The Suns of God
They said Phoenix was done. Over. A desert flash in the pan. Worse than Houston.
You know who "they" are: the eastern media guys in their fey, little bow ties from Hart Schaffner & Marx.
The Valley's decline didn't move off the front page of the national press until Donald Trump was seen fetching ice at the NoTell Motel in Hoboken.
Still, things were tough in Phoenix. Any kid could have told you. Developers had so much time on their hands they entered their Mercedes in tractor pulls at the Coliseum; bankers had so little to do that they bought tickets and watched and dreamed of clients who would someday take them to lunch at Avanti.
In the end, God decided something had to be done.
After major successes in Berlin, Prague, Riga and a surgical strike in Managua, the Lord stubbed a few toes in Phoenix.
There were some initial sightings in tortillas but people were hungry so they ate them.
Our Lady of Guadalupe then appeared in a yucca plant outside a Mexican restaurant on Van Buren, but the Latino thing just didn't have the sort of crossover appeal that was needed.
In December, the Virgin Mary appeared to the parents of state legislator Armando Ruiz in South Phoenix. Estela and Reyes Ruiz refused to accept any blessed donations to their son's campaign war chest. Soon hundreds of visitors were descending upon the Ruiz household to join in the nightly rosaries. Almost no one complained that Mary always appears to Democrats. When a real estate speculator began lighting candles and praying for the return of limited partnerships with an upside payoff of 500 percent, it was obvious that some other form of divine intervention was needed.
Then someone noticed the Phoenix Suns.
After having the kind of disastrous start that the Mets had under Casey Stengel, our basketball team began to play miraculously. You could look it up.
On December 22, they lost to Sacramento, dropping their record to 9 wins and 12 losses. Since then, the Suns have gone 35 and 8.
The hometown boys accomplished this by playing a different sort of basketball. Some say they were inspired.
When you go 35 and 8 and sweep a five-game road trip, people will come to watch, and the Suns have had seventeen sellouts. But there is something more to this team, something that makes them fun to see in this gloomy recession of 1990. For those who think religion means John Paul II or Jimmy Swaggart, consider this: The Phoenix Suns, from top to bottom, are a born-again Christian team.
Owner Jerry Colangelo: Born again.
Vice president Tom Van Arsdale: Born again.
Head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons: You guessed it.
Assistant coaches Lionel Hollins and Paul Westphal: Them too.
Before every game, there is a Bible study meeting led by a representative from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Phoenix Suns Kevin Johnson, Mark West, Andrew Lang, Greg Grant, Kenny Battle, Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry, Dan Majerle, Mike Morrison, Kurt Rambis, and Eddie Johnson all attend.
As a man with a Mormon upbringing, Tom Chambers has a hall pass for eternity from the meetings.
These guys have become more than just a team. With spring training virtually lost, the Phoenix Suns have picked up the emotional slack. And they're getting help from somewhere other than trainer Joe Proski's dressing room.
Look at Andrew Lang. He is six feet eleven inches and 250 pounds with legs that start in his sneakers and end at his earlobes. The day after Christmas he set a club record with six blocked shots in one quarter against Portland. This only made Andrew laugh. At the next game, in Minnesota, Lang refused to let the Timberwolves score in the fourth quarter. The only points given up by the Suns during that period came on goal- tending calls, points no real man would accept. Afterward, Lang got to return to Phoenix, while the Timberwolves were forced to stay behind in Minneapolis. In December.
The other stud-hoss up front is 260-pound Mark West. Loyal fans like to point out to the visiting bench that West is not afflicted with a Wes Unseld/Charles Barkley wall-safe butt. Yet the man still plugs the middle, blocking shots and leading the league in field-goal percentage.
Tom Chambers looks like he played college ball at a Lutheran seminary with Sven, Lars, Ingmar, and Gunnar. If Chambers has not heard of Kool Moe Dee, it does not matter; he is fourth in the NBA in scoring. Earlier this year, Chambers caught an elbow that broke a cheekbone, virtually two thirds of his face. Sissies from New York, Los Angeles, and French Lick do not play with broken cheekbones. To Chambers, it was little more than a stigmata. He went out and scored 56 against Golden State, a club record.
Dan Majerle plays defense by trying to irritate his opponents. Isn't that a winning concept?
Kevin Johnson controls the team's pacing and is arguably the most complete guard in the NBA. Fun fact for those opposed to a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in Arizona: Johnson, a black, was adopted and raised by white parents.
In December, Kurt Rambis came to Phoenix in a trade with Charlotte. Fans have taken to wearing thick black- rimmed glasses with geek tape on the nose bridge in support of the bespectacled Rambis. National television audiences scanning our stands see geeks a-gawking here in Phoenix and we don't care what you hipsters in Chicago think.
Into this rotation, swing Eddie Johnson and Jeff Hornacek, two of the sweetest shooters in all of basketball.
Parents were the first to notice that something was up. The Suns have sold growth charts with life-size pictures of Dan Majerle on them. Suddenly, kids with the souvenir were sprouting three and four inches without explanation.
Majerle just grinned that crooked grin.
Then someone figured out that each of the Phoenix Suns banked at a different savings and loan.
The civic-minded ballplayers were adopting S&L's in the hope of turning them around with an enormous infusion of NBA salaries.
Visiting NBA teams are booked into poor Charlie Keating's collapsing Phoenician resort.
Suns rookie Greg Grant, out of Trenton State, declined to participate in this year's slam-dunk competition so that he could visit the homeless.
The enlightened management of the Suns renegotiated contracts before they were due and without asking. The same fundamentalist Christian executives realized that, public relations-wise, the community might accept all of these good acts more readily if they sprang from more than one spiritual fountain.
Colangelo has asked the guys to be a bit more ecumenical in their approach to the Lord. Ever one to set an example, Jerry reportedly has contracted with Mormon missionaries to erect the new arena. Eddie Johnson has shouldered his share of the responsibility and agreed to convert to Judaism. Tom Chambers has been seen reading the Koran, and Kenny Battle has agreed to try to do without meat on Fridays. While much of this has gone unnoticed, the effect cannot be denied.
The Phoenix Suns are the very best thing about living in Phoenix these days.
People go to a Suns game and feel good. They drink beer, yet do not hurl insults at the opposition or start fires in the parking lot. Fathers tell their sons about a time before real estate collapsed.
Recently as they watched KJ slash to the basket and dish off to the hardest- working four eyes in the NBA, Kurt Rambis, for an easy two, utility rake Keith Turley was overheard commenting to Karl Eller, "You know, I really do feel like we ought to lower those electric rates."
Even Colangelo is not immune to this infectious joy. He recently turned to a visitor in the press box and said he needed to apologize to Tom Fitzpatrick for evicting him from a game last year.
There is something going on with these Phoenix Suns. When Hornacek and Chambers were both hurt last week, Cotton's new assistant, a guy name of Hayzoos, was seen laying his hands on the injuries.
Normally when the Lord's shock troops bang on my door on a Saturday morning and want to read tracts to me, I call out the Blue Tick hound and scatter the earnest. But when I watch the Suns being introduced at the Coliseum, and KJ and Thunder Dan are shoving each other and doing that little dance they all do before tip-off, I find myself rooting for the Christians and yelling for them to bring on the lions from Los Angeles, and Portland, and Salt Lake, and Detroit.
Now some of you free thinkers out there are going to be skeptical of the idea that God takes basketball seriously. But if Our Lady of Guadalupe can show up in a yucca plant on Van Buren, surely Christ can go strong to the glass.
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