If you’ve ever been in a relationship or listened to the musical stylings of Neil Sedaka, you know that breaking up is hard to do.
It’s not really all that surprising. If you’re around someone for a long period of time you grow an attachment to the person, or at least the idea of them. Whether a breakup is warranted or not, people tend to be overly irrational when it comes time to actually go through with it (just ask Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and their lawyers). Even if they’ve planned the breakup they become hesitant and emotional. After the fact, for weeks, usually one party or both stumbles around as if they were an extra in The Walking Dead. Despite all of this, the worst kept secret in the world is that in most cases, moving on is the best thing to do for everyone involved.
The same is true in sports. Fans grow close to players over the years, emotional connections form and rationality tends to go out the window. That’s what makes us sports fans: being passionate about things regardless of what anyone thinks. But, much like in a real relationship, that emotion doesn’t come in handy when a player and a team part ways.
My first experience with the pain of sports separation, and I’m sure I’m not alone, came back in 1996. On August 19 of that year my favorite NBA franchise dealt my favorite NBA player to a bitter rival. That deal of course was the one that sent Charles Barkley, arguably the greatest Sun of all-time, to the Houston Rockets in exchange for four players – three of which wouldn’t be on the roster a year later – and a draft pick.
It felt like a betrayal any way I looked at it. In my head all I could see was the scene from the Godfather Part II where Michael Corleone grabs his brother Fredo, kisses him and says: “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!” In this case though, both Barkley and the Suns were Fredo. The former MVP had forced a trade to a team that had ruined two of the Suns’ three best title chances in the ‘90s, and the Suns’ ownership was a willing accomplice.
It felt like the darkest of days. Like nothing would ever be right again as a Suns fan.
I was wrong.
Just four months later the Suns landed the top young point guard in the NBA, Jason Kidd, from the Mavericks and all was right with the world.
It’s a situation that has played out for generations and generations of Suns fans like Phoenix’s own version of Groundhog’s Day. In the early ‘70s, in the infancy of the franchise, then-GM Jerry Colangelo traded star Connie Hawkins to the Lakers – the team that had beat the Suns and Hawkins in their only playoff appearance – in exchange for Keith Erickson. At the time, Hawkins was one of the main stars of the franchise and had been to four straight All-Star Games. Not exactly a popular trade. Not that it mattered. The Suns made the NBA Finals three seasons later with Erickson on the roster.
It happened again twice in the ‘80s.
In the summer of 1980, the Suns dealt four time All-Star and future Ring-of-Honor member Paul Westphal to the division rival Seattle Super Sonics. Yes, the same Seattle team that disposed of the Suns like a day-old newspaper – for you young people, a newspaper was the prehistoric version of the internet – in the 1979 Western Conference Finals on the way to winning the NBA title. Fans were upset but it worked out all right. Dennis Johnson, who the Suns received in the deal, went on to make two All-Star teams as a Sun and lead the team to three straight playoff appearances, while Seattle missed the postseason one year and didn’t advance further than the Suns the other two.
In 1988, history yet again repeated itself as if it were Groundhog’s Day (wait, I already used that one). With the Suns struggling both on and off the court, Cotton Fitzsimmons dealt star Larry Nance, who had averaged over 17 points, eight rebounds and made an All-Star Game during his five and a half seasons in Phoenix, to Cleveland in exchange for two unknowns and a draft pick. Fans were more livid than someone who hears the song “Call Me Maybe” four times on their drive home. What they forgot to keep in mind is that, as Harvey Dent once said, “The night is always darkest just before the dawn.”
Those two players, Kevin Johnson and Mark West, and the draft pick, Dan Majerle, acquired in the deal turned into fan favorites and the foundation of a new era in Suns basketball. That trade led to 13-straight trips to the playoffs with two conference finals appearances, and this particular group punched their ticket to the 1993 NBA Finals.
Over the years, while players, coaches, uniforms, arenas and even owners change for the Suns, one thing remains constant: the fans. We love the team, not for the players or the peripherals, but because we are emotionally attached to the Phoenix Suns. We are them.
Yes, as history has taught us, breaking up is hard to do, and Suns fans know that it’s true. Like we have done for years, it’s time, yet again, to remember the past fondly and look forward to the future. A new era of Suns basketball is dawning and, like every break up, the best and most exciting part of it is the next relationship.