TAKING NOTE OF THE SUNS
I am forever searching for basketball's ultimate truths.
As part of this enduring quest, I went to the Suns-Portland game last Friday night at America West Arena. Upon arriving at my assigned seat, I was surprised to see that the man in the blue blazer sitting next to me was Mike Fratello.
I spotted Fratello immediately. For the past three seasons, he was the color commentator for Marv Albert on NBC television's broadcasts of NBA games. It was Fratello's job to explain what was going on to those watching at home.
This season, he has returned to honest work. He is coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers. Fratello had a notepad in front of him which contained the diagrams of four basketball courts on the first page. It was a scout's pad. He was obviously on hand to scout the Suns, who his Cavaliers were to play the following night.
What a break for me, I thought. All I had to do was watch the notes Fratello drew on the notepad and they would tell me everything I needed to know about the Suns.
Just before the opening tip of the Portland game, I looked over the 50-page media information package which the Suns prepare for each contest.
From it I learned that the Suns have now had 143 straight home sellouts, dating from February 3, 1990, against Houston. I also learned that the average NBA player is 27 years old, six feet seven inches tall, and weighs 221.68 pounds. I could not find it on the sheet, but the last I heard, the average player was being paid $139,265 per game. Many of them were still brooding because they were not being shown respect.
When I first began covering basketball, you were lucky to find a printed copy of the starting lineup. Now you are inundated by so much written material and statistics that if you tried to read it all, you'd miss seeing the game. That's progress, I guess.
A few minutes into the game, Kevin Johnson drove the lane and scored. I looked over at Fratello. He was peering straight ahead toward the game. On his diagram sheet, the Cleveland coach scribbled, "KJ."
Sometime later, KJ drove to the basket again. This time, Fratello scribbled: "KJ--keep it."
I looked over to the man sitting on Fratello's left side. It was Ron Rothstein, his assistant coach. Rothstein also had a pad with four basketball courts on the top page. Rothstein's sheet, however, was covered with scribbled notes accentuated by arrows and slashes.
Later, I noticed that there were actually three Cleveland coaches sitting all in a row. There was Fratello, and Rothstein, and next to him was Richie Adubato, also an assistant.
They were all less than six feet tall and all from New Jersey. They had all worked together as assistants for the New York Knicks. They all worked for the Atlanta Hawks together. They all had also been head coaches in the NBA.
Adubato had been head coach of the Dallas Mavericks. Rothstein had been head coach of the Detroit Pistons. Now they were together once again, this time at Cleveland.
Charles Barkley hurtled toward the basket, made his shot and rolled on the floor.
Fratello wrote: "Barkley." It went on that way throughout the game.
After a while, Fratello must have suspected I was spying upon him. He began covering up his notes so that I could no longer see what he was writing. Perhaps he thought I might tell Paul Westphal or Rush Limbaugh what I had seen.
Finally, Fratello dropped his guard. I saw that he had written something else on his pad that he considered important. It read, "A.C. Green!!" The exclamation points are Fratello's.
I sat in the same seat the following night for the game against the Cavaliers.
Fratello was all decked out in a dark-blue suit and standing before the Cleveland bench. He never sat down the whole night. Rothstein and Adubato sat dutifully at his side on the bench.
This time, Gary Fitzsimmons, the Cavs' director of personnel, was up in the stands in the seat Fratello had the night before against Portland.
He is Cotton Fitzsimmons' son. It was the father and son who were key negotiators in the trade several years back that saw Kevin Johnson, Mark West and Tyrone Corbin come to the Suns from Cleveland in exchange for Larry Nance and Mike Sanders.
The trade has been great for both teams. But this was one of those bellwether nights when the trade would be tested again. KJ and the Cavs' great guard, Mark Price, were going head to head.
Price may be the best point guard in the league. KJ's fans rate him that high, too. On this night, you couldn't make a pick between them. They play different styles, but they both turned in great games.
But it was the Suns who won both nights. None of those notes that Fratello took about Barkley, A.C. and KJ seemed to do much good when he got them down on the floor.
Maybe there's a lesson in that.
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