Not only did the team suffer from debilitating injuries and lapses in on-court intensity, but it also took a severe image hit with the rash of legal troubles faced by Jason Kidd, Cliff Robinson and Penny Hardaway.
So it's more than a little ironic that one of the warmest ovations heard at American West Arena this season was for a seven-minute halftime game in December, played predominantly by hoopsters with criminal records, coached by a combination of probation officers and cops.
The players were part of Suns Nite Hoops, created by the team in 1996 to provide educational and job-placement assistance for young men between 18 and 25 who are either on probation or severely at-risk.
On March 15, Suns Nite Hoops tipped off a new season with a sign-up day that saw more than 100 players fill the downtown gym at Phoenix Preparatory Academy, showcasing their skills for a league draft. It was easy to see that if their lives had taken a different turn, the best of these players could be competing for roster spots in the NBA. Instead, they take solace in a program that melds competition with fellowship, recreation with counseling.
Dwayne Long was one of those registrants at Phoenix Prep, and he was also one of the Nite Hoops all-stars who played at America West three months ago. Long, a burly, gregarious, three-point marksman known to his peers as "K-9," has been in the program since its inception. At the age of 25, he's approaching his last season of eligibility, and you sense that he'd love nothing better than to stay in the program indefinitely.
Long played basketball at Central High School, and was initially attracted to Nite Hoops simply for the on-court action. In 1997, however, he was placed on probation for selling cocaine, and his probation officer informed him that the program could help him earn needed community-service hours.
"It's helped me, as far as opening my eyes to the world and seeing things through other people's eyes," Long says. "Growing up, you think you're the only one stuck with a certain problem. When you come to a place like this, you realize you're not the only one. So it kind of puts you at ease, and you try to grow from it. I can see how other people handle situations, and I can put that into my life."
Nite Hoops grew out of the Suns' desire to create its own version of a midnight basketball program. Team officials decided to gear it toward young adults, who are shut out of social programs aimed at juveniles. With input from adult-probation officers, the program's founders quickly determined that Nite Hoops had to take a different approach than midnight basketball.
"The concept of midnight basketball was building teams in the projects, and you'd have players playing basketball from 9 at night to 2 in the morning, with the idea being that while these guys are playing basketball, and while an audience is watching them, crime will go down in the projects," says Mark Stodola, chairman of Suns Nite Hoops and program director for the Maricopa County Adult Probation Department.
But while midnight basketball leagues use recreation to temporarily divert youths from criminal activity, Stodola says they don't necessarily provide long-term opportunities for a lifestyle change. By contrast, Nite Hoops requires that all participants attend one-hour life-skills classes at Phoenix Prep every Tuesday and Thursday before each game, or they can't play.
Stodola says he looked early on at a Milwaukee program that lasted until 3 a.m., and wondered how players could get up for work the next day. "And the response was, 'It doesn't matter. These people don't work anyhow,'" he says. "Right there, you could kind of sense what the tone was."
Stodola sees basketball as merely the hook, something to lure young adults to the program. But he emphasizes that the classes are really the essence of the effort.
"In some of the other basketball programs, they would have the CEO of some company talk about what they did to make it in this world," he says. "And you're not going to have any long-term change from that. So we really have designed this program to offer these individuals the opportunity to take these life-skills classes, and we've also got a board of corporate execs that can offer these guys some opportunities, like college scholarships, that they're not going to get anywhere else."
"We try to service the whole family, with a very holistic approach," says Gary Bushkin, president of the National Curriculum & Training Institute, which provides the classes for Nite Hoops participants. "Just working with a young man, and not considering the other elements that they're in, doesn't work. We provide them with all kinds of life-skills training, conflict resolution -- everything that would allow them to make better decisions."
More than 900 participants have taken part since the program's inception, with an estimated 60 percent on probation. Though statistical evidence has yet to be gathered about effects on recidivism, Stodola says anecdotal evidence suggests Nite Hoops has helped players "improve in terms of both employment and education."
Eighty percent of the funding for Nite Hoops -- which has a three-month season every spring and fall -- comes from fund-raising special events, corporate donations and personal donations, with the Suns organization kicking in the remaining 20 percent. The team also contributes to the program through summer workshops hosted by ex-Suns such as Connie Hawkins and John Shumate.
But if basketball is merely the bait to attract participants to Nite Hoops, moments like the halftime game at America West can take on an emotional power that transcends sports for these players.
"They'll never forget that as long as they live," Stodola says.
Long, who works a warehouse job at Bank One Ballpark, looks upon his seven minutes of hardwood celebrity as the defining experience of a program that has given him a sense of identity.
"That was beautiful," he says. "It was exciting to see 19,000 people cheering. You get kind of nervous. But to hit a bucket and see the crowd go wild, that's an overwhelming feeling. The camaraderie with the players, being in the classes, it's been a total blessing."