It rained here in Los Angeles over the weekend, just a sprinkle, but enough to break the heat for a day and give us our first faint whiff of fall. And, like any right thinking person, autumn makes me think of NBA training camps.

The rookies are about to head to NBA school. 

(NBAE Photos)

(Someone told me football was starting soon, and I just stared at them blankly until they made kicking motions and said very slowly, “You know…football?”)

Now, everything is making me think of the Suns’ upcoming season. The news that DJ Strawberry has come to contract terms. Watching Amare play in the Tournament of the Americas. Even walking through the drug store, looking at all the shiny new school supplies makes me think that the Suns themselves will be going back to school soon, studying up on how they might bring Phoenix its first NBA championship.

So I’m smiling a lot these days. I’m picturing a gym in Tucson, where the Suns will hold training camp, and Raja Bell taking DJ, known for his defensive skills in college, aside and saying, “You know what else really bugs Kobe Bryant? When you tickle him under the arms while he’s dribbling. Also, when he drives, whisper ‘Two playoffs in a row.’ He hates that. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about Ginobili and Iverson. Oh, and here’s some tips on shooting three-pointers…” Then Steve Nash wanders over and says, to Ra-Ra, “Let me borrow the new kid for a few minutes for floater-in-the-lane practice, and to show him how to penetrate against defenders with four times the foot speed.”

You know who else used to do stuff like that? Veterans teaching their eventual replacements the tricks of the trade and the team system? The old Boston Celtics. The ones that won every championship in the 1960s but one. They played without ego and put team first, each man wanting the organization to succeed because if it did, it meant they did. Championships equalled enhanced individual reputation, which equalled better contracts.

So Frank Ramsay taught John Havlicek how to be the consummate sixth man, never worried that the younger player would take his job away. Ramsay had a fine contract and an important place in the organization. The important thing was keeping the good thing the team had going. And when Ramsay was unable to fulfill the responsibilities he’d shouldered for so many years, Havlicek stepped in and the Celtics didn’t miss a beat. They just kept measuring rafter space for banners.

Now, I’m not naïve. I know those Celtics existed in the days before big-time free agency, when players couldn’t shop their services to the highest bidders. Players can, and should, look out for number one – Their careers are too short, and their risk of injury too high, for them to do otherwise. It’s increasingly rare for players to stay with the same team for their entire careers, to develop rapports with their communities and their organizations. Therefore, the incentive for veterans to teach younger players – and the young players are a lot younger than they used to be, coming out of college now as early as after their freshman years – is pretty low when they feel they have their own livelihoods to protect. And I’m sure some veteran/rookie mentoring already goes on, and I have a feeling the guys on the Suns are better about it than most other teams.

But still…

Nash, Bell, Amare and ‘Trix aren’t going anywhere (if the Suns didn’t move STAT and Shawn this off-season, they’re simply not going to), and they all make kajillions of dollars. Their window to win is still open, and they can keep that window open longer if they help the coaching staff train these youngsters to be contributors faster than they’d learn otherwise. And then everybody benefits. Our current stars stay stars longer (and get paid better accordingly) because they have a better supporting cast that allows them to perform better. The organization wins more games. The fans stay happy. And maybe we measure our own rafter space for banners.

Ooh, just had another vision: Shawn Marion and Alando Tucker standing at midcourt in that gym down in Tucson. The Matrix hands the kid a basketball, takes one for himself, and says, “Now, follow me…I’m going to show you how to fly.” And then they glide to the rim.

I can’t wait for school to start.

* * *

Personal note, Suns fans: I’ll be in the Valley this weekend, signing comics at two local shops, SpazDog Comics on the west side on Friday, August 31, from 6 until 8 pm, then Atomic Comics in Mesa on Saturday, September 1, from 2 until 5 pm. Come on out and say hi, and we’ll talk a little hoops in between arguing who’s stronger, Superman or the Hulk (everyone knows Amare’s the strongest)!

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