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Dan Bickley

McCain’s memorial shows he stood out in a state of transient sports fans

Luis Gonzalez, right, a former player for the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team, wipes away a tear as he joins other honorary pallbearers watching the hearse drive away after a memorial service for the late Arizona Sen. John McCain at North Phoenix hurch Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

It’s too easy to be a sports fan in Arizona. It’s much harder to be a sports fan of Arizona.

Sen. John McCain was different. He was a champion of courage, country and his constituency. And before his final curtain fell, he raised the bar for one of the most dysfunctional sports markets in America.

His pallbearers included hockey great Shane Doan and World Series hero Luis Gonzalez. His memorial service featured a pitch-perfect speech from Larry Fitzgerald, a future Hall of Famer. He chose to honor those who made him stand up and cheer in his free time, those who brought glory to State 48, athletes any state would be proud to claim.

The gesture was proof of McCain’s undying commitment and investment to Arizona sports, and his parting gift was a victory to diehard fans. He validated a region that craves respect, reinforcement and a team occasionally good enough to make the playoffs.

It’s been a long haul.

Drop roots in Arizona, and you soon learn that allegiance to home teams is not civic requirement. There is no pressure or consequences for those who won’t conform or climb aboard. Transient fans can be found on every corner, fortified by the abundance of infidels in the Valley.

Our stadiums are safe haven for those who cheer for the opposing team, strolling smugly through turnstiles without trepidation. Our bartenders are too willing to change the channel at their request, serving them and not our hometown teams. They speak to our collective immaturity, where there are too many residents and not enough Arizonans, taking what they want and giving little in return, contributing nothing to our collective soul.

Our identity crisis is compounded by national media members who have no incentive to understand our narrative, our teams and our culture. They know that Arizona teams are not click bait. They rarely pique mainstream interest. Our major professional franchises have produced one championship in over 120 seasons combined, providing little motivation for current residents to trade in long-held allegiances.

Even worse, our stadiums are safe havens for those who cheer the opposition without fear of treason. Our yawning indifference to what makes a great sports town – one city, one team – is also our fatal flaw.

The reality is different than perception. The Cardinals have authored one of the greatest turnarounds in NFL history, a son reversing the competitive sins of his father. The Diamondbacks are vying for consecutive postseason berths for the first time in 16 years. The Suns have new energy and optimism and a next-generation superstar in Devin Booker. The Coyotes have quietly turned a corner, riding the vision of the most interesting general manager in hockey.

And while the WNBA doesn’t reach beyond a niche audience, we also claim the greatest female basketball player in history, where Diana Taurasi laps her peers like Jerry Rice does with NFL wide receivers. Our future has never seemed more enticing, no longer a mirage.

But none of that mattered to McCain. He supported all of our teams, win or lose, like every politician must. Except his love was real and obvious to those he cheered. Including those who honored him on Thursday, before he was whisked away on Air Force One.

Our collective heart has been on display in the past few days. We’ve rallied around McCain’s iconic status, and how he made Arizona a bigger place. Our reverence was the best eulogy, muting the politics that too often compromise our humanity. And before he left the tarmac for the last time, he tipped his cap to the local teams and the players he loved.

The way it should it be.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier