It’s crazy how 20 years slips by. And from the moment Charles stepped into the terminal at Sky Harbor Airport, the sports landscape changed forever in Arizona. There never had been and never will be a bigger sports personality in the Valley. We have seen some major superstars and Hall of Famers like Randy Johnson of the D’Backs, Emmitt Smith and Kurt Warner with the Cardinals and even Wayne Gretzky skate-in to run the Coyotes, but nobody held a crowd with bravado and charisma like Chuck.
I was watching the “Dream Team” documentary the other night, and it occurred to me how modest and humble Charles was during those first couple days in Phoenix. But once he settled in to his sizzling new home after his arrival (by the way, Cotton Fitzsimmons should have raised the roof on his convertible when he drove Barkley away from the airport that smokin’ hot day), Charles let it fly. We all know what a sound bite machine he was (and still is), not to mention his antics on and off the floor that are still legendary. But I will always remember the behind the scenes events from that first year – like the first training camp up in Flagstaff.
That city was turned upside down, and Charles ate it up. Never one to pass up a good crowd at a local watering hole, Charles would hold court until closing time. He was incredibly gracious and friendly with the adoring fans all the way up until last call. But somehow he would pull himself together for morning practice the next day. Often times he would saunter over to a few of us and discuss comical details from the previous evening … while practice was underway! Paul Westphal showed great patience and handled Charles with the perfect touch. “Westy” allowed Chuck to be Chuck, not that he had much of a choice! And that was the beauty of the ‘92-93 Suns. They were self-policed by a group of veteran players who were all hungry for a trip to the NBA Finals. Dan Majerle, “KJ”, Danny Ainge, and Mark West were part of the magical mix of players who balanced the hysteria of this travelling rock show with the focus necessary to amass over 60 wins and charge into the finals against the Bulls.
Yet one, personal moment with Charles that year stands out the most illustrated his ability to hypnotize and mesmerize a crowd. Hanging out with four of my high school buddies at The Ritz bar one evening, Charles strode through the hotel entryway. One of my pals asked if I would introduce them to Charles. Reluctantly, I took the guys over to where he was chatting with his good friend, Roy Green and a couple other buddies. Chuck could not have been more engaging with my group. Then after about 10 minutes, Charles said his goodbyes but not before he looked each one of my friends in the eyes, shook their hand and said farewell to each one… by name! He remembered each one’s name as if they had known each other for years.
Bombastic? Yes. Controversial? No doubt. But for those who really know “Sir Charles,” he is a gracious gentleman who gave us a lifetime of memories.