I literally can’t tell you how long I’ve been looking for the photo that accompanies this blog.
Taz and Adam Beechen (NBAE Photos)
For the last eleven years, I’ve had a ton of stuff in a storage locker. Since moving to Los Angeles, I’ve never had a residence big enough to allow me to keep it all with me. Like most people’s storage lockers, it was filled with a little bit of everything: old golf clubs, school papers, photo albums and scrapbooks, severed heads floating in jars (Wait, that’s the storage locker in “The Silence of the Lambs,” not mine. See what living in Hollywood does to you?)…
But two weeks ago, I rented an office. For years, I’d worked out of my living room, and wished for a place that could be a separate workspace so I don’t spend all my time surrounded by the same four walls. Now I have one. And it’s big enough that I was able to move all my stuff out of storage and into the office with me. In doing so, naturally, I did a little spring cleaning, and not only brought back a lot of memories, but found some actual ones as well – trophies from my childhood days playing in the basketball leagues at the Phoenix Jewish Community Center; decades-old autographs of former Suns players; group photos of the campers at former Suns Coach John MacLeod’s summer basketball camp, and so on. They were all great to see.
But the photo that runs alongside this blog…that was the Holy Grail. I’d searched photo albums for it for years, both mine and my mother’s. And then, there it was. I’m on the right side of the picture, accepting a trophy from Suns guard Ronnie Lee, the guest presenter at our awards ceremony for our PJCC basketball league. The year is probably 1977, and that means I’m eight years old.
Far too few Suns fans remember Ron Lee today. He was the team’s first round draft pick for the 1976-77 season, a muscular guard out of Oregon who was so athletic, he was actually drafted in three different sports (football and pro soccer, as well). He endeared himself immediately to the Suns faithful as the team’s sixth man – he played fierce defense, ran like the wind, and spent more time on the floor than my carpet.Literally. When Ronnie wasn’t running, he was diving. Or crashing. Or smashing. He led the league in steals one year. He came close to winning Rookie of the Year, which would have given the Suns three winners of that award in a row (he was sandwiched between Alvan Adams and Walter Davis, losing the title to Adrian Dantley). His non-stop, whirling-dervish style earned him the nickname “The Tasmanian Devil.”
I thought he was the best thing since sliced bread. The energy level in the old Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum ratcheted up six notches when Taz came into the game. On the playgrounds, we all strawberried our knees trying to dive like Ronnie. If the Suns had sold Ron Lee afro wigs in those days, all of my friends and I would have had one each. He worked so hard on the court, never quit, played with such joy, and did anything and everything to help his team win. In short, he was a terrific role model for young people in general, and particularly young basketball players like myself, who had no idea they’d grow up to be five-foot-nine and resoundingly uncoordinated.
So you can imagine how I must have felt, walking up there to receive that trophy from Taz himself that night. What he said to me and what, if anything, I said back, are lost in the mists of time, but I imagine I probably said something snappy like, “Wow, your hair really IS big!”
Ronnie didn’t stick with Phoenix very long, unfortunately, because he was the key Sun in a multiplayer deal made with the New Orleans Jazz (With a name like “Jazz,” you didn’t think they started in Utah, did you?) for power forward Truck Robinson, who was supposed to bring toughness to Phoenix. My friends and I knew the Suns had just traded away the toughest guy in the league.
One guy who remembers Ron Lee is Larry Bird. There’s a new book out that basically asks NBA legends who they considered the best players they ever saw in a bunch of criteria – best shooter, best defender, best athlete and so on. When asked who hustled the most, Bird thought back to Taz, diving into the stands after a loose ball during a meaningless game when Ronnie played for Detroit. Bird was a young player then and Ronnie’s actions taught him something he carried with him his entire career.
I never forgot Ron Lee either. Maybe I don’t play basketball for a living, but he’s still one of my role models (no, not for the hair), a reminder that, when you’re down, you just have to dig in, sacrifice, do whatever it takes, and most importantly, find the joy in whatever you’re doing.
I felt a lot of joy seeing this photo again. I hope you don’t mind my sharing it with you.