The following story is true. No names have been changed to protect anybody. Regular readers of this blog know there’s no questioning my love for or loyalty to the Phoenix Suns. And that’s what makes this tale all the more painful for me.
Because the last thing I’d ever want to do is make any season any more difficult for my team. For instance, I always look before crossing the street – not just because it’s the smart thing to do from a self-preservation standpoint, but because I want to make sure anyone who might run me over and damage their car isn’t a player for the Suns; I wouldn’t want to be responsible for his being upset about having to deal with his insurance company on a game day.
That’s the kind of fan I am.
Anyway, this story takes us back to the near-forgotten days of 1982. John Cougar sang a little ditty about Jack and Diane, E.T. tried to find a pay phone that took alien currency, and the Suns practiced at the old Phoenix Jewish Community Center on Maryland and 15th Avenue. Like the Romantics and leg warmers and (presumably) E.T. itself, it’s not around anymore (the PJCC moved to the northeast part of the Valley).
I spent a good portion of my childhood at the old PJCC. I went to summer camp there, participated in a touring theater group for kids that was based out of there, and played in the PJCC’s Sunday afternoon basketball leagues for many years (Suns legend Ronnie Lee gave me a trophy one year at the league’s awards banquet, and you literally can’t see me because I’m completely shaded by his Afro).
The Suns were always around. In addition to practicing there as a team during the season, individual players would stop by to work out in the health club or just shoot around. Suns Coach John MacLeod sponsored basketball camps there for kids in the summer. The team opened their rookie camp to the public — somewhere I have a mimeographed roster (on purple paper) of rookie and free agent participants from one camp – and a few dozen die hard supporters (mostly retired gentlemen like the late, much-missed Willie Levinson who didn’t have other obligations on a summer weekday) would sit in the bleachers and watch John MacLeod and Al Bianchi and, later, John Wetzel, put the kids through their paces. It was fairly common to see a Sun, past or present, in the PJCC’s parking lot. Probably in the same folder where I have that rookie camp roster, I have autographs from Paul Westphal, Alvan Adams, Gar Heard, Curtis Perry, Don Buse, Dennis Awtrey and a host of other players. One more than one occasion, I happened to be in the gym when a Suns player would be there working out, and I’d wind up rebounding for them as they shot – no greater fun could be had for a young Suns fan.
Video games became a big deal in the early 80s, and arcades sprung up around Phoenix (The Red Baron at Chris-Town, anyone?) offering contests such as Space Invaders, Asteroids and Centipede, and the PJCC got on board soon after and invested in a couple of the bulky consoles – Donkey Kong and Galaga. Like most boys my age in 1982, I was fairly into video games – although most of my friends were flat obsessed with them to the point that few other things mattered (Girls would change that, soon enough). While I wasn’t obsessed with video games (I was more into the Suns – after all, none of my friends sat through rookie camp with me and Willie Levinson – and while girls soon became a big deal for me, too, clearly the Suns have remained a high priority), I did enjoy playing them now and then. So on days when I’d walk the half-mile or so from my house to the PJCC, I’d often have a couple quarters in my pocket so I could play a game or two after shooting baskets for a while.
On this one particular winter day in 1982, I happened to be at the PJCC shooting around, and I had the baskets all to myself. It was a game day for the Suns, and there were only two other people in the gym that I recall: Larry Nance and Joe Proski. The Prosk, of course, needs no introduction to Suns fans; He’d been the Suns’ trainer since the team’s very first day, proudly bore the nickname “Magic Fingers,” and had an Afro nearly as large as Ronnie Lee’s. Larry Nance was a high-flying 6’ 10” forward who played seven highly-productive seasons for the Suns before being sent to Cleveland in the deal that brought Kevin Johnson and Mark West to town. While in a Suns jersey, he won the very first NBA slam-dunk contest, and he’d go on to have his number retired by the Cavs. In 1982, however, he was a second-year player of great promise. The Suns had Alvan Adams and Walter Davis and Dennis Johnson at the time, but it was already abundantly clear that Nance was a star in the making, and that he was going to be a big part of the franchise’s future. Apparently, he and the Prosk were at the PJCC so the trainer could give the young star some last-minute treatment of some sort prior to the game that night.
As I mentioned, the Suns were always around, so while I thought it was definitely cool that Larry Nance was there (I probably secretly hoped he’d see my shooting prowess and tell MacLeod that the Suns had to sign me immediately if the Suns had any intention of winning a championship), I didn’t gawk much, and just went about my business, clumsily heaving up jumpshots.
When I was done, I stepped out into the hall, fished around for a quarter, and plunked it into the Galaga video game. I lost fairly quickly, my spaceship callously destroyed by evil aliens and, having let the galaxy down, I was ready to head home, when I heard a voice behind me say, “I’ll play you.” I turned around, and there was Larry Nance with two shiny quarters.
What, I was going to say no?
Graciously, the High-Yatollah of Slam-ola (seriously, that’s what someone suggested for Nance as a nickname after he won the slam dunk contest later) let me play first, and as I struggled to play with Larry Nance Watching Me, I again probably imagined Nance introducing me to MacLeod in the locker room that night, “If this kid can shoots eighteen footers the way he shoots aliens, we’re going all the way!” I “died” fairly quickly, and it was Larry’s turn.
Now, keep in mind that Larry Nance was 6’ 10”. The video game was not. Larry had to fold his upper body under the game’s canopy so he could see the game’s screen. He was stuffed in there so tightly, I had no idea if he was doing well, doing poorly…Heck, I had no idea if he could even breathe.
I guess, as it turns out, he wasn’t doing very well, because he “died” about as quickly as I did, but he reacted much more strongly. He stood straight up and shouted a word I’m still not allowed to say. But because he was wedged under the canopy when he tried to stand up – KRACK – he smacked his head right into it. Hard. There was blood. A considerable amount of it.
He stumbled back into the gym, muttering, and I followed. By the time I got in there, he was bending over so Prosk could examine his scalp, and I heard the words, “stitches,” “hope it’s not a concussion,” and, “better not, just in case.” And then I got a look from the trainer that would have melted steel. I stammered an apology, Nance mumbled something about it not being my fault, and I hurried out of the gym and back home.
Larry Nance didn’t play that night, and I distinctly remember the reason
given over the radio being, “a head contusion suffered by an inadvertent elbow during the morning shootaround.” The Suns, without their young star, lost, and I felt terribly guilty. The Suns went on to finish 53-29, and lost to Denver in the first round of the playoffs. I remember wondering if perhaps, like how a butterfly’s flapping wings can somehow cause a series of events that could typhoon halfway across the globe, Nance hadn’t gotten hurt and sat out that game, the outcome of the season might have been entirely different. I sure hope not. I’d hate to think I cost the Suns a championship.
My friends, meanwhile, when I told them the story later, were more concerned with why I didn’t finish the video game. After all, it was paid for.
But like I said, it was 1982. Priorities were different for most boys my age then. For me, though, the Suns were always more important.