VIDEO: Steve Nash in the Skills Competition

Tamia Makes Good on Anthem Deal

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Suns forward Grant Hill sacrifices his body on the court every game for the good of the team. Last season, the veteran took one for the fans during the taping of Suns.com TV’s Phoenix Suns Home Court. Hill jumped into his pool fully clothed after his wife, Tamia, agreed to sing the National Anthem at US Airways Center before a Suns game in exchange.

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College Hoops and Broadcasting Legends

Football, baseball, hockey, boxing, golf, Olympics – if it was on
television, I watched it and logged all the action so that highlights
could be selected, found and edited for the local sports news broadcast.

However, my natural immersion in the NBA season has over the years nudged out interest in most other sports. Of all the sports I used to watch but no longer find or make the time to follow (other than the Cubs, who I do still try to follow, but watch very few actual games), I miss college basketball the most.

I used to run our tournament pool in the sports department. I had brackets of all manner of stages and predictions posted on my wall like a detective solving a crime. Okay, so I never came close to winning the thing, but it was a great time.

Every year I vow to actually know who’s in the polls, which teams are on the bubble and know at least enough to have no surprises when the seedings for the tournament are announced.

Every year I’m surprised when I read that this team or that team is playing for a conference championship. And this morning, I was positively confounded to discover that Drake would be playing Illinois State in the Missouri Valley Conference’s title game in St. Louis. While I’m not an alumnus of ISU, I did attend school there my freshman year.

Al McCoy, an alum of Drake himself, and I had talked earlier in the season, when his Bulldog’s lost to my brother’s Bradley Braves, the only other time I’d paid attention to college hoops this season. So, when I got to the arena this morning for the Suns-Spurs game, I sought out the Voice of the Suns to get his take on the game.

Ironically, I found him in the Al McCoy Media Center, eating lunch with fellow Suns’ broadcaster Gary Bender. When I told him I had a connection to his team’s opponent, he told me that Illinois State’s Jim Durham was doing the play-by-play on the Suns’ game for ESPN Radio and was in the building, as well.

Durham, who I listened to for years as the Bulls’ announcer with Johnny “Red” Kerr, approached as if on cue and asked if the game was on television. Indeed it was and I stood with McCoy and Durham and watched as Drake went on an early run to take a 14-9 lead.

The two broadcasting legends discussed making a whopping five dollar bet on the contest, but I’m not sure if the deal was ever finalized.

Bender was hedging bets on which one of them would mention the game on the air during their Suns’ game broadcast.

“I’m sure it will be mentioned if the right team wins,” Bender said.

“Yes, it will,” chimed in Durham. They all laughed, but McCoy had the last laugh, as Drake pounded Illinois State to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1971.

But more importantly, I now know a team that has made it to March Madness. Bring on Selection Sunday, whenever that is.

Suns, NBA Assist New Orleans Reconstruction Efforts During All-Star Weekend

 

Former and current NBA stars (Bill Russell and Steve Nash pictured) came together in New Orleans to help in continuing hurricane recovery efforts.
(NBAE Photos)

It was 1981, I was weeks away from high school graduation and 150 of my closest friends Amtraked it to the Big Easy for our yearly band tour. Given that most of us had recently reached the then-drinking age of 18 and the fact that we fancied ourselves as the artsy group of our class, it was quite literally the time of our lives.

We drank Hurricanes, walked Bourbon Street, hung out by the river’s edge and even managed to perform a couple of concerts, most notably in historic Jackson Square.

When the footage of Katrina’s devastating aftermath began to air two years ago, I joined all who had ever been to New Orleans in a personal feeling of loss. Only those who had the opportunity to enjoy the French Quarter and its eccentricities pre-Katrina could truly know what was lost when that massive storm blew ashore and changed the region forever.

So when I heard that the NBA’s All-Star Weekend was heading to Louisiana I jumped at the chance to return to the source of such great adolescent memories. I knew it would not be the same. Natural disaster and human error had combined to make New Orleans a bleak skeleton of what it once was – a proud and unique destination, combining European style and class with Southern hospitality and good old American entrepreneur spirit.

Upon our arrival on Thursday, the airport shuttle to our hotel made a couple of stops to drop others off in the French Quarter and the memories from our trip over a quarter-century ago (yikes) came back clearer than ever. [Read more...]

Raja's Game 6 Bar

I have visited several places of significant interest in my travels for the Suns and Mercury over the past couple of years.

Raja Bell celebrates a Suns win against the Lakers in game 6 of the 2005-2006 playoffs. 

(NBAE Photos)

I walked through The Alamo while in San Antonio for last season’s Suns-Spurs playoff series and two years ago, I took the tour at the school book depository from where JFK was shot in Dallas over 40 years ago.

I stood outside the gates of the White House, at the base of the Washington Monument and at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial while covering the WNBA All-Star Game in Washington, D.C., and went to the top of the Space Needle (twice) in Seattle during the WNBA playoffs.

But last night, while in Los Angeles to cover the Suns’ holiday trip to California, I visited perhaps the most unique and significant non-arena location in recent team history.

After the contingent of players, personnel and their families arrived at the hotel, I met up with one of the Suns’ security guards who works the home games and occasionally travels with the team, who I will call Tony. Okay, that really is his name, but I cannot remember his last name, so I played the “who I will call Tony” card.

We went in search of a meal, not the easiest task so late in the evening on Christmas Eve. Tony suggested we try McCormick and Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant, a place near the hotel that might be open. Then he revealed, quite matter-of-factly, that it also happened to be the bar where he was assigned to watch Raja Bell as he watched Game 6 of the 2006 playoff series against the Lakers after being suspended for “clothes-lining” Kobe Bryant in Game 5.

Tony recalled Raja being very quiet as the game began and nobody recognizing him through the first half. Then as the game got more intense and Raja became more vocal, someone finally did recognize him and the secret was out. Tony remembers the crowd being polite but loud as the game went back and forth, and said he is glad he will never know how the crowded bar would have reacted had the unthinkable happened and the Lakers had won.

While his recollections of the events of that night were pretty clear, his sense of direction was not and he immediately sensed we were not heading in the right direction. As we headed back to the lobby to ask for directions, I shared with him how the rest of that night panned out for both Raja and for me.

I wound up videotaping Raja’s reunion with his teammates at the airport after the Suns tied up the best-of-seven series and interviewing him on the plane about his experience at McCormick and Schmick’s. Then I captured the throng of about a dozen rabid Suns fans who waited at US Airways Center in Phoenix until 2 a.m. for the team’s return. “Raja’s back! Raja’s back,” they shouted as a smiling Bell walked to his car and then drove out of the arena.

I was just telling Tony the part about how I won a Rocky Mountain Emmy Award for that video as we were crossing the hotel driveway. We saw none other than Raja himself standing on the curb, who then chided me for still not having seen the statue before telling us how to get to the restaurant.

As it turned out, the restaurant had already officially closed, but a kindly host had the chef whip us up a couple of burgers to go. As we waited, we sat at the very bar where Tony and Raja watched Game 6 surrounded by Lakers fans.

Okay, so it might not be on par in significance with walking the grounds at the epicenter of the free world or that tall tower in Seattle, but for Suns fans and followers, it represents one of the finest locales in recent playoff history.

For me, it stands as a monument in memory of a night when I was able to match the team’s achievement and success by creating a video of archival significance and worthy of recognition by my peers.

And the burger was great, too.

Suns Hoping to Give the Gift of a Win on Christmas Day

Growing up as a kid, watching a sporting event on TV on Christmas Day was a treat. Opening presents, eating a big meal, turning on a great football or basketball game to watch with my Dad and brother- it was all part of the tradition.

Mike D’Antoni and the Suns will be entertaining the nation on Christmas day.
 

But what I didn’t think much about was the sacrifice the players were making. After all, they weren’t enjoying the same traditional routine I was. They were off in some city, away from their families, staying in a hotel and entertaining TV viewers all over the country.

Years later, lucky enough to be playing in the NBA, I realized what it was like to actually be doing the entertaining – rather than being entertained – on Christmas Day. In my 15 year career, my teams played 5 times on December 25th. I can tell you I have mixed emotions about the experience.

The most important element of the Christmas Day game as a player is whether or not you’re playing at home. If so – like I did in Chicago as a Bull three different times – it’s great. The routine doesn’t have to change much. You can still spend Christmas Eve with your family, you still wake up the next morning in your own bed, and you still open presents under the tree. And after enjoying plenty of family time, everyone is ready to get out of the house and go see a game later that day. It makes for a fun day.

If you happen to be on the road – like the Suns will be this Christmas – you’re making a major sacrifice. You leave home on the 24th, miss out on Christmas Eve and then wake up in a hotel room rather than your own bedroom. I can remember Christmas Day in 1989, as a member of the Cavaliers, having Christmas Eve dinner in an Atlanta hotel bar with Paul Mokeski and Craig Ehlo. We ordered quesadillas, which arrived 30 minutes later with a side of cocktail sauce rather than salsa. I told Ehlo and Mokeski, ‘Hey, no offense, but I’d really much rather be eating turkey at home with my family than hanging out here eating faux Mexican food with you two.’ The feeling was definitely mutual. We lost to the Hawks the next day and flew home Christmas night. I don’t count it as one of my all time favorite Christmases.

Because of the sacrifice that our Suns players are making this year, we’re going to do everything we can as an organization to make Christmas Day in LA as much fun as possible. The players are welcome to bring their families on the team charter. We have a Christmas dinner scheduled at the hotel – turkey and all the trimmings, rather than quesadillas. And Santa will stop by, bearing gifts for all the children.

The NBA also recognizes the sacrifices the players and coaches are making, and they always provide nice Christmas gifts for them all. (Nice leather goods from ‘Coach’ with the NBA logo on them were always the gift of choice, as I remember).

Of course, the best gift our guys can enjoy that day would be a W over the Lakers. As a player, you know that the game that day is a huge event. Every sports fan in America – and every other NBA player – is watching your game. It’s The Show, basically, and you want to perform well. So even if you’d rather be home with the family, the energy of a Christmas Day game is there, and the adrenaline kicks in early.

Hopefully we’ll play well, have fun and put on a great show for basketball fans across the country. Ultimately, that’s what the Christmas Day games are about: entertaining the millions of fans who are home, looking for something to watch on TV.

Let’s just hope that next year, if the league puts us on the Christmas Day schedule, we can play in Phoenix. Our players would be much happier.

And the Emmy Goes to… Me!

Three Rocky Mountain Emmy Award-nominated Suns.com TV productions culminated in a win in the category of Advanced Media (read: Internet), Sports, last Saturday night at the awards show.

Koek flashes the Emmy hardware in front of the Suns.com Newsroom.
(Josh Greene/Suns Photos)

While I personally received a statue, the bigger significance is that we at Suns.com can now add “Emmy Award-winning website” to our impressive portfolio of awards and recognitions as one of the top team sites in all of sports.

The video that won was the one I shot and edited of Raja Bell’s�reunion with his teammates at LAX after the suspended Suns’ guard watched from a local bar as the Suns won Game 6 of their opening round series with the Lakers in the 2006 playoffs. Bell, suspended for “clothes-lining” Lakers star Kobe Bryant in Game 5 at US Airways Center, returned for the Game 7 series clincher and the Suns wound up advancing to the Western Conference Finals.

I was actually in Tucson producing the live webcast of the Suns’ public scrimmage at McKale Center when the awards show took place Saturday back in Phoenix. While there were no acceptance speeches for the winners, I had prepared one anyway, so here goes.

  • First, I’d like to thank Kobe Bryant. Had Kobe not been the kind of player who would precipitate being thrown to the court by Raja Bell in the middle of a playoff game, I might never have received this award. Thanks, Kobe.

 

  • I also have to thank Raja for not only being the kind of player that would actually throw down an opponent in the middle of a playoff game, but also for being the kind of player who would allow me to record the big reunion with his teammates, then grant me an interview on the charter flight back to Phoenix, and finally acknowledge the fans who waited hours at US Airways Center upon the team’s return late into the night. “Raja’s back!”

 

  • I would be remiss not to include a bit of thanks to the NBA for suspending Bell for Game 6. I think they got this one right and remember at the time being relieved it was only for one game. More importantly, had the league not taken action, there would have been no reunion to film and no video to submit for nomination. There will be no thanks for this past playoff’s suspension decisions forthcoming.

 

  • Thanks as well to Mike D’Antoni and the Suns for pulling off that huge win at the STAPLES Center. Not only did they provide us all with some of the most exciting playoff action this side of 1993, but had they not come away with a win in Game 6, the award-winning video sequence would have never been shot.

 

  • Thank you to former Suns media relations manager Dustin “Meat” Krugel, who sat next to me on the bus ride from the arena to the airport and encouraged me to hustle off the bus and tape Raja meeting up with the guys. I believe his exact words to me were, “You gotta get that.” Thanks and good luck in Memphis, Meat.

 

  • I’d like also to thank Suns’ VP, Interactive Services (and my boss) Jeramie McPeek for his constant encouragement and creative freedom to produce content on the fly, and often on my own. He also accepted the award for me on Saturday night, even though I technically beat him out of getting one himself. Thanks, Boss. Kudos also to the rest of the Suns.com staff: Josh Greene, who makes a cameo in the video interviewing Bell in Phoenix, Brad G. Faye, and our newest additions of Dan Banks, Dan Hilton and Stefan Swiat.

 

  • Thanks in general go out to the Suns’ organization for seeing value in what we do on the website. Throughout the league, other teams’ web geeks (as Laurel D’Antoni is fond of calling us) are jealous of the access we are given and the contact we allowed with the players. Besides the occasional inappropriate word here and there (most often occurring during big celebrations) or particularly private player meetings, there is very little we are not allowed to shoot and post on Suns.com.

 

  • Finally, thanks to Teresa, my girlfriend and biggest supporter over the last nine years. With or without this job, and the rewards and awards that come with it, being with her is the biggest award I could win. Thanks for being there, Babe.

�(Music fades in, mic cuts out…)

Training Camp is next week?! Really?!

I never did get to that new Einstein biography, see Superbad or any other summer Hollywood offerings, or add a word to the novel I haven’t touched in three years. And I never watched more than a passing glance as Suns’ players began returning to the Valley and working out at US Airways Center.

Koek and Taurasi take a picture with the WNBA Championship Trophy. 

(NBAE Photos)

In fact between covering the Mercury on their road to the WNBA Championship for PhoenixMercury.com and then taking my vacation, I have not felt this disconnected with the Suns since the Skiles era.

Since I cannot write with personal experience about the Brian Skinner addition, the quality of play of the voluntary workouts or Aaron Nelson’s reports from the trip to China, I’ll share some random thoughts on how I spent my offseason.

  • I understand how fans might feel about the Mercury raising a championship banner before the Suns. My feelings about the Bears changed forever when they had the audacity to win the Super Bowl a season after the Cubs’ crushing loss in the 1984 MLB playoffs. 
  • I also understand fans not liking women’s basketball enough in general to be excited about the Mercury’s feat. While I have enjoyed my time working on their web site over the years, and have come to know and like many of their players and staff, I have never been too big a fan of the actual game itself. I always felt it was slower and sloppier than the men’s version, and simply did not hold the same interest for me game in, game out.

    This playoff run was different, though. Yes, I had a unique perspective of traveling with the team and watching the games from a bird’s-eye view, which certainly enhanced the experience for me. But even beyond that, the quality of play was strong and the team was exciting to watch as they gained momentum early in the post-season and approached the title.

    I’m not out to convince anyone to become a women’s basketball fan, or even necessarily a Mercury fan (although they are part of the Suns’ family). My point in bringing it up at all is that this Mercury team was a treat to watch and a blast to cover.

    The title-clinching game was intense and the celebration that followed was crazy. I looked at the whole experience not only for the accomplishment it was, but also as a dress rehearsal for what I believe is to come for the Suns. And based on what I witnessed this summer, it will be well worth the wait.

  • One of the highlights of my time with the Mercury was getting to know Head Coach Paul Westhead. Our connection started early while on the bus from the Seattle airport to the hotel before Game 1 of the opening round series when he overheard me mention I was from Chicago (I guess I do that a lot).As Westhead got off the bus he approached me and said, “So, you’re from Chicago. I used to coach there, you know.”

    My parents got cable at our house in Niles, Ill. the year Westhead coached a pretty bad Bulls team in the early ‘80s. Despite their record, I still got hooked on the game, and Reggie Theus was the first NBA player I regularly watched and followed. I have been an NBA fan ever since. “Yes, Coach, I remember you from Chicago,” I told him.

    (I had the pleasure of meeting Theus and telling him how much I enjoyed watching him as a player when the new Kings’ head coach was in Phoenix to watch a pre-draft workout.

    While waiting for most of the players to find out what happened to their bags after landing in San Antonio for the Conference Finals (the top seed in the West, the Mercury never played a Game 1 at home), I sat on the bus and listened to stories from Westhead about his days with the Bulls (both of our luggage arrived with the plane), as well as other tales from his basketball adventures.

    The training facility in Chicago was the back of a gym at an orphanage and the weight room consisted of two light barbells. When I told him I started interning for a local TV news sports department shortly after the Bulls drafted Michael Jordan he said, “If I was still there when Michael got there, I might still be there.”

    My favorite of his stories, however, concerned the Lakers’ signing of Kurt Rambis a year after Westhead coached Los Angeles to the NBA Championship. Rambis, a former Suns forward and current Lakers assistant coach, initially turned down an offer to attend the Lakers training camp for a $10,000 offer to play overseas.

    “You know we just won the title, right?” Westhead asked Rambis.

    When the Lakers came back with a $10,000 offer to attend their camp, Rambis said, “Sure.”

    As players began arriving, Westhead overheard a couple of Lakers’ staff members mocking the long-haired and bearded Rambis. “He doesn’t look like Lakers material,” he heard one of them say.

    Angered by this, Westhead grabbed a blank roster sheet from a member of the media and wrote in Rambis’ name in the 12th spot before even having seen him play.

    “So Kurt Rambis got his start in the NBA out of spite?” I asked Coach.

    “Well, yes, I guess you could say that” he replied. “But it didn’t take long for him to show he belonged.”

    It appears that Westhead will be returning to the NBA, which is understandable, but a shame. I really got to know, like and respect both him and his wife of 44 years, Cassie. I was just a hanger-on with a video camera and I already miss them. I can only imagine how the players who adored them feel.

  • For my vacation, in addition to some bike riding, some lighter reading and an embarrassing amount of NBA Live playing (I’m in the NBA Finals), I took my girlfriend of nine years, Teresa, to Las Vegas.She had never been to “Sin City” and it was a thrill to see someone take in the sights for the first time. I didn’t gamble as much as I usually do, but judging by the cards I was getting the couple of times I did play some poker, that is a good thing (honestly, that’s almost always a good thing).

    Having been to Vegas several times myself, everywhere I go I have flashbacks of previous visits. The strongest sense of memory came when walking through the lobby and casino at the MGM Grand, where we stayed during All-Star Weekend last February.

    As I have suppressed most of the memories of our time spent at that hotel that weekend, I’ll not risk any further exposing of them by sharing what I do remember.

It’s back to work on Thursday and the season is just around the corner, so I guess I better catch up on things.

Has anyone heard anything about a rumor about the Suns signing Grant Hill?

Excitement Level Rising For Mercury

I know what you are going to say. I’ve heard it all before, sometimes even out of my own mouth. The WNBA does not hold the same appeal as their male counterparts – it’s just not as exciting.

You and I were both wrong.

 

The Mercury play a different brand of basketball, there is no denying that. The game is not peppered with the kind of gravity-defying moves and raw power that the NBA supplies on a nightly basis. There is not the name or face recognition that comes with a saturation of marketing campaigns and high-profile media coverage.

But, there is excitement and there is great appeal. The Mercury had been shut out of postseason play for the past seven seasons. But they are now on the verge of advancing to the second round for the first time since the went to the WNBA Finals in 1998 after beating the Storm in Seattle 101-84 on Friday night to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three opening round series.

That alone should be enough for even the most casual Phoenix sports fan to take notice, but there is so much more about this team to rally around.

While killing time in the Seattle airport waiting for our return flight to Phoenix this morning, I was chatting with Mercury athletic trainer Tamara Poole, a veteran in the field of professional sports team training, who summed up the demeanor and attitude of the team in five words.

“It all starts with Coach.”

Head Coach Paul Westhead and I have a couple of common denominators which connect us in odd ways. I was a teenager in Chicago at the time he was the Bulls’ head coach. His Reggie Theus-led teams in the early ‘80s made me an NBA fan for life and that was a few years before some guy named Jordan came along to bring the rest of the world on board (“If Michael came when I was there, I might still be there,” Westhead quipped.)

Several years later, I was sitting baseline in the photographers’ row at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum when Cotton Fitzsimmons’ Suns scored 12007 points in the first half against Westhead’s Nuggets and finished with a record-tying 173 points.

In my experiences watching Westhead both as a fan and from the “inside,” he had come across as a stern, serious, if not downright surly, man. Be it age, experience or the grandkids (or maybe he was never really like that, he just seemed like that), Coach has a lighter aura around him these days.

He can still be stern and demanding with his players, but they respect and love him as a coach, and as a person. They want to play hard for him and give him their best.

I realize fans generally do not support a team because of its coach, but Westhead has set the table and served up a team that you can really get behind. The run-and-gun style he is famous for has worked wonders with the Mercury after many said the faster-paced game could not work in the WNBA. It is a style that has not only been successful, but it is, dare I say, very exciting to watch.

They run, they shoot and they rack up points like no team in the WNBA ever has, and they have fun while doing it. Their fast breaks look like choreographed Globetrotter routines at times and while their rebounding has been a sore spot, they are adept at cutting off the passing lanes and creating fast break opportunities in other ways.

Sound like another highly successful basketball team from the Valley?

It is often the case that when you begin to root for a particular team, they become less appealing when you get past the skills as players and start to get to know them as personalities.

This current Mercury team, also much like our current Suns team, is one where the appeal is only greater when you begin to get to know the players as people.

All-Star guard Diana Taurasi should be called “Perpetual Motion.” She is never still, whether it’s waiting on defense for her opponent’s offense to set up or sitting on the plane watching a movie with reserve guard Kelly Mazzante. She’s always moving, jumping, tapping her leg or biting on her iPod cord.

The three-time NCAA Champion with Connecticut is also an extremely hard worker and her desire to win is only slightly greater than her likeability factor. She always stops for autographs and looks into the eyes of the fans who want to meet her or take a photo.

She leaves you with the impression that she not only understands the importance of reaching out to her fans, but actually embraces it and enjoys the interaction.

All-Star forward Penny Taylor is a friendly and funny mate with an intoxicating Australian accent. Just don’t make her mad. Once on the court, Taylor is as physical a player as there is. She gets knocked around every game and does her fair share of bruising, as well, but always shrugs it off as part of the job, which for her it is. It is simply not a Mercury game until Taylor is on the bench at some point grimacing in pain.

The third in the trio of Mercury representatives in this year’s All-Star festivities is second-year guard Cappie Pondexter. The leading scorer in the team’s Game 1 win, Pondexter is as focused and determined a player as I’ve seen. Her drives to the hoop are lightning-quick and her pre- and post-game demeanor tell the story of someone driven to win a championship.

And while the three All-Stars garner the most attention and credit for the team’s success thus far, there is a general consensus among the organization that this team would be nowhere near what it is without playmaker Kelly Miller and center Tangela Smith, both of whom exude a quieter confidence about them than the more vocal leaders like Taurasi and Pondexter.

The fact of the matter is that this is an exciting and likable team with a legitimate chance at a WNBA.title, if not in the next couple of weeks, then in the next couple of years.

So here is my challenge to you, sports fans from the Valley and elsewhere. Give this team one chance. If you are around the downtown Phoenix area on Sunday afternoon, buy a ticket and see if they can get the two-game sweep of the Storm and move on. If you cannot make it to watch it live, tune in to ESPN2 and watch on TV. Tip-off is scheduled for 4 p.m.

If you give them that one legitimate look and it is still not the game for you, you’ve lost nothing but a couple of hours watching a basketball game. If it is for you, you can jump on board now and enjoy the rest of the ride.

Playoffs Already "Really Exciting"

This morning I was informed by the friendly neighborhood Circle K cashier, Cheryl, that a local radio sportscaster was urging that fans get behind the Suns now, “before it gets really exciting.”

� 

Raja Bell, Amaré Stoudemire and the Suns have already helped make the 202007 NBA Playoffs exciting.
(NBAE Photos)

Before it gets really exciting? This postseason, only one game in, is already beyond “really exciting.” For me it is anyway.

This team, this season, these playoffs, have the feel of something spectacular already. I think a win tonight would do more than put the Suns in the driver’s seat of their opening round series with the Lakers.

With the Spurs and Mavs both losing their opening games, and the Suns’ penchant in recent years for letting Game 2s slip away after Game 1 victories, going up 2-0 will show that this team has the focus and determination to go all the way.

This is not a “must win” scenario, of course. The Suns will dispose of the Lakers regardless of tonight’s outcome. But it is a game that champions win.

I understand some fans’ reluctance to jump fully on board after coming close so many times, but not yet achieving the NBA pinnacle in hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. I grew up a Chicago Cubs fan so I know about getting close and winding up devasted by another year without a title.

But I also grew up a Bulls fan. I watched, sometimes up close and personal as a sports TV producer, when the Jordan era began (“Jordan Scores 40, Bulls Lose”) and then when Chicago grew into a contender as Michael matured, honed his skills and bought into the team concept.

Those Bulls lost two straight Eastern Conference Finals to the Pistons before starting their first championship run. They learned how to win by losing.

This Suns team has also come close and seen what it takes to become a champion. They have learned those valuable lessons and have all the pieces in place to make it happen.

If you’re not already beyond excitement, like the crazed sellout crowd at US Airways Center became on Sunday, you need to hurry up and get there. You won’t be disappointed, no matter what happens.

But if all you’re after is a title, hang on tight. In my opinion, if the Suns prevail tonight, and I predict they will, they will go on to win their first-ever NBA Championship.