I was in Chicago last week for the Christmas holiday, and when I returned to my hotel room that night, I flicked on the television to find out who’d won the game between the Lakers and the Heat earlier in the day.
I was thrilled to see the Lakers had been routed, with Dwyane Wade doing most of the damage with 40 points, and Kobe Bryant being held far below his average. I don’t celebrate Christmas, but if I did, it would have been a heck of a present.
As part of the cable sports station’s coverage of the game, they ran a graphic listing the NBA’s all-time top scorers on Christmas day, in terms of total points. To my surprise, among the leaders was Dick Van Arsdale.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, I guess. I mean, the Suns used to play every year on Christmas back in their early seasons, so Van would have had plenty of opportunities to ring up the buckets…I suppose before he even came to the Suns, his previous team, the New York Knicks, might have played a few times on the holiday. I think I was mostly surprised because Van stopped playing almost thirty years ago, so his name rarely comes up in contemporary basketball discussions. And that got me thinking about the guy longtime Suns fans lovingly referred to as the “Flying Dutchman.”
For those of you who don’t know Dick Van Arsdale beyond the name on the US Airways Arena’s Ring of Honor, a quick history lesson in Sunsology: When the NBA held an expansion draft in 1968 to populate the rosters of its two newest franchises in Milwaukee and Phoenix, the Suns chose first, and took Van off the Knicks’ hands. He didn’t want to come to Arizona at first – the Knicks were on the verge of great things, and Phoenix was considered little more than a wild west outpost, but come he did, and he came to love the city almost as much as it came to love him. Van scored the team’s first-ever regular season basket, and went on to be the exceedingly reliable mainstay of the Suns’ often-turbulent first decade. A cross between the clutch, dependable John Havlicek and the selfless, relentless Jerry Sloan, Van earned his way onto three All-Star squads, and by the time he retired in 1977, his name was atop most of the Suns’ meaningful career statistical categories. He segued immediately into a front-office role with the team, as broadcaster, as Vice President of Basketball Operations, and even, briefly, as head coach. He remains with the organization today as a Senior Executive Vice President. Forever and always around Phoenix, he will be known as the Original Sun, and he is a pivotal figure in the history of professional sports in the Valley.
On a personal note, Dick Van Arsdale was a boyhood hero of mine, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with him a few times. He’s as approachable, as kind a guy, and as generous with his time as anyone you’d ever want to meet.
Van suffered a stroke a little more than a year ago. It was a big one — It left his speech and some of his motor skills impaired. It got some press attention at the time, particularly in Phoenix, of course, and there were many letters and e-mails of support in the first days following the stroke, but you haven’t heard much about his recovery since. Anyone who’s ever spent any time with Van can be reasonably sure he’s attacked his rehabilitation with the same gusto he used to fight through Clifford Ray picks to stay with Rick Barry during his playing days. He’s made a remarkable comeback at high speed, by all accounts, and his contributions to the Suns family remain as vital as ever. The man is, by no means, an invalid of any kind.
But anyone who knows a stroke victim knows that recovery never really ends. It takes constant hard work not only to improve relearned skills, but also to simply maintain them. In short, while it may not get any headlines, Van continues to put in the effort on his recuperation.
So, as you’re making your list of wishes for the New Year, next to your wish that the Suns win their first of many NBA championships in 202007, why not send a wish to Van for continued success in his comeback, and remind him that we’re all still rooting for him (You could even drop a check, if you’re so inclined, to Phoenix Suns Charities, which support many worthy medical causes, such as stroke research)?
We’ve all seen what our cheers can do for our Suns when they’re working hard on the court.
Chances are, they’ll have the same effect on the Original Sun as he keeps on fighting off the court.
Suns fans, I wish you health, happiness, smiles and success in the New Year. And I wish for the Larry O’Brien Trophy for all of us…with a four-game playoff sweep of the Lakers along the way.