Updated Jun 18, 2012 - 10:56 am
Phoenix became a real sports town 20 years ago today
I was just 27 days away from my 21st birthday. But instead of looking forward to going out and getting schnockered like most soon-to-be 21-year-olds, I had a sadness in my heart.
The Phoenix Suns, tired of being a perennial 50-win team who bows out of the NBA Playoffs in the first or second round, engineered arguably the biggest trade in the history of Phoenix sports. The Suns sent my favorite player, Jeff Hornacek, along with forward Tim Perry and center Andrew Lang to the Philadelphia 76ers for All-Star forward Charles Barkley.
This also may have been the first trade in sports history that was on hold until one of the principals could be acquitted of assault charges. Barkley had been arrested in 1991 for throwing a man through a window at a Milwaukee bar. After he beat the rap, the trade went down.
So the Suns, who had just won 53 games and advanced to the Western Conference semis before being rudely eliminated by the Portland Trail Blazers, shipped off three-fifths of their starting lineup to Philly for a guy whose 76ers team had just missed the playoffs and had won only two postseason series in the five years he had been the centerpiece of the team.
I remember wearing a small name tag on my shirt at work that read "In Memory of Jeff Hornacek: 1986-1992" in protest of the Suns' maneuvering.
I was 20. I was naive. I had no idea what the Suns were getting. I had no idea the ride the city of Phoenix was in for.
The Suns were moving into their new palace in downtown Phoenix, America West Arena (now US Airways Center), after calling the Veterans Memorial Coliseum home for 24 seasons. For the first time in the team's history, they were getting a substantial uniform and branding change. There would have been an increased buzz even without a blockbuster trade.
But the Suns, to their credit, knew what they were doing. Yes, they were getting an outspoken player with a checkered past. But they were getting easily the most marketable athlete in the Valley's history. Quick, name another Phoenix athlete who had done a national television commercial for a major advertiser before 1992? Can't think of one, can you?
Forget the marketing; we'd never seen a player like Barkley, either. His first game in purple and orange was a harbinger of things to come. Sir Charles pumped in 37 points and grabbed 21 rebounds as the Suns christened their new arena with a win over the Los Angeles Clippers.
SunsMania was born.
The 1992-93 season was unlike any other in Phoenix sports history. The Suns won 62 games, overcame an 0-2 deficit to beat the Lakers in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs and stormed all the way to the NBA Finals for the second time in franchise history. Barkley won the league's MVP award, becoming the first Suns player to do so.
People painted their cars purple and orange. Didn't have tickets to a game? Sorry, you weren't getting any. In fact, you were lucky to get a seat in a sports bar to watch a game. Every other dog in the Valley was named Majerle. You get the idea.
The storybook didn't have a happy ending; John Paxson nailed a three-pointer with 3.9 seconds left in Game 6, killing Phoenix's chances to play for their first championship on their home floor.
But Paxson's dagger didn't kill the spirit of the Suns fan. An estimated 250,000 people lined the streets of downtown Phoenix to give their favorite team one last salute on a day where the mercury crept close to 120 degrees. When the crowd dispersed that day, it was the end of the best single season in the annals of Phoenix sports.
We've never experienced anything quite like that season. Not when the Diamondbacks won the Series in '01 or when the Cardinals nearly shocked the entire sports world by coming up just short in Super Bowl XLIII.
Nope, 1992-93 was a season-long celebration; not a case of a team getting hot at the right time. The Suns were hot from November until June.
And it was all because of the trade that went down twenty years ago. The '92-'93 Suns would have been good with Hornacek, Perry and Lang -- no doubt a playoff team -- but not a serious contender for a championship.
So today I look back on my 20-year-old self and shake my head. How could I have been that upset about the Suns making the best trade in their history?
The Suns organization had existed for nearly a quarter- century before June 18, 1992. But it was that day that Phoenix earned a spot on the sports world's map -- and it was all because of Charles Barkley.