Thinking about the upcoming 2009-2010 NBA season, I got to wondering how many people, prior to the 1975-1976 season, thought the Suns had the remotest chance of being anything other than an afterthought in the league. Sports Illustrated didn’t. In a season preview that year, the magazine picked the Suns fifth in their five-team division, noting that the teams ranked above them all had centers among the finest in the league. The Suns, the editors reasoned in their barely-a-paragraph’s-worth-of-coverage, wouldn’t be able to defend bigger teams and would wither under their physical assault. After all, their only notable additions that offseason were a slender, undersized, rookie pivotman named Alvan Adams and a heretofore unheralded backup guard named Paul Westphal.
Well, Suns fans with long memories know what happened. The centers for the teams ahead of them became injured or imploded, the Suns traded for a physical presence in the form of Gar Heard, and used a pattern, precision offense to run all the way to the Finals.
Stuff like that doesn’t happen often in pro sports, where the stars align just so, and someone completely unexpected roars out of nowhere to make a huge impression on the sport. But it can happen. It does happen.
Anyone out there remember the 1969 New York Mets? They’d been the worst team in baseball – by far – for a decade. True story about how goofy they were: Their leftfielder, an American, would routinely charge in on short fly balls and yell “I got it!” to warn off the shortstop…only to get run over by the Dominican player, who spoke no English. In the off-season, the outfielder went to a Spanish-speaking coach and asked how to say, “I got it!” in Spanish. “Yo la tengo,” he was told. The outfielder practiced it all off-season. “Yo la tengo! Yo la tengo!” In the first game of the next season, a short pop fly was hit to left. The leftfielder and the shortstop converged on the ball. “Yo la tengo!” shouted the leftfielder, and the shortstop moved off. The leftfielder prepared to catch the ball…and was run over by the centerfielder, who didn’t understand Spanish.
Would you pick a team like that to win the World Series? Of course not. Neither did anyone else. But thanks to some brilliant young pitching and intelligent management, that’s just what the Mets did, earning the nickname “The Amazin’s.”
More recent baseball example: The Tampa Bay Rays of a season ago. Sure, they had some young talent, but these were the Rays, perennial cellar-dwellers since their expansion days. Not even exorcising the word “Devil” from their name a few years back had helped that. But the young kids came of age and, with the right coaching, reached the World Series.
In football, how many pundits had the Cardinals reaching the Super Bowl last season? I wouldn’t need to take off my gloves and socks to count them, that’s for sure. But they got hot at the right time, had some teams in front of them stumbled, and rode some emerging stars to the title game.
Okay, you want basketball examples? I give you the 1981 Houston Rockets. The decade was supposed to belong (and largely did belong) to the Lakers and the Celtics. But Magic Johnson hurt his knee, and Moses Malone, the Rockets’ lone marquee player, put up a season for the ages, and the next thing you knew a .500 team had made the NBA Finals. How about those 8th-seeded Nuggets taking out the top-seeded, highly-favored Sonics in the playoffs last decade? Or the Warriors of just a few seasons ago, knocking off the top-seeded Mavericks the year after Dallas made the Finals? Did any but the die-hardiest of fans go into that season thinking, “This just might be our year?”
No one, but no one, is giving this season’s Suns a snowball’s chance in Goodyear of having a good year. Sentiments seem to be uniform across the board: The Suns can’t play defense, have no size, won’t rebound, lack depth, are too old at crucial positions. And maybe all those things will prove true.
But no one’s canceling the season. Too many things can happen. Some Sun could have the season of a lifetime. A rookie could blossom beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. More talented teams could suffer chemistry collapses (Helloooooo, Cleveland!) or, though this is nothing to root for, unfortunate injuries.
It’s a long season, with lots of variables and possibilities. And if they all fall into place, the Suns just might, to the delight of their fans, find themselves where no one thought they’d be – climbing to the top of the heap.
It’s happened before.