07/13/2004 11:00PM

Hoops still hot in the off-season


For anyone who thought that basketball season was over and all hoops talk would fade to the backcourt, they were badly mistaken.

Between the NBA draft, the Kobe Bryant trial, the Lakers' pursuit of and rejection by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, the Shaq trade to Miami, Michael Jordan's reported interest in owning a piece of the Heat, and other various storylines, basketball has been hotter than ever, virtually dominating SportsCenter and sports talk radio even during the "off" season. And it will continue for the foreseeable future with the Summer Olympics in Athens next month - where a team of second-tier NBA stars will try to hold the United States' claim of having the world's top players - and Bryant's trial (finally) beginning at the end of August.

Here in Vegas, hoops talk is also the rage as the city is being overrun by freakishly tall young men in baggy shorts. The action started Tuesday night at the Cox Pavilion with the Reebok Vegas Summer League, which has the subtitle "Stars of Tomorrow." It's a pro tournament featuring the top draft picks and second-year players of six NBA teams: the Celtics, Cavaliers (sorry, no LeBron James - he's already a star today), Nuggets (ditto for Carmelo Anthony), Magic (with overall No. 1 pick Dwight Howard and college player of the year Jameer Nelson), Suns, and Wizards.

The games run through Sunday with a tripleheader on Friday (Nuggets vs. Cavaliers, 2:30 p.m.; Magic vs. Suns, 5 p.m.; and Wizards vs. Celtics, 7:30 p.m.) and doubleheaders on Saturday (Magic vs. Celtics, 5 p.m.; Wizards vs. Cavaliers, 7:30 p.m.) and Sunday (Cavs vs. Magic, 2:30 p.m.; Celtics vs. Wizards, 5 p.m.). Tickets range from $12 for kids to $32 for all games that day.

If you prefer watching players before they become well-known, three high school tournaments are being held concurrently next weekend, July 22-26, and it's no surprise that those are also sponsored by major shoe companies. The Reebok Big Time, the most well-established of the three and the tourney that Howard played in last year, will have 336 teams from across the country playing at 12 area high schools. The Nike Main Event will have 288 teams playing at UNLV and Durango High School, and the Adidas Super 64 will have 94 teams playing at Shadow Ridge, Centennial, and Desert Pines high schools. Information on attending those games can be found at their respective websites: reebokBigTime.com, visionsports.com for the Nike event, and adidassuper64.com.

But it doesn't end there. The National Youth Basketball Championship, for both boys and girls in grades 4 through 11, will take place July 27-31 at UNLV, Durango, and Bonanza high schools (visionsports.com) - for those who want to see the real diamonds in the rough.

Vegas getting NBA team?

Back to that Jordan item. A part of the Chicago Tribune story that started the rumor this past Monday also speculated that Jordan could be in a position to move the team to Las Vegas.

This type of speculation (which has been shot down by Miami owner Mickey Arison) is certainly nothing new. This recent rumor sent me scrambling to an article I printed out from ESPN.com's Page 2 almost a year ago. That June 27, 2003, Daily Quickie item read: "Why Kobe is as good as gone from the Lakers after next season: Two words - Vegas Bucks. Figuratively. Literally. You read it here first. And here's how it will go down: July 2003: MJ buys Bucks; Feb. '04: MJ clears cap room; July '04: MJ signs Kobe; May '05: Kobe wins NBA MVP; July '05: MJ relocates franchise to Vegas; Aug. '05: MJ hires Phil Jackson as coach; June '06: Vegas Bucks win NBA title."

Now, obviously, Jordan didn't buy any part of the Bucks last summer, and Kobe isn't about to sign with the Bucks, but if you substitute "Heat" for "Bucks" and "Shaq" for "Kobe," there's still a chance the scenario could play out. But don't bet on it.

Back to real boys of summer

Proving once again that people will bet on anything, sports books - here in Vegas and offshore - continue to report more and more action written on baseball's All-Star Game. Commissioner Bud Selig likes to take credit for the increased TV ratings the past two years by thinking that it's because of his decision to have the game's outcome determine home-field advantage in the World Series. I will counter that more people are tuning in longer because sports books keep putting up more and more proposition wagers year after year.

The American League's 9-4 victory on Tuesday night in Houston obviously made winners of traditional bettors who took the AL as a +125 (or thereabouts) underdog and also those who took over 9 1/2 runs, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. The AL cashed as the -135 favorite to be the first team to score. Manny Ramirez backers were cheering to the tune of 5-1 when he was the first player to homer, before all but three others even had a chance to hit. The AL's six-run first inning off Roger Clemens helped the junior-circuit bettors to win a +130 wager on who would be leading after five innings. The over/under on the number of combined hits was 19 1/2 (there were 23), and the total number of runs, hits, and errors was set at 30 1/2 (there were 37).

Great prizes for Grand Slam

One Las Vegan who didn't need to bet on Tuesday to be a winner was Howard Kaufman. He won the Free Grand Slam contest that was held at the Station Casinos' smaller properties: Wild Wild West (his hangout), Fiesta Rancho, Fiesta Henderson, Barley's, and Wildfire.

The Grand Slam contest had players predict 15 games per week over the first 10 weeks of the season. Kaufman's 93 wins gave him the grand prize of round-trip airfare for two to Houston, two nights of accommodations, two tickets to the Home Run Derby on Monday, and two more tickets for the All-Star Game on Tuesday. He flew his grandson, Clifton Smith, in from Chicago to join him on the trip.