Sometimes he shook his head. Once they switched places to another angle. I saw him screaming at the phone, acting for it, pointing at it. They sat near the top, checking the like count on the posts, looking disappointed, betrayed, utterly furious.
If anyone thought Wemby’s Game 1 performance would do anything to quell the public’s curiosity, Thomas & Mack were even more loaded for the Spurs’ second game, Sunday against the Trail Blazers. Tickets were sold out. In the cab on the way over, the driver wore a Route 66 button-up covered in road signs and fireworks and kept switching stations between classic rock and talk radio. Wild rocks from the car stereo. Foreigner: “We can do a secret meeting.” Some AM station: “I haven’t been able to find any Vietnam-era night vision goggles anywhere.” At one point we were stuck behind an 18-wheeler and the driver said, “Always wonderful, when you have a big truck in front of you and you can’t see anything.” Players will most likely have similar frustrations with Wembanyama’s defense. More from the radio: “Reports of UFOs have gone off the scale.”
Once inside, it was wall-to-wall traffic in the lobby, masses of people moving on a crawl space. Women in bikini tops and Balenciaga sneakers weaving through merch and concession lines, careful not to spill their margaritas. A guy with bleached tips and slip-on Sanuks talking on the phone in the bathroom. He held his mouth close to the microphone as if speaking on speakerphone and said, “You guys don’t want to do shit.”
The arena was almost full and buzzing again. Maybe the energy wasn’t quite the same [Kevin Garnett voice] ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE and maybe there were more skeptics in the mix this time, but the crowd was still hopeful, still on Wembanyama’s side. Casting directors talk about how when an actor comes to an audition, the people in the room want them to be the perfect person for the role. They root for them. They want them to kill it. The summer league crowd handled Wembanyama in the same way. He stepped into a warm room, one that was ready to adore him. There are stumbles and the free kicks have to be solved, but talent this tempting, this newthis strangethis is the kind of thing you want to be in the building for.
And this time, Wembanyama’s game was more in line with the astronomical expectations he has come in with. Twenty-seven points on 9-of-14 shooting, 12 rebounds, three blocks and one steal. Vegas, baby. The city with other chances. He shone brightly.
It was indeed production, but there were also hints of further skill and know-how, interstellar moments where he butted his head against his current ability while hinting that his future ceiling might well be something on the level of the Sistine Chapel. There were heavenly pull-ups and improbable posterizations, the crowd could hear every touch, begging for magic, getting it. And the fans loved him for it, stayed loud for him, stayed attentive as the top pick in this year’s draft led the Spurs on a furious comeback that ultimately fell just short. When Wembanyama missed a one-legged runner 3 near the end of the game, it felt like a symbol of both the not-quite-there-yet nature of his current offensive package and his astronomical potential.
The NBA viewing public had come to Vegas as a mass of people hoping to see some bigger talent put on a show they will remember. Finally, Wembanyama gave them one. That’s what stars do. Interplanetary dynamics. He is a space invader. Don’t let the slow start fool you. The takeover still feels imminent. The basketball universe has expanded. The aliens are here.