BASKETBALL, THE NEXT BIG THING

I got to America West Arena almost two hours early last Saturday night. It was the opening of the Charles Barkley era in Phoenix Suns' basketball.

Outside, the sidewalk was jammed with fans. Traffic crept and horns honked constantly as the garages and parking lots filled. It was a carnival. Expectations are so high. Perhaps they are too high. The Suns' season-opening game against the Los Angeles Clippers was already a sellout. I was amazed. Who wants to pay money to see the Clippers when the game is being televised? Lots of people, it turned out. Scalpers stood openly on the pavement hawking tickets for $150 each. And they had no trouble selling them.

I saw women line up excitedly at a makeshift stand to have their faces decorated with Suns' emblems. Street entertainers performed acrobatics. All that was needed to make it look as wild as the Pompidou Center in Paris was a half-dozen fire-eaters.

Wherever Jerry Colangelo walked, people stopped the Suns' president to grab his hand and express their congratulations. Jude LaCava, the sports personality for KTAR-AM, directed one of those self-important questions at Colangelo. LaCava sounded like the master of ceremonies at a weekly Rotary Club meeting: "Here is the man behind the energy," LaCava said. "Jerry, is this a special night for you?"

"I had a dream . . . ," Colangelo began, solemnly. Unfortunately, the remainder of his remarks were drowned out by a burst of applause and the blowing of trumpets nearby.

A night like this brings out people's secret yearnings for the spotlight. I spotted Henry Florence, self-proclaimed the town's richest drug lawyer, marching to his seat with the season ticketholders. The strange thing about Florence is that no one has ever seen him go to trial. But there is no doubt about his wealth. Florence drives a Rolls-Royce and spent $1 million on his home, which he boasts has the thickest walls of any house in the city.

Bill Frieder, Arizona State University's basketball coach, arrived wearing a bizarre satin sweat suit. He quickly took possession of a spot on the basketball floor near one of the baskets. Frieder began talking to Bill Walton, the old basketball star with the bad feet, and anyone else he could buttonhole. This vantage point gave Frieder the chance to wave at the many judges in the stands who had presided over the sentencing of so many of his ASU players in recent months. This was an astute tactic. The way Frieder recruits athletes, he will be doing business with these people again.

Mayor Paul Johnson, tall and gangly enough to play in the NBA himself, walked proudly down the aisle to find his seat. He and Colangelo would toss up the ceremonial first ball.

There was a pregame tribute to four outstanding Suns players of the past. Their numbers have been placed in a prominent place high up on the facing of the balcony. They are Connie Hawkins, Paul Westphal, Alvan Adams and Dick Van Arsdale. All still work for the club.

They were all fine players, but Hawkins was special. Along with Julius Erving and Michael Jordan, he possessed unnatural skills that put him on a separate level. Many players in the NBA have displayed great skill. But "The Hawk," "Doctor J" and Michael are in a league of their own.

@rule:
@body:Sitting directly in the row in front of me in the press box was Al Bianchi, former Suns assistant coach and former general manager of the New York Knicks. I had a flashback. I remembered another basketball opening night back in Chicago. It was 1966, the first home game in the history of the Chicago Bulls. They played it in the old Chicago Amphitheatre, near the stockyards, and the smell of cattle wafted over the place so that it got into your clothes.

The Bulls drew slightly more than 3,000 people that night. Bianchi and Johnny Kerr were co-coaches. Big Al is now a Suns scout. Kerr is a Bulls television announcer. Bianchi sits next to Colangelo, who was also there in 1966 as a member of the Bulls' sales staff.

Colangelo, who had been the basketball-team captain at the University of Illinois, had just left the tuxedo-rental business to take a gamble on the business side of pro basketball.

Things were loose in those days. I remember going out to the Bulls' training camp at Northern Illinois University in De Kalb a week before the season opened.

After practice I went to the hotel room occupied jointly by Bianchi and Kerr. There were two quart bottles of labeled Scotch on a table. Empty.

"Goddamn that Dick Kline," Kerr said. "He wouldn't let us get to sleep until we finished both bottles."
Dick Kline was the Chicago Bulls' owner.
Here's how unsupervised the players were. Barry Clemens, a Bulls player from little Ohio Wesleyan University, didn't get much playing time that first season. On a West Coast trip, Clemens went to the beach in L.A. to shoot baskets. He was invited to play in a recreational-league game that night. The NBA had developed so little fan interest that nobody knew who Clemens was. Clemens played and scored 51 points. The following day, there was a brief account of the rec-league games in the Los Angeles Times. There was a notation about Clemens' 51 points, but they were credited to the name of the player Clemens substituted for. He carried the clipping around in his wallet for months as evidence of his skill.

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