With many of my fellow Suns.com bloggers delightedly and justifiably posting about their excitement at the prospect of training camp’s opening, I thought I’d save everyone a little time, jump ahead a few months, and blog from next June.
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June 16, 2008
I just got back from the victory parade.
I’m dehydrated from the heat, hoarse from cheering, and bumped and bruised from squeezing in among half a million Sun Worshippers. I have no idea if any of my three hundred photos will turn out, because I had to hold my camera high above my head to get shots of the distant stage and hope for the best. But it was all worth it. Not just today, but thirty-plus years of unfailing optimism in the good times, heartbroken depression in the bad times, and passionate devotion at all times.
It was all worth it to see that trophy.
As soon as the Suns beat Utah two weeks ago (Joe Gilmartin was right – Suns in six!) to advance to the NBA Finals against Boston, I hopped in my car and sped across I-10 to get home to the Valley. I didn’t have a ticket for a single game, but I had to be there, at least in the city limits, for the Finals. I had to be among friends.
Just before the playoffs began, with the Suns riding the sixteen-game winning streak that propelled them to the best record in the league, Paradise Valley voted to rename itself “D’Antoniopolis” for the duration. Picking up Phoenix radio driving through the desert, I heard Glendale (“Amare Heights”), Peoria (“Nash-ville”), Chandler (“Bellburg”), and Gilbert (“Strawberry Fields”) decided to follow suit. Goodyear, meanwhile, changed its name permanently, to “Great Season,” because this was far more than just another good year.
Much of the national spotlight was on Boston, which had returned to prominence after acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the off-season, jelled at the right time in April, and burned their way easily through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Still, the smart money was on the Suns, as the Celtics really had no answer for Phoenix’s brilliant and deep backcourt, and not much of anyone had an answer for NBA MVP Amare Stoudemire up front. A man on a mission all season long, he’d set career highs in scoring, rebounding and blocks-per-game averages and, in honor of his upcoming showdown with the Big Ticket, Garnett, had taken on a new nickname: The Golden Ticket.
I rounded up old friends to watch the Finals games in big parties, boring them with my endless stories of how this was a rematch of the legendary 1975-76 NBA Finals, which the Suns lost to the Celts in six games. But right from the tip-off for Game One (Amare to Nash to Diaw for a dunk), it was clear things were much, much different. The Suns rolled in that game in front of a crowd so loud, television commentators simply had to give up three times in the third quarter and let the pictures talk for themselves. Amare ran amok for more than forty points, and Alando Tucker, who’d earned the nickname “Sunrise” for his ability to wake the team up with points off the bench, burned Boston for twenty more. But the key was Steve Nash, whose passes were everywhere. He’d played tremendously unselfishly all season long, absorbing the hit to his scoring average to post a career high in assists, and he served notice that the Finals would be no different, offering up seventeen dimes.
Game Two was another Suns victory, although Boston made it closer by trying to slow the tempo. But, as everyone else discovered this year, the Suns only ever slow for so long, and this time it was Leandro Barbosa pushing, pushing, pushing, erupting for thirty-five points as the Suns pulled away. Grant Hill, who had played all eighty-two games during the regular season, added twenty-two. Meanwhile, Ray Allen lost his cool in a postgame press conference, cursing out Raja Bell and D.J. Strawberry for punishing defense that had limited the All-Star to point totals in the low teens in the first two games.
The Suns flew east to Boston for the next two games, but all of Phoenix remained poised in front of their television sets. Yes, things looked good, but Suns fans had been down this road so many times before – They weren’t about to believe it was over until Commissioner Stern handed that trophy to Robert Sarver. There’s a thread of hard-won fatalism in even the most committed Suns fan, a sense that, somehow, the team could be up four games to none in a best-of-seven series and still the fates would conspire to somehow turn it into a best-of-nine that would ultimately go to the enemy.
Their backs to the wall, the Celtics nipped the Suns in Game 3 at home, playing their big three of Garnett, Pierce and Allen for 48 minutes each. But now everyone was starting to really notice the series Steve Nash was having. In addition to those seventeen assists in Game One, he’d tallied eighteen and fifteen in the next two…with only three turnovers total. “Unprecedented” was the word being bandied about. A record local television audience watched the Suns cruise to victory on the Celtics home floor in Game 4 (Nash: nineteen assists and one turnover; Stoudemire: thirty-four points and twenty-one rebounds in fouling Garnett out of the game; Diaw: his sixth triple-double of the playoffs; Brian Skinner: eight crucial rebounds), and the Suns were heading home with a chance to clinch.
I’m proud to say I was one of the fifty thousand that turned up at Sky Harbor Airport to greet our heroes, taking one of the city’s specially created shuttle buses to ease parking at the airport that night. The plane touched down at two a.m. The players were home and in bed by three. We were still there cheering at five.
Parties before Game 5 began hours prior to tip-off, but there was still a lingering nervousness, a “what if” sense that hung over the city like a cloud over Camelback Mountain, despite parade arrangements being announced in the papers. Phoenix so desperately wanted a victory parade, not a “we love you anyway” parade, like the one in 1993.
The game started close, Boston playing with grim desperation, led by the precise execution of their three veterans. And when Nash went to the sidelines with tightness in his back in the second quarter, Suns fans steeled themselves for the possibilities – a delayed parade at best, the crushing heartbreak of unprecedented collapse at worst. But, with the Suns down by six in the fourth quarter, Nash limped back into the game to the loudest roar anyone had ever heard, and brought the Suns back, forcing overtime. And with six seconds remaining, the score tied, the Suns ran a play for Amare. He caught the ball down low, and Garnett defended from the front, Paul Pierce from behind. In his younger days, STAT would have bulled to the hoop regardless, but instead, he alertly whipped the ball to the open man, who drained a nineteen-footer at the buzzer, bad back and all. Steve Nash raised his fist, and the Suns had their first championship.
Even so, someone in the living room where we watched the game grumbled, “We still don’t have the trophy yet,” exemplifying the typical Suns fan mindset – Anything that can go wrong…But this wasn’t that kind of night, or that kind of year. Sarver raised the trophy high, next to Nash, raising his Finals MVP trophy.
Two days later, the parade, in 108-degree heat. Suns old-timers, the ones who built the franchise, turned out. Connie Hawkins, Alvan Adams, Walter Davis, Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers, Dan Majerle, former trainer Joe Proski and many others…But the loudest cheers were for Original Sun Dick Van Arsdale, who probably hurt his elbow, waving so much. On the victory podium, Al McCoy served as master of ceremonies, his proud voice catching in his throat several times, only to be restored by thunderous cheers every time. A massive video board behind the dais showed Suns highlights from throughout their history, culminating with the 2008 Finals.
Every Suns player took the microphone to thank the crowd (Amare pointed to the NBA championship trophy and roared, “This is the only stat that really matters,” while Grant Hill praised “the healing powers of the desert sun”), followed by the coaching staff and General Manager Steve Kerr, who cracked everyone up (“So that’s all there is to being a General Manager?”). Robert Sarver yielded some of his time to a surprise guest – a teary-eyed Jerry Colangelo, who managed eight words: “I love you, Phoenix. Always have, always will,” before embracing the team’s current owner. And when Sarver looked at the trophy, then out at the crowd, and whispered, grinning, “Who wants another one?” the cheers could be heard in Los Angeles, Dallas, San Antonio and Utah.
I looked around – everyone had a sunburn, the same as me. Tomorrow, we’d be in happy pain, but for now, we all looked alike, Suns fans who had come so far together, unified by our love for the team, and now, by our bright, shining faces.