Massive crowd delays, nearly cancels LaMelo Ball AAU game in Las Vegas

Updated July 27, 2017 - 5:18 pm

An AAU game for the ages was nearly canceled Wednesday night due to fire-code and safety concerns at Cashman Center.

Fortunately, most fans — outside of Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James — were able to take in the action between two of the country’s most recognizable high school basketball players.

“(The police and security) were extremely helpful in working with our staff and making sure it was a safe environment for everyone,” adidas Summer Championships director Chris Rivers said. “We made a decision that was best for our fans and the game. Everything was done for the safety of those in attendance.”

Rivers would later add: “We’ve had some good dialogue with local authorities and made plans that will put us in a better position going forward to ensure everyone can come in and enjoy some great summer basketball.”

Despite being delayed for about 15 minutes while police tried to control the overflow crowd on Court 5, the game more than lived up to the hype.

“I didn’t want to admit it but that passed the 2006 (adidas) Summer Championships with Kevin Love and O.J. Mayo at Foothill High School,” Rivers said. “The time of social media makes a difference. If you would’ve had them with social media … Whoa.”

The hype was brought on because of SC Supreme’s Zion Williamson, the No. 2 overall recruit for the class of 2018, and Big Baller Brand’s elite 2019 recruit LaMelo Ball, the brother of Lonzo Ball who was the top pick of the Los Angeles Lakers in June’s NBA Draft.

Crowds shuffled in hours early just to get seats on Wednesday and police officers and security personnel were forced to set up barricades before tipoff and make room more for an estimated crowd of 3,500 to 4,000 people who filled the 98,100 square feet exhibit halls. The court that was used sits on the west end of the Cashman Center pavilion and has a capacity of 6,971.

Margaret Kurtz, a Public Information Officer at City of Las Vegas, said the responsibility of not exceeding the occupancy load — the number of people who can safely be evacuated from any room or facility — for events like the adidas Summer Championships “rests with the person operating the venue.”

Deputy Chief of Fire Robert Nolan said he was “impressed” by the planning of the adidas staff to keep the number of entrants below 6,971.

Mostly everyone in the building, though, chose the Court 5 game at one time, which led to crowding.

“The expectations were that we’d have a full house and it would be exciting,” Rivers said. “We underestimated how much social chatter there would be all day. From 8 o’clock in the morning, Zion’s phone was blowing. Even though they’re two different players and they play opposite positions, people were coming to see Zion versus LaMelo.”

An announcement before the game warned people to clear the congested walkways or the fire marshal would have to shut down the event, which was slated to begin at 9 p.m.

“Clear the front rows. Let’s go people. Work with us, please,” the public address announcer said.

The show, however, went on and the game was deemed playable by the police and the adidas staff “one minute” before the original start time. No injuries occurred.

Throughout the game, police officers continually asked fans to “back up six inches” from the baselines.

Rivers confirmed James was supposed to attend the game, and was even sitting in a car outside of the venue. But James’ camp was advised to stay away for “safety concerns.”

Event officials and officers banned anyone else from entering the building an hour before tipoff, and Rivers estimates “at least” 1,500 fans were outside, many of whom stood to watch the game on a big screen inside through the transparent Cashman Center doors.

Inside, fans stood on chairs and structures, and filled up the baselines underneath the hoop. On one fast-break play in the first half, Williamson was fouled on a dunk and came down on a police officer who was right under the basket.

Rivers said he expects fans still to make it out over the next few days and bring some of the same passion, but doesn’t believe the rest of the tournament will be as crowded as the marquee Big Baller Brand-SC Supreme game.

“I don’t think so,” Rivers said. “It was just because it’s those two guys playing at the same time. Whether you’re a fan of LaMelo or Lavar (Ball) or Zion, they came together at one time. (But) I’m sure we’ll still have some good crowds.”

Ball, a 6-foot-2-inch guard, is ranked eighth overall in the ESPN 60 rankings for the class of 2019. He committed to UCLA in 2015.

The 6-7, 230-pound Williamson is No. 2 overall recruit in the 2018 class and is the highest-rated player in Las Vegas this week. He currently is uncommitted, but has scholarship offers from nearly every major program, including Connecticut, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, North Carolina and UCLA.

SC Supreme defeated Big Ballers 102-94 in the game.

Williamson finished with 31 points and nine rebounds, while Ball had 36 points, 12 rebounds and five assists.

Along with Lonzo Ball, fellow NBA guards Andrew Wiggins (Minnesota Timberwolves), Jamal Murray (Denver Nuggets) and Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers) sat courtside for the game.

Rivers, who started the adidas tournament in 1999, said it was the “most anticipated” AAU game in more than 20 years of summer league basketball in Las Vegas. And that includes, he says, “Kobe (Bryant), T-Mac (Tracy McGrady), LeBron (James) and Carmelo (Anthony).”

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