Valley of the Suns

The Barkley-dominated Suns had a stranglehold on us. Team Nash is better. Let's go crazy!

And while the '92-'93 Suns stumbled out of the gate in the playoffs by dropping the first two games at home against the bottom-seeded Lakers before coming back to win the five-game series, this year's team has opened the first round with a sweep.

But so far, only the '92-'93 Suns have set this town on fire.

In the summer of 1992, Charles Barkley arrived in Phoenix and everyone believed he was the man who would bring us our first professional sports championship.

Hall of Famer Jerry Colangelo compares Barkley's Suns with the Nash Era.
Hall of Famer Jerry Colangelo compares Barkley's Suns with the Nash Era.

Expectations were stratospheric before the first tip-off even took place that fall.

Everything was in place.

The Suns had a new coach, the legendary Paul Westphal, who'd led the overachieving 1976 Suns team (42-40 in the regular season) to its only previous appearance in the NBA championship series before losing to Boston in a thrilling six games.

Westphal knew what it took to get to the Promised Land, and he had the player to do it.

And that player knew how to trigger a frenzy with outrageous banter and deadly turnaround jumpers that elevated him to mythic proportions.

The high drama was played out in the NBA's newest facility, America West Arena. The then-19,023-seat venue was sold out for the '92-'93 season before the first game was even played.

"We led the NBA in victories from day one," Colangelo recalls. "We led the pack. The building of enthusiasm started preseason and continued during the course of the season."

Barkley was the team's great strength, but he and his mouth weren't enough.

"We had a star in Charles Barkley who brought a different kind of emphasis to a team, and everyone else filled in and did his job," Colangelo says. "Charles led the way. We were geared around him offensively, for sure."

Barkley was named the NBA's Most Valuable Player after averaging 25.6 points per game and 12.2 rebounds. The Suns reached the NBA Finals behind Barkley's sheer force. Charles poured in 44 points and grabbed 24 rebounds to lead the Suns over the Seattle SuperSonics in game seven of the Western Conference Championships.

But it was going to take more than Barkley to derail Michael Jordan and his quest for a third straight title with the Bulls. The Suns came up short, losing in game six on John Paxson's three-point dagger with 3.9 seconds to play.

Unlike Barkley's team, this year's Suns don't rise and fall on the performance of one player.

"This is a team that distributes the ball," Colangelo says. "Nash is responsible for that quite a bit. But it's also what coach Mike D'Antoni has taught. It doesn't matter who scores. Maybe one night Amaré gets 30, and he may get 12 the next night. But somebody else steps up and fills in."

Like Barkley before him, Nash is the favorite for league MVP.

But their style of play couldn't be more different. Barkley was a ball hog who used his strength to plow over defenders. Nash is the consummate playmaker, slashing to the basket, dishing off laser-sharp passes that leave defenders befuddled and teammates with open shots.

Nash led the NBA with 11.5 assists per game during the regular season, and he added 15.5 points per contest. He's dangerous from the perimeter and can take the ball to the hole. He's a magician at reading defenses, and there's no doubt that his addition is why the Suns have had the third-greatest turnaround in league history.

Yet while Barkley arrived in Phoenix to manic fanfare, Nash's acquisition last summer was met with cautious apprehension. The Suns believed Nash would have an immediate impact on the team, but nobody (not even Nash or Colangelo) expected this team to leap to the top of the standings.

After all, the Suns had missed the playoffs last year, finishing 29-53.

"We felt we could be competitive," Colangelo recalls of the start of the Nash Era. "We were shooting to make the playoffs. But, very early in the year, we internally started to adjust our thinking."

The attitude was pervasive. I took my son to the Suns-Cleveland Cavaliers game early in the season more to check out the newest high-school-turned-pro sensation, LeBron James, than to cheer for the Suns.

We snagged a couple of $12 seats in the top row behind the basket, and then walked around the near-empty upper deck to center court and sat at the rail. We were both pleasantly surprised about the exciting play of the Suns, and I started thinking, "Hey, maybe these guys really will make the playoffs."

I upped my expectations in January when the Suns demolished the Miami Heat and Shaq/Dwyane Wade. For the first time, I thought the team might make some noise in the playoffs.

"It took our fans and the media some time to catch on. I think we were 30-4 before anybody said, 'You know what, this team may have a lot more in it than anyone thought,'" Colangelo says. "The fact that we persevered through the entire season and led the NBA in victories, I think is a great tribute to this team."

Colangelo acknowledges that the raucous crowd of the final three minutes of game two against Memphis has yet to infect the region with the loud enthusiasm that gripped greater Phoenix in 1993.

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