Training Camp Means It's Finally Fall

For many people October means the start of fall and Major League Baseball playoffs. (Go Diamondbacks!) But ever since I was 12 years old, the only thing October has meant to me is Phoenix Suns training camp. Until training camp starts, I really can’t get it into my head that fall is finally here.

For the past several years, during the first week of October, the first thing I would do each morning was go to Suns.com to see what was new on the site. The pictures and videos of practice, the stories about the new players and the team’s goals for the season were the thing I most looked forward to during that week each year. And now I’m actually sitting here at training camp watching it all live.

I didn’t attend the entire camp. I had numbers things I had to work on (being the Web Analytics Coordinator means I have to do more than just watch practices unfortunately). But on Thursday, I was able to get in the car and head to camp. The drive down to Tucson was uneventful although I realized as I got closer to my destination that I really didn’t know where I was going. I’ve been to Tucson several times and I’ve been to the McKale Center a couple of times for the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournaments but I had never driven there by myself. Luckily, I found my way to the arena, found a place to park and then tried to look like I belonged as I walked to the lower level and onto the court.

I’ve attended a couple of practices now and if there is one thing that impresses me the most it’s how hard these guys work when they practice. Both the players and the coaches really work hard at what they do. As Stefan Swiat pointed out in a previous blog entry, Coach D’Antoni doesn’t push his guys as hard as some coaches during training camp. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t working hard. It’s just that they’ve been working on their games over the summer and most of them are trying to fine-tune their chemistry on the court as opposed to trying to get in shape. Despite not having practices that are as intense as other teams, I’m not sure any normal person would consider them a “walk in the park.” I’ve heard several people talk about how they would love to be the 12th man on the bench on an NBA team because they would just have to sit and watch games and not do a lot. But after watching just one practice I can say that there is no way most of those people would last through even one workout with the team.

Phoenix Suns players work hard during practice. 

(Dan Banks/Suns Photos)

The practice on Thursday afternoon started out with some light shooting. Then Coach D’Antoni brought everyone together and talked to them for a few minutes before the real drills began. In this specific practice, the team worked on a lot of fast break drills. They held a three-on-three drill for several minutes followed by a five-on-five drill. This consisted of almost constant running. After about 30 minutes that, the team moved onto a rotating fast-break drill where three players would run as fast as they could down the court with the middle person dribbling a few times and then passing to a wing player. The wing player would move to the middle and shoot the ball while someone would pass balls to the two other players running down the court to shoot. So three balls were going to the basket at the same time. Then those three players would then move off the court while someone would get the rebound from the ball the middle guy shot and would start the drill all over again going to the other end of the court. I thought the guys were going full-speed on that drill until Coach D’Antoni started yelling from the sideline to speed it up. Pretty soon the guys were really moving and you could see that some of the younger players were really starting to get winded.

But training camp isn’t all about running and shooting either. At least in Coach D’Antoni’s camp, it’s as much about building chemistry as it is about getting in shape for the regular season. On Thursday night there was a dinner for players and coaches. The Suns.com team was lucky enough to sit at a table in the same restaurant where we could see the action from our seats.

Part of the Suns.com team enjoys the antics of the rookies during the players/coaches dinner. 

(Dan Banks/Suns Photos)

The players all seemed to enjoy themselves and toward the end of dinner, the rookies got a little “introduction” to the team. You really haven’t experienced NBA life until you’ve seen three really tall guys skip around a restaurant singing, “I’m so pretty, I’m so pretty.” Since Suns.com was there, you can see pictures of the evening and even watch the video of the rookies’ performance at the restaurant.

Most of the players left the restaurant around 9:30 and since the Suns.com guys immediately went back to their room to start working on the site, I’m not really sure what the players did the rest of the night. But on Friday morning while I was sitting outside on a public patio reading the newspaper and enjoying the nice weather, all of the players and coaches walked by between 8:00 and 8:20 so I know they were up early and ready to go again.

The Suns vs. Suns scrimmage is on Saturday at 6:00 pm and it should be a good chance to get our first glimpse at the team as they play a game. Of course, it won’t be anything like when the regular season starts but when the Suns scrimmage on the first Saturday night in October, it finally feels like fall in my mind.

The fun thing for me is that watching training camp in person hasn’t diminished the excitement I have for the new season. I was afraid that watching all of the “nuts and bolts” of practices and training would make the games feel just a little bit less cool. But the exact opposite has happened. By watching these guys work out, it made me realize how much work really does go into the entertaining 48 minutes that happen during the game.

Practice Breakdown

For the fans out there that wish that they could break down every minute of a training camp session, look no further. For coaches who are wondering how a former Coach of the Year does it, I hereby present… a typical Suns practice.

 

3:00- Individual warm-up: The guys are just shooting around and trying to get the blood flowing.

3:05-3:15- Team meeting: The team meets at half court to talk about the focus of the day’s practice.

3:15- Team re-warm-up: The players dribble around the outside of the court and then run back-and-forth across the court to break a sweat. They jog, kick their heels up and bring their knees up to their chest as they run to get loose. Then they stretch.

Note: Stretching was interrupted at today’s practice because General Manager Steve Kerr had Equipment Manager Mike Elliot held by four guys as he took a pair of scissors and cut off his Arizona State t-shirt and replaced it with a University of Arizona t-shirt. Elliot never saw it coming.

3:25- Fast-break drill: The team breaks into first and second units and they run through their 5-on-0 fast break sets. As everyone knows, the Suns run quite a bit, but there is a rhyme and a reason to how they space the court on the break. Their offensive stems from their secondary break, which is basically the plays that are triggered if they don’t get a layup right away.

3:35- Team shooting within offensive sets: The first team (white team) heads to one end of the court and the second team (black team), heads to the other end to work on their offensive sets. The white team consists of Steve Nash, Raja Bell, Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw, Grant Hill and Leandro Barbosa. The black team is comprised of Brian Skinner, Sean Marks, Marcus Banks, Alando Tucker, D.J. Strawberry, Richie Frahm, Doug Thomas, Rawle Marshall and Eric Piatkowski.

 

Off of the secondary break, there are a bunch of different wrinkles that allow players to get open looks. In this drill, the point guard will make an entry pass to a post player and cut off the ball before going to screen a player in the corner. The player in the corner uses the pick to cut to the basket and the screener (point guard) turns to receive the pass for a shot. On the opposite side of the court, the point guard passes and screens away. Once the wing pops to the top, they run a screen and roll and the other wing slides to the top for a jumper.

Although they only play with ball in the drill, everyone moves to where they are supposed to finish the play and receive a ball from one of the assistant coaches for a shot. Every player is engaged on every play, and all of them will have the opportunity to shoot and see where they can get shots on the floor within the offense. After six minutes, the teams switch ends and run the set that the other team was just running.


The team always huddles up before practice
to address the day’s goals.

(Dan Banks/Suns.com)

 

Note: I am not usually surprised by what professional athletes can do, but Raja Bell finished a play today by tomahawking down a dunk with�serious authority. It kind of came out of nowhere because Bell doesn’t normally finish plays like that in practice. Even Nash was surprised stating, “Dang, Raja. That was the best dunk you’ve had since you were in Philly.”

3:50- Full-court weave shooting drill: This drill is a contest that the team has to do until they get it right. The goal of the exercise is to score 100 points in two minutes and the assistant coaches keep track of the score and time using the scoreboard overhead. Three players do the three-man weave down the court while two passers stand in the corners and pass the ball to the guys who didn’t end up with the ball for the layup. As soon as they pass the rock, they sprint down court with the player that just shot the layup and do the three-man weave on the way back. One player finishes with the layup and the other two players shoot jumpers just like the other two players did on the other end of the court. It is a continuous drill that combines running, shooting and the pressure of time. It’s one of those drills that get you in shape, but you don’t realize that’s what it is doing.

 

The first time around the Suns only scored 84 points, so they had to do it again. The coaches were yelling that the passes weren’t crisp enough, and I guess they were right, because they registered 114 points after they were reminded to not float the passes.

 

3:55- Water break: My favorite time of practice when I was a player.

 


Team chemistry is high in camp this week.
(Dan Banks/Suns.com)

 

3:58- 5-on-5 scrimmage: White team vs. black team. The scoreboard counts down a 12-minute game of make-it-take-it that penalizes the defense for not getting stops. Players really want to play offense, so they bear down on defense so they can get the ball back. Another point of interest about the scrimmage is that the team hires two refs to whistle fouls during practice. That might be the best investment I’ve ever seen. The players don’t whine to the coaches and the coaches can concentrate on analyzing practice.

 

I know for the teams I played on, it would have been genius to have that luxury, because guys were convinced that certain assistant coaches played favorites in practice by calling certain fouls for players. But with an arrangement like this, no one can say anything.

 

So as the two units ran through their plays against each other, the black team actually built up an early lead. But then the white turned it on. They scored on six straight plays. LB hit a couple of treys, Nash buried a J, threw an alley-oop to Hill, Boris faked everyone out of their pants and then Nash came back to�hit LB for a sweet back door cut.

 

Grant Hill turned over to me and said with amazement, “They really got that play down, don’t they?” White defeated black, 31-22.

4:25- Water break: It’s the best.

4:30: Three-basket games: The white team plays the black team to a game of three baskets. Amaré Stoudemire, who appeared at camp for the first time since his surgery, was vocally supporting his teammates from the sidelines throughout practice. Patrolling the sidelines with his knee wrapped in ice, Stoudemire was sporting the new STAT II sneakers to the glee of Raja Bell.

4:40- Water break: Just so refreshing.

4:45- Individual shooting: The guys break off into pairs or threes to work on their�shooting. Grant Hill was working on his 3-point range and Brian Skinner was working on his 15-foot baseline jumper.

5:00- Peanut butter and jelly time. Not really. But everyone heads to dinner to see the rookies sing.

It's Not a Country Club

When I came down to Tucson for training camp, I thought I was going to be watching boot camp. I figured I’d be privy to watching guys puking into garbage cans and rookies putting IVs into their arms.


D’Antoni uses the preseason to develop chemistry.
(Dan Banks/Suns.com)

We’ve all seen Hoosiers, where the coach runs his players to death yelling, “You guys are going to be the best-conditioned team out there.” Since the Suns run like bandits and usually play a tight rotation, I envisioned Coach D’Antoni to be cut from the same mold.

 

However, from what I’ve seen from training camp this week, the Suns won’t be mistaken for the US Olympic Track and Field Team. Suicides have been few and far between and I haven’t seen any of those brutal 17 in 60s.

 

What I have seen is a great deal of full-court and fast-break drills that include a lot of running and transition work. Players are focused, intense and pushed throughout practice.

 

But this camp is different from most others in the league. Coaches like Pat Riley are putting his players through the ringer, so why the different approach?

 

“I kind of run the kind of camp I would have wanted to go to as a player,” D’Antoni said. “The whole objective is to be fresh and ready to go in April.”

 

Considering the amount of veterans the 2004-05 Coach of the Year has, it seems like a sound strategy.

 

“We do have a veteran team, so coaches who are at the bottom have to run a different type of camp,” D’Antoni said. “The veterans like Steve Nash, Boris and LB are the guys I need to worry about. I don’t want my core guys hurt, stressed or tired out in October. I just want us to keep building and getting into better shape as the season goes on.”

 

Often you’ll see players hit the wall after All-Star weekend or break down with nagging injuries. D’Antoni seems to remain mindful of that occurrence.

 

“It seems to me, I don’t know if it is true or not, but if you run them hard now, you pay for it in January,” he added. “Our fast-paced style and playing three or four times a week during the regular season is enough to keep them in shape. The rest of it is trying to keep their minds and bodies fresh.”

 


D’Antoni has two-a-day practices during camp.
(Dan Banks/Suns.com)

Brian Skinner and Grant Hill are veterans that have played on several pro teams and have experienced an array of different camps. Both of them feel that this team’s collective experience has them further along at this juncture of the season than most clubs.

 

“It’s a veterans’ camp,” Skinner said. “Guys are professional and they know what they need to do to take care of business. It’s not a police watch. The players police themselves by working on whatever they need to work on. Teams with younger players have to be policed.

 

“We are just trying to fine tune,” he continued. “Most of the guys are in shape to play 48 minutes right now. In other camps I’ve been in, players use training camp to get into shape.”

 

Hill echoed Skinner’s sentiments.

 

“There isn’t a lot of wasted movement in practice,” Hill said. “It is very efficient and we get a lot covered. Most of guys in key roles are already adjusted to this style of play.”

 

The way D’Antoni has managed camp is another example of how he bucks conventional wisdom in favor of common sense. Instead of following the popular notion of what a camp is “supposed” to be, he runs a camp based on the players he has.

 

This is a team that is contending for a championship and is going to play around 100 games. The point of this camp is to integrate new veterans like Skinner and Hill and get them comfortable within the system. That’s why practices now look similar to a midseason practice. Judging by his past success, it’s a philosophy that has paid dividends.

 

“It’s a balancing act,” D’Antoni said. “We work our guys, we don’t run a country club here. But at the same time you don’t want to make it too much like work, because it isn’t.”

Wildcard or Ace?

There is a proverb that says that within uncertainty lies prosperity. Every now and then, a professional team will take a chance on an unknown player and hope that their wildcard ends up being an ace.

In the Suns camp this week, the one player that seems to fit that bill is Doug Thomas. Thomas first came to my attention during the informal morning workouts when he seemed to dunk everything in sight.

 

After a ridiculous tip-jam, I turned to former Sun Mark West to find out who he was. West immediately busted my chops for not inquiring about the guy who set the great screen or made a nifty backdoor cut.

 

All respect due to guys who provide the intangibles, but there’s just something about thunderous dunks at 9 a.m. that garners my attention. West informed me that the high-flyer was Doug Thomas and that he played at Iowa.

 

Once I saw that he was invited to camp, I found out that he played in the first division of the Swiss professional leagues. Making a jump from Switzerland to the NBA is like going from Single A to the Yankees. So it perked my interest.

 

Thomas showed flashes of brilliance at Iowa, but never received the kind of consistent playing time one would expect after finishing a stellar career at Southeastern Community College. At Southeastern, he started on a squad that won back-to-back titles.

 

So how did the Suns stumble upon Thomas?

 

“Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin was on top of him and talked with his agent and he came in early just to work out and caught everyone’s eye with his athleticism, shooting touch and ability to play our tempo,” Assistant General Manager Vinny Del Negro said. “We needed another big guy and he was a nice kid, so I think it was a good fit.”

 

After doing some research, I happened upon a slew of videos on-line that displayed the kind of athleticism I saw at the practice court. His highlight reel from college was pretty impressive and so was his jam against Arizona State. But the video that stood out the most was when he broke the world’s record for the highest leap.

 


Check out LB’s facial expression in the bottom right corner. It says it all.
(Dan Banks/Suns.com)

 

Besides Thomas, former Maverick and Pacer Rawle Marshall and journeyman Richie Frahm were the last three players invited to camp by the Suns. Frahm once scored 30 points as a rookie for the Sonics and Marshall registered 16 points in a game for the Pacers last season. Whereas these guys have donned an NBA uniform, Tuesday was literally the first NBA practice of Thomas’ life.

 

So what does a front office look for in guys they invite to camp?

 

“David (Griffin), Director of Scouting Todd (Quinter), the rest of the scouting department and I look at a bunch of guys,” Del Negro added. “We look for guys who can play our style and fill some niches and we feel in training camp they have the opportunity to show us what they can do and we get a chance to get some hands-on experience with them.”

 

The gravity-defying Thomas is just relishing his opportunity.

“I came in with the mindset to just work hard,” he said. “Nothing is guaranteed for me right now and I think they see that I want to learn.

 

“I am not trying to take anyone’s spot, I am just trying to work my way onto the team. The Suns are a great team with great people and a great coaching staff.

 

Thomas was really impressed by the way General Manager Steve Kerr and Del Negro “welcomed him with open arms.” He says that all of the coaches and players have gone out their way to make him feel comfortable.

 

 

“I take criticism well and I am willing to learn,” added Thomas. “I like it here and I feel that the Suns’ system fit my style of play.”

 

Although it is unlikely that the Suns will carry more than the 13 players they have now, Del Negro believed that coming to camp was a good opportunity for someone like Thomas, who could show the Suns his ability and stay on their radar in case a role needs to be filled down the road.

 

Although Thomas would love to make the team, he is also appreciating the moment.

 

“My high school coaches, college coaches and the NBA players I grew up with haven’t even heard I am here,” he said. “I can’t wait to they hear about this.”

Let's Get it Started

Today was my first official day on the job. Everybody’s been asking me how it feels to be a member of the Phoenix Suns and now I can actually tell them. It feels really, really good.

 

We had our media day this afternoon before taking a bus down to Tucson, and I got a chance to put on my new Suns jersey for some pictures. It fits great, nice and snug. Actually, this is the first time that I’ve ever had a name on my back. As a kid, you always look forward to having your name on a jersey, but when I got to Wisconsin, they didn’t do that. They only had numbers. So that was really exciting today, and it’s definitely an honor to wear a Suns jersey.

Everything’s moved so fast the last few months, I haven’t really had time to sit back and reflect on all that’s happened. Right after the draft, it was off to Las Vegas for summer league, which was fun. Being able to play with DJ and Marcus Banks, two guys that I knew were going to be on the team this year, was cool. Banks, he’s a character, man. He’s one of those guys who’s always cracking jokes.

I then went to Vancouver for Steve Nash’s charity game. It was exciting because it was the first time I actually stepped on the court with him, and he was throwing me lob passes for dunks. It was amazing. I also got to meet Raja Bell and Leandro Barbosa, and see what kind of people they are. They were all really welcoming, which helped me feel more comfortable. And seeing their games up close and personal was also reassuring for me that I’m in the right place.

I also traveled with Steve and LB to Beijing a couple weeks ago for the Nash-Yao Ming charity game, which was a lot of fun. I’ve always wanted to travel the world, and China is one of the places I’ve wanted to go. Being able to experience that culture and go to the Forbidden City was incredible. Those are some mental pictures that I’ll carry with me forever.

Beijing is a very modernized city. There are a lot of people there. Traffic is heavy. It looked a lot like L.A. actually. But it felt good to be able to go and help raise money for children there. The events raised $2.5 million, which will go to build something like 70 new schools. I love to give back to the community, so being a part of that was really special.

We have our first practice of camp tomorrow morning. I don’t know exactly what to expect, but some of the veterans have been telling me it’s going to go smooth. Coach D’Antoni is a good guy. He doesn’t want to make camp too intense, to the point where we’re hurting ourselves, but at the same time I’m sure we’ll work on a lot. I just want to try and gain as much as I can, as far as understanding the offense and defense, and the whole style. That’s my mindset going into camp. Wish me luck.

Media Day: The First Day of Class

With all of the hoopla surrounding Media Day, it panned out kind of like a modern heavyweight fight. A lot of hype… but not many knockout punches.


Shawn said he was ready to play ball at Media Day.
(Jeramie McPeek/Suns.com)

The question around the league was which Shawn Marion was going to show up Monday? Was it going to be a Shawn Marion that was going to arrive with guns blazing? Or was it going to be a Shawn Marion that was going to retract his trade demands and move forward with the team?

 

The truth is, the event was a non-event, and a smiling Shawn issued a plethora of “no comments” regarding his comments and thwarted the press by keeping all chatter to strictly basketball.

 

He came. He saw. He eluded. And that was that. I think General Manager Steve Kerr said it best when he stated that this is a business away from the court, but still a game on it, and an All-Star like the Matrix would be professional in his play on the court. When asked if Kerr had ever been part of a situation like this before, he replied wryly that he had played with Scottie Pippen on those great Bulls team, and they played in a much more controversial situation. But they were able to overcome it and win the championship.

 

So what about the rest of the day? It was kind of like the first day of school. Everybody gathers around to see if everyone changed over the summer, while everyone was curious about the “new kids.”

 

In this case, the new kids were Grant Hill, Brian Skinner, Alando Tucker and D.J. Strawberry. And then there were the trend-setting kids like Steve Nash and Amaré Stoudemire, who sparked the interest of everyone there, and the crowd flocked to them as soon as they entered the room.

 

Basically what happens at Media Day is that there are a bunch of stations and each player has a schedule. It’s just like going to classes and listening for the bell. One designated guide would lead a player around to all of the groups they needed to meet with and help them accomplish all of the tasks on their list.

 

Most of the guides were attractive young women, who gleefully paraded around the likes of Marcus Banks and Grant Hill. Yes, the perks of being a professional athlete never stop. I guess Leandro Barbosa and Brian Skinner must have ticked somebody off, because they were being led around by Public Relations Coordinator Casey Taggatz and Community Relations Coordinator Chris Mallory. Tough break, fellas!


What did LB do to deserve this?
(Jeramie McPeek/Suns.com)

 

But as I was hanging around with Skinner and LB, I was able to learn some interesting facts about those guys. Skinner doesn’t ice fish, he fishes “comfortably.” Having played in Milwaukee, where it snows practically 11 months out of the year, he had to do a lot of ice fishing. But he really enjoyed it. Not only did he prop up a little tent, crank up the heater and turn on his TV, but he had�food brought out to him while he fished.

 

One of the more interesting players I have spoken to, I also learned that the 6-9 center collects crystal and loves the movie “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” He is also one of maybe three people on the planet who knows what happened to Latrell Sprewell. It ruined my theory that he was playing on some random rec team with other notable players that seemingly dropped off the face of the planet, like Dajuan Wagner and Robert “Tractor” Traylor. But he isn’t, and that’s a whole other blog in and of itself.

 

I watched LB pose for about four different photographers and then have to read at least five different ads or introductions for various TV and radio stations. After doing those, he was off to ESPN, NBA TV and a bunch of other networks to partake in a slew of interviews.

 

I was able to catch up with Sean Marks and talk to him about his trip to Africa that was part-charity (helping Basketball Without Borders) and part-vacation. After helping out with the BWB camps, Marks went into a shark cage to swim with great whites. That was followed by a safari around South Africa where he witnessed a lion eating a zebra. Most people’s biggest trip this summer was going to the mall, and this guy was hanging out with Jaws.

 

Another interesting tidbit I discovered was that Raja Bell showed up to participate in Steve Nash’s Charity Game in Vancouver, but couldn’t play because he hurt himself playing soccer. It was no big deal, but just the kind of thing that must make a coach’s heart skip a beat when he hears reports like that in July.

 

The Suns also picked up a few guys to bring to camp. Although they have their 13 players set, they can sign up to 15 based on league rules. So Richie Frahm, Rawle Marshall and Doug Thomas were all invited to camp with an opportunity to make the team. Knowing that Thomas played in Switzerland, I wanted to see if we knew any of the same basketball people there, so I struck up a conversation.

 

Having watched the former Buckeye during morning workouts, he really stood out to me due to his incredible leaping ability. Anything near the rim is a dunk – and it’s done with authority.

 

Thomas let me know that there was footage on YouTube of him touching as high as 13 feet on the backboard. Now that may sound ridiculous to some, but so are this guy’s hops. So I checked it out and it’s legit. Click here if you don’t believe me!

 

In the end, like the first day of school, everyone was able to visit, exchange pleasantries and make introductions. It was an opportunity for everyone to get clued into the team’s agenda, before the real work begins. And as the media packed up and the Suns made their way to the team bus headed to training camp in Tucson, one thing became abundantly clear. School was really about to start.

Report From the Future

With many of my fellow Suns.com bloggers delightedly and justifiably posting about their excitement at the prospect of training camp’s opening, I thought I’d save everyone a little time, jump ahead a few months, and blog from next June.

* * *

June 16, 2008

I just got back from the victory parade.

I’m dehydrated from the heat, hoarse from cheering, and bumped and bruised from squeezing in among half a million Sun Worshippers. I have no idea if any of my three hundred photos will turn out, because I had to hold my camera high above my head to get shots of the distant stage and hope for the best. But it was all worth it. Not just today, but thirty-plus years of unfailing optimism in the good times, heartbroken depression in the bad times, and passionate devotion at all times.

It was all worth it to see that trophy.

As soon as the Suns beat Utah two weeks ago (Joe Gilmartin was right – Suns in six!) to advance to the NBA Finals against Boston, I hopped in my car and sped across I-10 to get home to the Valley. I didn’t have a ticket for a single game, but I had to be there, at least in the city limits, for the Finals. I had to be among friends.

Just before the playoffs began, with the Suns riding the sixteen-game winning streak that propelled them to the best record in the league, Paradise Valley voted to rename itself “D’Antoniopolis” for the duration. Picking up Phoenix radio driving through the desert, I heard Glendale (“Amare Heights”), Peoria (“Nash-ville”), Chandler (“Bellburg”), and Gilbert (“Strawberry Fields”) decided to follow suit. Goodyear, meanwhile, changed its name permanently, to “Great Season,” because this was far more than just another good year.

Much of the national spotlight was on Boston, which had returned to prominence after acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the off-season, jelled at the right time in April, and burned their way easily through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Still, the smart money was on the Suns, as the Celtics really had no answer for Phoenix’s brilliant and deep backcourt, and not much of anyone had an answer for NBA MVP Amare Stoudemire up front. A man on a mission all season long, he’d set career highs in scoring, rebounding and blocks-per-game averages and, in honor of his upcoming showdown with the Big Ticket, Garnett, had taken on a new nickname: The Golden Ticket.

I rounded up old friends to watch the Finals games in big parties, boring them with my endless stories of how this was a rematch of the legendary 1975-76 NBA Finals, which the Suns lost to the Celts in six games. But right from the tip-off for Game One (Amare to Nash to Diaw for a dunk), it was clear things were much, much different. The Suns rolled in that game in front of a crowd so loud, television commentators simply had to give up three times in the third quarter and let the pictures talk for themselves. Amare ran amok for more than forty points, and Alando Tucker, who’d earned the nickname “Sunrise” for his ability to wake the team up with points off the bench, burned Boston for twenty more. But the key was Steve Nash, whose passes were everywhere. He’d played tremendously unselfishly all season long, absorbing the hit to his scoring average to post a career high in assists, and he served notice that the Finals would be no different, offering up seventeen dimes.

Game Two was another Suns victory, although Boston made it closer by trying to slow the tempo. But, as everyone else discovered this year, the Suns only ever slow for so long, and this time it was Leandro Barbosa pushing, pushing, pushing, erupting for thirty-five points as the Suns pulled away. Grant Hill, who had played all eighty-two games during the regular season, added twenty-two. Meanwhile, Ray Allen lost his cool in a postgame press conference, cursing out Raja Bell and D.J. Strawberry for punishing defense that had limited the All-Star to point totals in the low teens in the first two games.

The Suns flew east to Boston for the next two games, but all of Phoenix remained poised in front of their television sets. Yes, things looked good, but Suns fans had been down this road so many times before – They weren’t about to believe it was over until Commissioner Stern handed that trophy to Robert Sarver. There’s a thread of hard-won fatalism in even the most committed Suns fan, a sense that, somehow, the team could be up four games to none in a best-of-seven series and still the fates would conspire to somehow turn it into a best-of-nine that would ultimately go to the enemy.

Their backs to the wall, the Celtics nipped the Suns in Game 3 at home, playing their big three of Garnett, Pierce and Allen for 48 minutes each. But now everyone was starting to really notice the series Steve Nash was having. In addition to those seventeen assists in Game One, he’d tallied eighteen and fifteen in the next two…with only three turnovers total. “Unprecedented” was the word being bandied about. A record local television audience watched the Suns cruise to victory on the Celtics home floor in Game 4 (Nash: nineteen assists and one turnover; Stoudemire: thirty-four points and twenty-one rebounds in fouling Garnett out of the game; Diaw: his sixth triple-double of the playoffs; Brian Skinner: eight crucial rebounds), and the Suns were heading home with a chance to clinch.

I’m proud to say I was one of the fifty thousand that turned up at Sky Harbor Airport to greet our heroes, taking one of the city’s specially created shuttle buses to ease parking at the airport that night. The plane touched down at two a.m. The players were home and in bed by three. We were still there cheering at five.

Parties before Game 5 began hours prior to tip-off, but there was still a lingering nervousness, a “what if” sense that hung over the city like a cloud over Camelback Mountain, despite parade arrangements being announced in the papers. Phoenix so desperately wanted a victory parade, not a “we love you anyway” parade, like the one in 1993.

The game started close, Boston playing with grim desperation, led by the precise execution of their three veterans. And when Nash went to the sidelines with tightness in his back in the second quarter, Suns fans steeled themselves for the possibilities – a delayed parade at best, the crushing heartbreak of unprecedented collapse at worst. But, with the Suns down by six in the fourth quarter, Nash limped back into the game to the loudest roar anyone had ever heard, and brought the Suns back, forcing overtime. And with six seconds remaining, the score tied, the Suns ran a play for Amare. He caught the ball down low, and Garnett defended from the front, Paul Pierce from behind. In his younger days, STAT would have bulled to the hoop regardless, but instead, he alertly whipped the ball to the open man, who drained a nineteen-footer at the buzzer, bad back and all. Steve Nash raised his fist, and the Suns had their first championship.

Even so, someone in the living room where we watched the game grumbled, “We still don’t have the trophy yet,” exemplifying the typical Suns fan mindset – Anything that can go wrong…But this wasn’t that kind of night, or that kind of year. Sarver raised the trophy high, next to Nash, raising his Finals MVP trophy.

Two days later, the parade, in 108-degree heat. Suns old-timers, the ones who built the franchise, turned out. Connie Hawkins, Alvan Adams, Walter Davis, Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers, Dan Majerle, former trainer Joe Proski and many others…But the loudest cheers were for Original Sun Dick Van Arsdale, who probably hurt his elbow, waving so much. On the victory podium, Al McCoy served as master of ceremonies, his proud voice catching in his throat several times, only to be restored by thunderous cheers every time. A massive video board behind the dais showed Suns highlights from throughout their history, culminating with the 2008 Finals.

Every Suns player took the microphone to thank the crowd (Amare pointed to the NBA championship trophy and roared, “This is the only stat that really matters,” while Grant Hill praised “the healing powers of the desert sun”), followed by the coaching staff and General Manager Steve Kerr, who cracked everyone up (“So that’s all there is to being a General Manager?”). Robert Sarver yielded some of his time to a surprise guest – a teary-eyed Jerry Colangelo, who managed eight words: “I love you, Phoenix. Always have, always will,” before embracing the team’s current owner. And when Sarver looked at the trophy, then out at the crowd, and whispered, grinning, “Who wants another one?” the cheers could be heard in Los Angeles, Dallas, San Antonio and Utah.

I looked around – everyone had a sunburn, the same as me. Tomorrow, we’d be in happy pain, but for now, we all looked alike, Suns fans who had come so far together, unified by our love for the team, and now, by our bright, shining faces.

Planet Orange.