Early success sees Suns ascend in Valley sports prominence
Some teams are flavors of the month. Others spark unbreakable relationships, marriages that are meant to last forever.
The Suns are the latter. They are our first love. That much is obvious.
Same with Jerry Colangelo’s fearless prediction from a few years ago, that our NBA team will once again own this town, surpassing the Cardinals and every other team in the Valley the moment they regain contender status.
Judging by the early returns of James Jones and Monty Williams, it might not take much longer.
There are many logical reasons for this team’s sudden ascension. As new architect, Jones has done some daffy things. He lucked out with the acquisition of Kelly Oubre Jr. He’s whiffed on some of the small stuff.
But he’s also changed the culture overnight, bringing in adults to play basketball, grown men and real professionals who exude tenacity, play defense and share the basketball. That combination can be magic.
There are also many explanations for the Suns’ special status in our bandwagon, transient, wacky sports market. We are one of just two major professional sports cities that claim an NBA team as their first professional franchise. The other is Milwaukee. The contrast is striking
Milwaukee won a coin flip with Phoenix in 1969 for the right to draft Lew Alcindor, who became Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, one of the most impactful forces in NBA history. Reverse that stroke of misfortune, and the Suns wouldn’t be waiting for their first championship nearly 52 years later.
To the contrary, they might’ve been just like the Diamondbacks, winning a title in their first five years of existence, robbed of all suffering and perspective.
Milwaukee’s original franchise also relocated to Los Angeles, but only after winning five prehistoric titles for the Twin Cities. For salt in the wound, they became the Lakers, our most hated rival.
At their peak, the Suns represented the best of Arizona. They put Phoenix on national television, if not the map. They overachieved for decades, compiling the fourth-best winning percentage in NBA history under Colangelo’s guidance.
They’ve featured the Gorilla, one of the greatest mascots in NBA history. They played to the soundtrack of Al McCoy, a trusted grandfatherly presence who made games sound down-home and personal. And then there was 1992-93, the season that changed Arizona forever.
I saw it unfold firsthand, with a different set of eyes. As a visiting member of the Chicago media, I hunkered down in a Scottsdale hotel for over a week, and I was astonished to see high-profile members of the Suns hanging out in bars with their adoring public during the NBA Finals. Every night. Until really late.
I once deemed this a terrible weakness. During those Finals, I shared the information with Michael Jordan, who merely rolled his eyes. He knew the Suns weren’t as battle-tested or focused like he was, and it’s why Jordan never properly feared that Suns. Even though he was this close to facing a Game 7 on the road.
I have changed my mind considerably.
I now believe that Suns team didn’t go into a bunker during the NBA Finals because the energy in the Valley was so extraordinary. The love they felt in the community during that magical season represented an awakening, an age of innocence that only happens once. Those players felt compelled to be part of the community they suddenly defined, sharing with their adoring fans and those who helped make it happen.
A longtime Suns fan tells me that every newscast in 1993 began with a Charles Barkley story. Because nothing short of shocking murder could displace the Suns from leading the broadcast. Because they were the show. And that’s why 300,000 people showed up for a loser’s pep rally in the middle of the desert. The love affair was that special.
There are generations of basketball fans who have been weaned on the Suns. Grandfathers can tell stories about them and grandchildren know enough to listen. The team speaks to our heritage, our struggles and our love of a big game in downtown Phoenix, when our celebrity culture comes out in force.
And anytime the Suns actually resemble a good team, they pull on our heartstrings. Especially those who might’ve been in a bar during the 1993 NBA Finals, hanging with the Suns, when the drinks were always on them.
Reach Bickley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.