GOOD NIGHT, SWEET D
Pro basketball is all glitter, bombast and tasteless television commercials these days. It's as though the game has been taken over by the Madison Avenue ad men. They can't wait until the hoops really are 20 feet high and the floor is 100 yards long. The purity, simplicity and soul of the game have been taken from us by the hucksters. What we are left with are tasteless ads for Nike, Budweiser beer and a myriad of objects we neither need nor desire.
But there was a brief break in the gloom the other night. Walter Davis showed up at America West Arena, and for just a few moments, you remembered what it was like in the heyday of the old Veterans' Memorial Coliseum of the Seventies and Eighties.
Jerry Colangelo brought the man they call "Sweet D" back home to honor him by elevating his Number 6 jersey to the rafters. They held a moving ceremony for Walter at halftime. But all during the first half, you could see him sitting nervously in a front-row seat under one of the baskets. His wife and two young daughters were with him. Several seats away sat Dean Smith, his college coach at North Carolina, and Phil Ford, one of his college teammates.
Earlier in the day, I had bumped into Colangelo at the Weiss Guys Car Wash. He was looking forward to seeing Walter again. Normally taciturn, Colangelo was actually beaming with anticipation. He is much more likable as a basketball man than as a political power.
"I think I knew this was going to happen right from the first time I saw him play," Colangelo said. Standing near a concession stand moments before the game against Denver began, I encountered Al Bianchi. He was the Suns' assistant coach under John MacLeod all during Walter's time as a Suns player.
The gruff, tough Bianchi still loves Walter Davis.
"Walter had heart," Bianchi said. "He would take that shot at the end of the game for you. Some guys, when it gets down to the end and it's all on the line, they don't want the responsibility. But Walter would take it every time. And most of the time, he would make it.
"This speaks for his great talent. We would always run the same play for him and everybody on the other team had to know it was coming. We were working Walter open for a shot. And yet there was no way they could stop him. He was that good."
Bianchi knows the game as well as any man alive. He played guard in the NBA for ten seasons. He coached for another 20. In addition to being an assistant with the Suns and Chicago Bulls, he was general manager of the Knicks and head coach of Seattle of the NBA and the Virginia Squires of the ABA, where he coached Dr. J, Julius Erving.
"But I'll tell you one thing about Walter," Bianchi said as an afterthought. "He was very sensitive. You could hurt his feelings if you weren't careful."
Going to my seat, I bumped into David Ramras, the lawyer, and his wife Kathy. They bought their first season tickets in 1977, the season Walter was drafted by the Suns. The name of their now-aging dog is Walter.
"It's going to be good to see him again," Ramras said.
Walter Davis was rookie of the year and then went on to make the NBA All-Star team every year that he wasn't injured. He played 11 magical seasons for the Suns before finally moving on to Portland and Denver.
It turned poignant when John MacLeod, the ex-Suns coach, rose to speak about Walter.
MacLeod, now coach at Notre Dame, hasn't changed one bit since those years with the Suns. He spoke earnestly into the mike.
"Walter was so good that he made it look easy, and it's not easy," MacLeod began. "Never in my life have I seen anyone come down the floor full speed, pull up and shoot while the defender was trying to pull up and figure out what to do.
"Walter was a big-time player and a big-time person." And then MacLeod walked over and hugged Walter as the crowd roared its appreciation.
The Suns presented Walter with a car, some golf clubs and a framed copy of his playing jersey. But what they gave him most was their love and appreciation for all those wondrous things he did for them over the years.
You heard Al McCoy introduce Walter just one more time as if the game were about to begin:
"And now at forward, Number 6, from North Carolina, Walter Davis."
The crowd rose to its feet. Walter stood and put his right hand to his eyes to brush away a tear.
"When it was announced that I was going to be honored," he said, "writers started calling me from all over. They wanted to know what was my greatest thrill. I couldn't really pick one out. But standing here now with you guys, I guess this is my greatest thrill.
"This is better than hitting jump shots or free throws, or making sweet passes.
"I remember, too, that later when I was playing for Denver, that whenever the Suns came to town, Al McCoy and Joe Proski [the trainer] would come into the dressing room before the game to say hello.
"They would tell me that the guys missed me. That was very special to me."
This caught everyone by surprise. It brought tears to the eyes of many. Then the crowd roared again. From all parts of the arena, you could hear fans chanting and screaming his nickname: "Sweet D . . . Sweet D . . . Sweet D."
Walter Davis raised his right hand and waved to the crowd and then, slowly, he walked out of our lives.
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