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The Extra Pass: Talking “Summer Dreams” with producer of Summer League documentary

Mar 14, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT

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I’m a big fan of the NFL/HBO series “Hard Knocks,” which each year follows a team through training camp and the drama of season-ending injuries and the cut downs — guys are playing for their livelihood and there is inherent drama in that. It’s great television.

But thanks to guaranteed contracts you can’t do the same thing at an NBA training camp, there just isn’t much drama.

Summer League however…

The NBA’s annual two-weeks of games in Las Vegas features rookies, second year players and guys with dreams of landing spots 9 through 12 on an NBA bench, but most of whom will be playing in Europe next year. They are guys with dreams, guys playing for their next job. Add to that this is a tryout for young coaches, potential NBA referees and a host of others around the league. Because of all that the event is now pretty much an NBA convention with players and agents to D-League coaches in town. All of that with Las Vegas as a backdrop.

That caught the attention of the producers of a documentary on the Summer League called “Summer Dreams,” which airs Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.

“We’ve always believed in finding the underdog story, in finding the drama in the less high profile stories,” said Mike Tollin, who helped produce the documentary for Mandalay Sports Media. “In Summer Dreams Victor Oladipo and Anthony Bennett and Shane Larkin and Michael Carter-Williams — the latter two being featured in our show — have less at stake than Romero Osby and Dwayne Davis.”

Osby was the rare college senior coming out who still got drafted — 51st overall, in the second round by the Orlando Magic. That means no guaranteed contracts. Look back over recent drafts and most guys chosen after 45 either never see the NBA or don’t last long if they do — Osby went into the Las Vegas Summer League trying to play for a spot on the Orlando roster. He had to get the coach’s attention. If not, he was going to have to choose between the D-League and staying domestic, under the eyes of NBA GMs, or making a lot more money overseas.

Then there was Davis, who was undrafted after attending four colleges in five years.

“Dwyane Davis was getting $100 a day and was just so excited he was staying in a fancy Las Vegas hotel, but this is a guy that if it doesn’t go well in those two weeks it’s over,” Tollin said. “Find another career. That’s where the drama lies.”

Davis played well enough to get the attention of scouts for a Spanish team, where he signed a six-figure deal for this past season.

Those are the best stories, but there are more.

Then there are the big names. Carter-Williams and his mother/manager are prominently features, showing in a candid way what is one of the more unusual, close and interesting family relationships in the NBA. Then there was Shane Larkin, who was going to get a chance to show Dallas what he could do after they drafted him, only to break his ankle just before the start of Summer League.

What the show got was access — these players let the cameras into their lives. Cameras are rolling with Larkin and his mother in the hospital when his father — Hall of Fame baseball player Barry Larkin — calls. It’s emotional.

“The trick is being respectful, both of the brand of the league and the lives of the people you’re invading,” Tollin said. “There’s a line, and you need to continually redraw that line.”

Summer Dreams walks the line well. It’s emotional, you become invested in these people and you root for them to succeed. You rise and fall with their performances, their struggles.

There are a million more stories at Summer League and Tollin said he hopes that this can be developed into an annual documentary, if not a weekly show that runs through the summer. But for now, it’s worth watching (or setting the DVR) for this year’s episode. It shows the real work of the NBA.

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