The only thing more constant than the oppressive heat and relentlessly shitty concessions at the NBA's Las Vegas Summer League might be the press of young fans begging for autographs.
During the games they disperse and watch the action on the floor, or comb the stands for other current players – bigger stars, usually, than those on the floor – or ex-players and coaches. But at the beginning and end of every game, the crush descends again.
Before the Charlotte Hornets' game against the New York Knicks on Saturday, their star center Al Jefferson ambled out of the tunnel in the Thomas & Mack Center and sat behind the bench in street clothes. As soon as he appeared, a lanky teenager a dozen rows up from the floor shouted, "Al! Hey Al! You owe me some shoes!" Not threateningly, but maybe aggressively familiar.
He sprang to his feet, but his friend seated next to him looked hesitant. "Come on! Come with me!" The friend waved him off but, undeterred, the first kid bounded down a few steps before yelling "Come on!" again.
Then he stopped. He pulled out his phone and took a picture of the back of Jefferson's head. He took another step down. Then turned around and retreated back to his seat, still giddy with energy that bounced through his legs as he talked excitedly with his friend. I don't know if he ever got up the nerve to talk to Jefferson.
This is the thrill of the chase. Security guards walled off Andrew Wiggins on Sunday evening while he watched the Kings – for whom his brother Nick was nominally playing – from courtside. For every four autograph seekers who came up, the guards would miss maybe one who would do an end-around on the court and get the coveted ink on a shirt or ball or program. Success.
They shouted players' names, chanting, "P.J.! P.J.! P.J.!" as Charlotte's P.J. Hairston left the court, then shifting to an uneven wave to "Noah! Noah! Noah!" when Noah Vonleh followed him. They plucked at their shirts, the universal sign for "Give me your sweaty jersey."
While the Wizards' Jarell Eddie – who averaged 2.6 points and 1.0 rebound per game in Summer League – stood in the mouth of the tunnel waiting for the Charlotte-Houston game to end, one young fan shouted "Eddie" repeatedly, presumably just reading the name on the back of his jersey. When Eddie finally turned, the fan yelled, "Can I have your shoes?" and I'm pretty sure Eddie said "I need them."
Older autograph seekers – your 15 and 16 year olds – are canny, angling for the big names, but the younger ones just seem to enjoy having a side-project at the games. When I asked Jason, 13, which autographs he'd gotten he said, "I got…what's his name…the mayor of…uh…"
Not even a player?
"No, he's a retired player, he's now a mayor."
Kevin Johnson? Jason's dad, a seat away from Jason, nodded. They'd also gotten Gary Payton and Andre Iguodala – the whole "gotten" construction is a little strange – plus brushed shoulders with greatness, or at least the new coach of the Milwaukee Bucks.
"I got to see Jason Kidd – he sat right next to us," Jason says and then, more excitedly: "Right across the stadium? Reggie Miller was announcing for ESPN. And Reggie Miller's awesome."
Out on the concourse I met Charlie, 14, and Jack, 10, from San Francisco. Jack was in Vegas for a basketball tournament ("Small forward," he replies when I asked what position he played – he seemed undersized at four feet). Their tactics were a little more NSA than just shouting from the bleachers.
"Yesterday we looked at the TVs a lot," Charlie says. "They'd zoom in on famous people in the stands, so we'd see [and say] 'OK, Jason Kidd's sitting right there' and we'd go into the stadium and try to find him and ask him for an autograph."
"And we sneak up on them and say, 'Hey sign this,'" Jack adds. "You can sell them on eBay for like…a lot of money."
Ah yes, the money. Older collectors like Nick and Liam, both 15, have even more pro-tips for getting the most coveted players to sign.
"Talk about their alma mater," Liam explains. "With UCLA players I do, like, the Eight Clap, say 'Go Bruins' and that stuff." I had no idea there was a special clap for UCLA, but there it is.
Sometimes it's best to keep it simple. "Just talk nice and don't push it," Nick advises.
"It's a good hobby to get you away from school and all the stress, I guess," he continues, actually looking pretty stressed. "I've made plenty of money."
At first, it seemed depressing: that autograph chasing was either ancillary and essentially meaningless in the context of actual basketball or else coldly mercenary – a way to make money for kids who want stuff but don't have jobs. And that's leaving aside parents who send their bright-eyed and adorable children for autographs before turning around and selling the ink on eBay.
But fortunately, I can remember being a kid. I remember collecting baseball cards both before I knew they could be worth something and after. I never even sold a baseball card, but I remember how much something tangible could mean when you had so little stake in the world. What kid in America doesn't at some point think, "Things. Yes, things are good and having them for my own means something."
When you're 11 or 13 (or really, even 15), your engagement with a sport is its own kind of performance, an imitation of the hundred different aspects of it – the players, the commentators, your friends. At first, it's a kind of act, but it can become something more. Not every kid is going to play the game, but the autograph game provides a point of access, a way inside basketball that might blossom into something bigger and less concrete.
It's possible there's nothing more American than the autograph. As a totem, it combines our obsessions with celebrity and talent with our desire for something more than mere experience, for something tangible. There's the thrill of acquisition, and there's rarity and exclusivity, and all of it is compressed into a few flimsy squiggles that nevertheless hold forth the promise of profit. But no matter how odd they are, totems hold power so long as they're believed in. Someday these kids might lose their faith, but that will only be the beginning of falling in love with basketball.