Sunday, July 21, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Bjorn Berg is convinced that Las Vegas wants more basketball.
The city has plenty of hoops options already, with the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, the Las Vegas Aces, the NBA Summer League and Team USA all headquartered within three miles of each other, but that hasn’t stopped Berg from spending the last seven years trying to add his own contribution to the basketball landscape.
The Desert Reign Pro-City summer league has been operating since 2012, providing a venue for high-school, college and professional players with local ties. This year’s iteration tipped off last week, with games being played every Wednesday at the Doolittle Community Center through July 31.
It’s free for fans to attend, and the star power on the court is usually impressive for a league still in its embryonic stage.
Last week, current UNLV guard Amauri Hardy was the headliner as he juked his way to 26 points. Prep baller and Class of 2020 Rebels commit Nick Blake suited up to loud cheers and dropped 19 points. Former UNLV and Bishop Gorman star Stephen Zimmerman, former Rebel point guard Jordan Johnson and social media influencer Brandon Armstrong also participated.
It was a typically eclectic group, and Berg sees that as one of the league’s strong suits.
“I just wanted to create the most competitive and safe environment for professional athletes, college athletes and top-level players from around the country, and specifically Las Vegas,” Berg says. “Because Las Vegas is just really a hotbed for basketball and it’s a great platform to showcase the city.”
A native of Minneapolis, Berg moved to Las Vegas in 2006 and began working as an elementary-school teacher. He has also been an assistant boys’ basketball coach at Durango for the past 13 years, and he started the non-profit Desert Reign Foundation in 2008 to help promote healthy exercise and nutrition among schoolchildren.
With his basketball background and experience as a community organizer, Berg believed Las Vegas would support a pro-am league during the summer if it was executed properly.
The difficult part of getting it off the ground was the infrastructure, as well as the hurdles put forth by the NCAA. Because the league is a mix of professional and amateur athletes, Berg says Pro-City games aren’t allowed to generate any revenue and must meet strict NCAA regulations.
“It’s a ton of hoops to jump through and it’s a process that needs to be started six to eight months early,” Berg says. “You’ve got to be willing to learn as you go, because the NCAA doesn’t always give you the most definitive answer and you’ve got to be persistent and send in applications and make sure you have all your ducks lined up with accident and medical insurance and all the other components. There’s so many different moving pieces. You’ve got to get clearance from all the compliance officers and athletic directors and the coaches for their athletes to play. It’s a huge puzzle.”
Using his connections throughout the city to secure player commitments, his initial vision for the league came together quickly.
The first games were played in the summer of 2012, and Berg recalls his surprise at the amount of fan interest on opening night.
“That first summer we were in Sawyer Middle School, no air conditioning, 4,000 people, standing room only,” Berg recalls. “That was crazy.”
With the blessing of then-UNLV coach Dave Rice, it wasn’t unusual to see half the team show up on any given night to play in the Pro-City league in its early years. The fans they attracted helped give the league an early foothold in the community.
Berg says the current coaching staff, led by head coach T.J. Otzelberger, has also been a willing collaborator.
“The relationship with the Rebels is amazing. They show a tremendous amount of support. I understand the Rebels’ number one goal is their season and their athletes and their longevity. I’m just providing a platform where if they’re healthy and active and they want to participate, please come out and participate. But UNLV is the best. The staff is amazing, the new coaches support it 100 percent.”
Now that the league is firmly established, Berg says he can usually count on a half-dozen NBA players to participate every summer. On opening night this year, it was Los Angeles Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell who stole the show.
Berg is especially appreciative of Pierre Jackson, the unofficial patron saint of the league. The former Desert Pines star is a regular at Pro-City games every summer, regardless of whether he is under contract with the NBA, the G-League, EuroLeague or his current home, the Chinese Basketball Association.
“Pierre is awesome because he’s one of the most highly decorated Las Vegas athletes, and he comes and participates all the time,” Berg says. “Every night. He supports it and he gets the community to come out.”
Berg says game days now require about 12 Desert Reign staffers in order to operate. Attendance can vary from week to week, which makes it a uniquely challenging event to coordinate.
“Every night is a roller coaster because you don’t know what’s going on around town,” Berg says. “I try to pick a night like Wednesday, where you’re not competing with night life, you’re not competing with pools, the Aces, NBA summer league is over, so you just try to find a night when nothing else is going on basketball-wise, so basketball fans say, ‘I’m going.’”
In Berg’s vision, he sees the Pro-City league becoming Las Vegas’s version of the famous Drew League, which was founded more than four decades ago and has become a staple of the Los Angeles basketball scene, drawing huge pro stars and celebrities every year.
The Pro-City league added a women’s component this year, and Berg wants to continue developing and expanding his vision until it becomes synonymous with Las Vegas basketball.
“I think ultimately, each year as it continues to grow and develop — we add a couple teams, develop the women’s side, get more participants, get more support from the community — it can be amazing.”