Costa Mesa marketing firm weathers coronavirus disruption with can-do spirit

When the coronavirus brought American sports to a screeching halt in March, it wiped out games, shuttered arenas and disrupted the ancillary action related to the competitions, too.

For Albert Hall and his Costa Mesa-based marketing firm HallPass, it upended months of planning, including all their established expectations for another festive NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, where for 17 years Hall has handled the business of producing and growing basketball’s premier offseason event.

“It was like, ‘OK, we need to pause for a minute, collect our thoughts, talk to our key constituents in the industry and figure out what the forecast looks like,’ ” Hall said by phone last week, when his company was preparing to handle all the content for “The Basketball Tournament.”

The $1-million, winner-take-all tournament is set to return to action for a seventh year — with some significant new wrinkles from years past (including prize money; recently it’s been a winner-take-all $2 million prize).

The made-for-TV event will be held from July 4-12, broadcast by ESPN and played without fans entirely in Columbus, Ohio, where all 24 teams and staff will be quarantined.

“With the NBA on hiatus, it will be the first live basketball event to take place following the pandemic,” said Hall, who said he’s excited about being part of a live sporting event that could serve as an example for others on the way back.

“TBT will be a real litmus test for what’s possible. I’m sure there will be some inefficiencies that will be tweaked and improved on. … That’s what I’m looking forward to, telling that story, understanding more and being able to convey that message.

“And there’s the underdog athletes, guys who didn’t get to play in the NCAA Tournament, and the stories of how some of these teams came together in the pandemic — a lot of cool content.”

In 2017, Albert Hall (right) presented then-Laker Lonzo Ball with a trophy after he was named Most Valuable Player of the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. (Photo courtesy Albert Hall.)

Hall’s small shop, with its eight full-time employees and regular rotation of contractors and contributors who can “handle everything on-site and in-house, soup to nuts” for clientele ranging from Mercedes Benz to Orange County-based mom and pop shops to, yes, Summer League — which, with executive director Warren LeGarie, Hall has helped develop into the NBA’s must-see summertime showcase.

“People don’t realize, this little office in Costa Mesa has been the key driver for Summer League,” Hall said. “Every implementation originated here in the last 17 years, in this 50-foot, one-room office.”

That’s fitting, Hall said, recalling Jeremy Linn’s breakout performance in 2010, when he arrived in the Nevada desert as a relatively unknown talent from the Ivy League.

“We have one every year,” Hall said. “Somebody comes out of nowhere and seizes the moment and is that underdog who overachieves — that’s who we are.”

ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg said that can-do spirit has helped buoy HallPass during the unprecedented break in the action brought about by COVID-19.

“He’s a forward-thinking guy,” said the longtime college basketball coach, who hosts “Pickup Game with Seth Greenberg,” one of the virtual interview series that has launched on the HallPass website during the shutdown. “He’s not a guy who looks at things with a negative perspective; he’s a guy who looks at solutions.”

Those web series, Greenberg said, started as an attempt to provide basketball fans pining for the sport with a fresh distraction. But they’ve evolved into a platform for people who know one another from the basketball world to have meaningful conversations about the social issues on everyone’s mind in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd.

On the most recent episode of “Basketball Jones,” the series hosted by ESPN’s Mark Jones, Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce spoke frankly about being a black man in America.

“I’ve only been a head coach for two years and I’ve been this — a black man — for a long time, 44 years to be exact,” Pierce told Jones. “So I don’t walk around assuming people know me as a head coach; I walk around knowing they see a 6-foot-3 black man. And the experiences, we know, for African Americans, particularly black men, are that it’s not easy, it’s not comfortable, it’s not cozy, don’t ever assume that you have privilege. You’re a target by the (color of your skin).”

“The conversations are real … it’s people dropping their guards and actually being comfortable talking, and the second thing, listening to each other,” Greenberg said. “It’s like sitting at a bar, listening to a conversation in the group next to you.”

And as NBA players discuss among themselves whether or not, or how exactly to return at the end of July in Orlando, the folks at HallPass haven’t given up on Summer League in 2020.

“We’re looking at all options and obviously discussing with the NBA what our options might be. In our minds, we’re in a pause … it hasn’t been canceled,” Hall said. “We’re never saying no. There’s always a chance, if people really want to pull something off.”

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