Bickley: Larry Fitzgerald may be key to Suns’ future

Apr 8, 2019, 7:06 PM | Updated: 9:50 pm

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)...

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Arizona has a new odd couple. Robert Sarver and Larry Fitzgerald. The reviled and the revered. The Yin and Yang of Valley sports.

So what exactly is our beloved icon doing with an owner as maligned as Sarver?

Start here:

Fitzgerald is a nascent businessman. He understands the NBA is booming, the second most popular sport on the planet. He understands franchise valuations are skyrocketing in all professional sports. He really likes money. And maybe he’s purchasing an equity stake in the Suns, a small piece of ownership.

After all, he’s become a fixture on Planet Orange. He lobbed in a phone call to 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station to vigorously defend Sarver on the radio, after the owner’s alleged relocation threats. He said Sarver was badly misunderstood, and nothing at all like his reputation.

Then Fitzgerald showed up with Sarver and other members of the Suns front office at the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, where they effectively scouted Murray State star Ja Morant. And in the strangest twist of all, he sat in on an interview with Jeff Bower, who is expected to be hired in hopes of bolstering the team’s front office.

There is something happening here. And it could be a boon for everyone involved, including us. To wit:

The Suns are about to conclude their second-worst season on record. They are about to hire an experienced advisor to pair with James Jones, who will likely retain final say on the roster and coaching staff. After nine consecutive years without a playoff berth, Sarver is sticking perilously close to the status quo, not even attempting to hire hometown favorite David Griffin.

The latter is a shame because Griffin is available and forever indebted to the Suns. He is the perfect candidate at the perfect time, a man who understands the market, the team’s history and the festering flaws better than anyone. And he would demand a chunky piece of autonomy, as would any NBA executive with any status or leverage.

Depressing stuff, really. Especially when ESPN’s Brian Windhorst joined the chorus of national criticism, stating that “with the exception of Donald Sterling, Robert Sarver has the lowest approval rating of any owner since I’ve been covering the league.” Especially when former coach Earl Watson said he was given a two-week termination notice in training camp, which likely led to Eric Bledsoe’s departure.

That show of petulance was nearly topped in 2018-19, when General Manager Ryan McDonough was fired nine days before the season. And it all fits the popular definition of insanity, doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different result.

But Fitzgerald’s presence is interesting, maybe even a reason for hope. He’s a huge Suns fan. He loves basketball. He is one of the most affable athletes on the planet, a man with very few enemies.

Locally, his presence alongside Sarver surely softens the unpopular perception of the Suns owner. Fitzgerald could also be the most effective recruiter the team has had since Jerry Colangelo. Who better to sell a fellow athlete on the virtues of spending a career in Phoenix?

Otherwise, we’re just grasping for hope. As interim GM, Jones has done some good things. He rescued Josh Jackson when his player was a no-show at a scheduled public appearance, showing up and buying beer for the disgruntled crowd. He lucked into Kelly Oubre Jr. after a botched three-team trade with the Wizards and Grizzlies. He has a great reputation among those he played with, and the ability to maneuver through a locker room and relate to modern-day players, thereby extinguishing brushfires before they cause real damage.

But permanent GM? With the strong chance the Suns will be introducing another new head coach in 2019-2020? It all sounds painfully familiar. Unless Jones has a line on some marquee free agent who will make this team whole in the offseason.

So maybe Fitzgerald can do us all a favor, using his polished image and wonderful reputation to help make Phoenix a destination city once again. And maybe he can use his immense public relations skills to get in Sarver’s ear, doing something that no one else has been able to accomplish:

Soften the rough edges and recurring mistakes, helping the owner stay out of his own way.

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

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