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THESETTING SUNS

Prior to the mysterious rash of injuries, "Your Phoenix Suns," as announcer Al McCoy always calls them, were riding high.

Before Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers, and Dan Majerle were struck down by mysterious ailments, McCoy boasted that this was a team playing what he kept referring to as "Phoenix Suns basketball."

I don't profess to know what that term actually means. Whatever it was, however, disappeared quickly once KJ, Chambers, and Majerle decided to start spending the bulk of their time under heat lamps.

Let us look back to the night before the crash. God was still in his Heaven. It was the night the Utah Jazz came to town, and there we were with a sellout crowd packed into what used to be known as the "Madhouse on McDowell."

In a few minutes, the game against the Utah Jazz would get under way. The Gorilla would start his nightly series of ballet routines.

The well-to-do fans had tucked their German luxury cars safely into the parking lot. Only a few of them would be warned by the public-address announcer that in their haste to get into Veterans' Memorial Coliseum they had left their headlights on. They would take one last glance at their Rolex watches before the game with the Jazz began at 7:40 p.m.

It would be their last look at a potential championship team for some time to come.

Majerle, one of the fans' favorite players, walked to the center court. Majerle shook hands with two youngsters who had been chosen, as a promotional stunt, to serve as "guests for the night" on the Suns bench.

When this little tableau had played itself out, the big screens at both ends of the floor informed the fans of a charity promotion in which Tom Chambers is involved.

Everything each member of the Suns does appears to serve some promotional value. Every player either has a charity of his own or he is shipped out to visit the sick in key, geographically situated hospitals.

You look around the Coliseum. The advertising billboards assault your eyes. They are everywhere. There are even revolving billboards on the floor directly behind each basket.

Sanderson Ford. First Interstate. America West. Winston. Coke. Kelly Tires. Phelps Dodge. Greyhound Dial. Bud. Bud Light. Dillard's. Reebok. On and on it goes. The mind numbs.

Out in the concourse, there are more billboards and also a number of sports specialty stands selling tee shirts of Kevin Johnson in five different colors. If a fan fancies other Suns, tee shirts of those players can be purchased as well. If you like Magic Johnson or Larry Bird, those tee shirts are also available.

Must the Suns management really stoop to this in order to pay those remarkable salaries?

A statistician broke it down. KJ gets $1,773 per assist. On this night, he would be credited with 20 assists. Tom Chambers gets $1,000 per point. Last year he averaged 27 points a game.

It grows even more absurd. Because of the bizarre salary scale, even marginal players have become millionaires.

Ed Nealy was hired because someone thinks his bulk has some value under the boards. Nealy cannot run fast, jump high, shoot or pass with proficiency. Nealy's basketball skills are so ordinary in nature that he has been waived by three different National Basketball Association teams and played parts of two seasons in the Continental League. He signed a multiyear contract with the Suns for $2.1 million!

Mark West and Andrew Lang share the center position. Both are tall and muscular. Neither can shoot nor dribble nor make anything more than the most rudimentary pass. This lack of elementary skills is exacerbated by the fact that neither West nor Lang has the necessary attention span required to catch basketballs thrown in their direction.

On this night, the Suns were playing the Jazz, which also features some pretty high-priced players. There was Karl Malone, who has an eight-year contract calling for $27.2 million, and John Stockton, with a six-year contract for $13.2 million.

As it turned out, the Suns had little trouble beating the Jazz. When it was over, the Suns had won, 131 to 117. KJ was certain the Suns were on their way to big things.

Surrounded by an admiring press corps, KJ delivered one of the little sermonettes that have become his trademark. "We have so many weapons," KJ said, "that we should beat no matter who we play by a lot of points."

KJ had scored 37 points and been credited with 20 assists in one of his most productive performances of the season. Everything he attempted worked. He dribbled through crowds. He sailed through the air. He shot well both from outside and on driving lay-ups. He pretty well controlled the game. It was heady stuff. When KJ's tricks are working, he is as entertaining to watch as anyone in the entire NBA. However, when his tricks are not working, KJ can be pretty awful. And this was the KJ who showed up for the next home game against the Los Angeles Lakers.

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Tom Fitzpatrick