I didn’t realize that I was walking into the back entrance of Talking Stick Resort Arena with the man who often gets the biggest cheers at a Phoenix Suns basketball game, the acrobat who completes the Soul Patrol Dunkers routine with a head-over-heels, ball-between-his-legs grand slam off the trampoline.
It’s damn impressive. I should have asked for an autograph.
Certainly that act has been one of the few highlights for the Suns in recent years. They have had the worst record in the NBA for the past three seasons, finishing 14th, 15th, and 15th out of 15 teams in the Western Conference. Often the games seemed only a fill-in between the T-shirt guns, the Slow-Dance Cam, the Kiss Cam, shooting contests, layup contests, dancers in shiny orange costumes, dancers in shiny purple costumes, the Solar Squad, The Gorilla, and the rest of the cast that sometime seemed to outnumber the people in the stands.
But Wednesday night seemed different from the start of the Suns season opener against the Dallas Mavericks.
There was a buzz in the arena of genuine hope. ESPN was broadcasting the game to the world. Billionaire celebrity Mark Cuban (Shark Tank) was clowning with his Dallas players. Media members overflowed the regular press space. They didn't even need the night's special attraction, The Drumbots, a LED percussion team from Las Vegas, to pump up the energy in the building.
“It’s almost like a Western Conference finals,” the security guard said as he pointed to my seat WAAAAY up in the arena.
Most of the journalists and assorted bloggers were there to see the matchup between two of the most hyped rookies in recent years, the Suns’ Deandre Ayton and the Mavericks’ Luka Doncic.
Ayton is a 7-foot-1, 250-pound, 20-year-old beast from the Bahamas. He came to Phoenix to play two years of high school ball before matriculating to the University of Arizona for a season. In June, he became the Suns’ first-ever No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.
Doncic, the 6-foot-8 son of a Slovenian model, was the third pick in the draft, taken by the Atlanta Hawks then traded to Dallas. The 19-year-old is billed as the hottest thing to come out of Europe since the Swatch. He’s supposed to be the complete package: passer, shooter, rebounder, ball handler. Many experts thought the Suns should have taken him with the top choice.
These two international sensations were surrounded by cameras all during warmups..
But when the lights in the arena went down, it was Devin Booker who made sure this season opener was different than his last three with the Suns, which they had lost by a combined total of 83 points.
On this night at least, Booker, not the acrobats, got the loudest cheers, as he scored 35 points, including 19 in the fourth quarter, to lead the Suns to a 121-100 victory.
The 6-foot-6 guard is expected to lead the team. He averaged 24.9 points last season and signed a $158-million contract extension this summer. But Booker hadn’t played a game where someone kept score since last March 15, when an injury shut him down for the final games of the dismal 2017-18 season. He missed all of the preseason after undergoing surgery on his right hand, his shooting hand, at the end of September. Only Booker, it seemed, expected he would even play in Wednesday’s game.
And he was ready to go from the beginning with the Suns’ new A-list starting lineup — Ayton, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and the man with the most “a’s’ in his name in the NBA, Isaac Canaan.
He had never played with that group in a game before, but Booker looked steady through the first three quarters, scoring 16 points despite struggling on defense a bit. He picked up his fourth foul late in the third quarter, which sent him to the bench.
He returned with 8:44 left to play in the fourth quarter and the Suns leading 90-82. Just over a minute later, the Mavericks cut the deficit to 94-90.
Then it was time to Book.
First he slipped inside to make a 9-foot jumper. Then he stepped back for a 25-foot three-point shot with an assist from Ayton to make the score 99-92.
Booker followed those baskets with a driving layup and a free throw, then back-to-back three-point field goals that gave the Suns a 108-97 lead with 2:52 remaining. If you're keeping score, he's now scored 14 straight points for the home team.
Throw in another 25-footer, two more free throws, then an assist to Ayton for a dunk shot, and that was the end of the story.
"I found my second wind," Booker said. "Then I just got into a rhythm.
The surgery apparently didn’t affect the 21-year-old superstar, who was remarkably accurate, making 12 of 19 field goal attempts, including six of 10 three-point tries.
"(The doctors) put something special in there for me," he said, smiling, as reporters surrounded his locker after the victory.
But considering he hadn't played a game of basketball in so long, did he think his return would be this triumphant?
Booker hesitated then smiled again.
"Yeah, sure ... I put in the work," Booker said.
Can't argue that.
As for the rookies, Ayton got the better of their first matchup. He scored eight points in the first quarter, including a dunk over Doncic. Ayton finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Doncic looked good early, but seemed to get lost in the final three quarters, finishing with only 10 points and missing all five of his three-point tries.
It also didn't appear that Ayton was affected by any of the turmoil from the past week, after an agent testified in federal court that he had paid Ayton's mother to try to influence her son's college choice.
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"Nothing seemed to bother him," new Suns Coach Igor Kokoskov said. "He stepped up on the big stage ... he stayed focused despite all the media attention."
Ayton was all smiles afterward.
"This was the most fun I've ever had playing basketball," he said.
Well, yeah, but maybe if he had a trampoline …