Valley of the Suns
Jerry Colangelo dreams of winning a trifecta.
And he would be well on his way if this town finally gets an NBA championship.
He's already won a World Series championship with the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks.
And last week he was bestowed the honor and obligation of bringing back the gold in men's basketball at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Remember, Argentina was the 2004 Olympic champion, embarrassing Team USA's plethora of mega-rich NBA pros.
But second things first.
The most elusive and tantalizing feat in his four-decade Hall of Fame career (he was enshrined in the Naismith hall in Springfield, Massachusetts, last year) would be an NBA title.
"It's my biggest dream of all time," Colangelo told me, moments after the Phoenix Suns defeated the Memphis Grizzlies in game two of its first-round Western Conference series, before going on to sweep the team that former Los Angeles Lakers GM and NBA legend Jerry West now runs.
Colangelo last year sold his controlling interest in the Suns, but the deal isn't officially completed until 2007, and he remains chairman of the team. No top sports executive has ever won both a World Series and an NBA title, not to mention Olympic gold.
There is every reason to believe that Colangelo's NBA dream could come true in June.
That's because something really sweet is happening inside America West Arena.
Rising from the ashes of a disastrous season last year, the Suns won four straight games against the Grizzlies and now await either Dallas or Houston in the Western Conference semifinals.
The Suns have the talent and confidence to take out either of these teams, setting up a probable Western Conference championship series against their most serious rival, the San Antonio Spurs.
Though it's dangerous to look too far down the road, let's not forget that the Suns have beaten every team in the NBA at least once. If the hometown team can get by the Spurs, it would have a good chance against any team the Eastern Conference has to offer (Phoenix split its series with both Miami and Detroit, for instance).
What's so remarkable about this group of very talented young players is they are a team in the truest sense. There's much to dislike about the NBA with its thuggery, sex-capades and supersized egos and salaries.
So it's refreshing -- if not inspiring -- to watch the Suns simply play basketball the way fans love it to be played.
Run, pass, shoot, run, rebound, run, steal, run, block, run and shoot. But always run, and always put on a show!
The Suns wear down opponents with the relentless pace. It's almost unheard-of for this team to walk the ball across the midcourt stripe.
The Suns can kill you from the outside with three-point bombs lofted by Quentin Richardson (226 of 631 in the regular season), Joe Johnson (177 of 370) and Shawn Marion (114 of 341). Come out to the perimeter to stop the blitzkrieg, and Steve Nash will slash into the heart of the defense, feeding the powerful Amaré Stoudemire underneath for a stupendous slam.
Stoudemire continues to rapidly improve since he was drafted out of high school three years ago. Only 22 years old, he's already among the most dominant players in the NBA, averaging 26 points and 8.9 rebounds per game.
The team won an equal number of games (31) on the road as it did at home -- which flies in the face of blather by the likes of former Suns great Charles Barkley that this team doesn't play defense.
You don't lead the NBA in road wins with bad defense. The Suns finished the regular season 16th (out of 30 teams) in league defensive efficiency. The Suns played average defense and great offense during the regular season. But anybody, save Barkley, who saw games two, three and four with the Grizzlies knows they are capable of good defense.
The one element missing from the chemistry of this loose and jocular team is the passionate frenzy that fans in more astute sports cities would already be unleashing.
While it may be thundering inside America West Arena, it's way too quiet out in the 'hood.
It's like nobody really believes these guys are as good as they are.
Well, it's time to get religion -- because this Suns team is a bandwagon worth jumping onto.
Still thinking these guys ain't really that good?
Perhaps not worthy of the 1992-93 Suns team that painted this city orange and purple and drew 300,000 fans to a parade in 115 degrees to celebrate losing the NBA Finals in six games to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls?
The 2004-05 and 1992-93 Phoenix Suns teams each rang up the NBA's best regular-season record at 62-20.
Both teams featured high-powered offenses that led the NBA in scoring -- the '92-'93 team actually scored slightly more points at 113.4 per game than this year's juggernaut that's averaging 110.4.
Ironically, while the current team's defense has been much-maligned as soft, it gave up 282 fewer points over the regular season than the '92-'93 team.
So shut up, Sir Charles!
This year's team also has a slightly higher RPI (relative percent index) rating at .565 compared to the '92-'93 team at .562. Both teams led the league in this important overall gauge of team performance.
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.
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.
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 makethe 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.
"This community has evolved. There are a lot of things different today, when you look back at '92-'93. We didn't have major league baseball back then," Colangelo says. "The Suns were the only game in town. Everyone shares the stage today. It's a very saturated marketplace."
It would be a shame for this community to fail to hugely embrace the Suns as the team heads into the heart of the playoffs. This team exhibits the best qualities of professional sports: amazing individual skills and, most of all, unselfish play.
It's free of the self-centered gibberish that Barkley spewed. "I am not a role model" and "What goes on here, stays here" are two such statements that ring loudly in my memory. Barkley had a mouth, all right, but in the end he couldn't deliver enough. It amuses me to hear him brag on TNT about his '92-'93 team and downgrade this season's Suns, as if he's protecting his legacy.
This team doesn't have a loudmouth among its 12 players -- which may not be as much fun for sports talk radio and water-cooler gossip. But I think this bunch has a much better chance of taking it all the way.
There's no doubt that this Suns team is focused on winning. That team members have shelved their egos to reach for the ring. Unlike Barkley's team of old pros, if they don't make it this time, there's more to come.
I'm pulling for these guys to fulfill Colangelo's greatest dream, not only because of what they do on the court but how they do it.
This team has the potential to eclipse Barkley's Suns and become the greatest team in franchise history. Plus one of the greatest teams in NBA history -- guys who did it with fan-pleasing run-and-gun style.
Just like in 1993, all the ingredients are in place.
But there's one big difference.
Barkley thought the way to the title was for teammates to give him the ball.
Nash believes the pathway to glory is to give the ball to others.
I'm rooting for the latter to win out, and you should, too. It's past time to go crazy!
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