Phoenix became a real sports town 20 years ago today

Jun 18, 2012, 4:38 PM | Updated: 5:56 pm

June 18, 1992.

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
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

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-
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.

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Phoenix became a real sports town 20 years ago today