Greetings, Suns fans. As the new seasons nears and training camp is about to begin I have been asked to go back in time to those thrilling days of yesteryear when the Suns were in their infancy and have a look at how things have changed since that first training camp of mine so many seasons ago. I am also quite sure this honor has been bestowed upon me as I wore numeral 41 and this is the 41st year for us. No less an honor for compadre, Mark West, who also wore this number. We are the only two in team history. But, I digress.
As they say, ‘back in the day’ here is how it was. In this first respect, it was the same then as it is now except for the jump off point. We all met at the Coliseum – you remember the Madhouse on McDowell – and boarded a large bus just as the current Suns edition will do for their drive ‘down’ to Tucson. Hmm, why is that we refer to Tucson as down there when it is a higher elevation?? Perhaps, the southeasterly direction. Again, I digress. After the doors shut and the trip begins, the similarities almost cease until workouts begin. There were no electronic devices for anything – phones, PDA, video games, IPod, laptop, etc.
That first camp of mine was to take place in Flagstaff and we were lodged at a country club of some name I forget. It is still there I believe but the name eludes me. What does not escape my memory were the ten days, not five as has been the custom since, of the beloved two a days. Words dreaded by most all athletes at the professional level. This country club/golf course/lodge was about 30-40 minutes drive from Coconino High School. I became very familiar with the scenery to and from our workouts. They were two and a half glorious
hours of repetition, running, drills, wind sprints and my personal favorite, the blocking out drill. I should point out here what a blocking out drill is as my beloved told me, “not everyone may know what a blocking out drill is” – including her. The idea is to keep your body between your man and the basket. In theory, to seal off the area around the rim allowing no offensive player to get the rebound. If done perfectly and the ball does not bounce long, it could just fall to the floor and stop bouncing. That is in theory. The reality is you try to make contact with and keep your man on your back. By the way, this is something our recent teams could have used more than they seem to. No rebounding, no fast breaks, other team gets easy buckets. These were murderous as there were no rules other than to get the ball. Much like another compadre, the ‘Chuckster’ said in a commercial, “The meek may inherit the earth but they won’t get the ball.” So it was pretty vicious but it was a time where a young player or fringe guy could gain a spot making it a dog eat dog kind of thing.
Let’s go back to the lodging. We stayed in conical shaped dwellings that were split into two or three sleeping areas with one bathroom.So there were either four or six guys in these ‘teepee’ type structures. At sleep time it was kind of like the old show ‘The Walton’s’ or something like that where as the lights went out it was, “Good night Hawk, good night Neal, goodnight Van” but there was no John boy to be seen or heard from. It was pitch black out at night as there were no lights out beyond the restaurant and after returning from the evening workout and then dinner guys would stumble off to the teepees and occasionally a clunk could be heard followed by a string of curse words as somebody bonked themselves on a low hanging limb or walked straight into a tree. If I had known I was going to Outward Bound camp, I would have brought a flashlight.
By contrast, today’s players rough it at a five star resort – with outdoor lighting and all that. Plus their five days of fun during two a days are held at the McKale gym on the U of A campus. Definitely an upgrade. Now at this point, the similarities resume. We wore sneakers and so do these guys. Theirs are better but you can’t fault progress. We used a ball and so do they. This might be more detail than many of you want but we had a great ball, the Wilson X10L. No, not the Wilson that accompanied Tom Hanks in “Castaway,” a really fine ball with deep seams. It felt much better than today’s edition, in my opinion. And of course, the court still remains the same at 94 feet long and 50 feet wide.
But hoops is still hoops and today’s Suns practices will be much as they were then. During training camp days, a player gets used to the tape on the ankles and stiffness that comes with the extra time on the floor. The morning used to be for drills and conditioning and the evenings mostly were scrimmages, which at least made for some fun because we were playing. Practices, Allen Iverson’s favorite thing to do, are hard work and all that work and repetition pays off when the real games begin. Training Camp is a place where minutes can be earned and that is something all players covet. Playing time! It is also a place where dreams can be shattered or fulfilled.
As I typed before, Flagstaff was our first location but we also had training camp in Lake Havasu City before it really became a city. Right in the middle of Death Valley, or so it seemed, it was really, really hot. So hot that when we tried to shower all we received was really, really hot water. Even at evening practice. It was so bad that players dressed in their rooms and showered upon return. We practiced in another small high school gym with just the basics. In a nutshell, that is what camp is for; getting to the basics. Implementing an offense, working on defensives schemes and theory and developing team unity.
When I reflect upon those days and evenings, it was a pattern repeated over the duration of the camp. You practice and then return to the lodging for lunch then off to the room for sleep and rest. Then there was the evening practice, return to the hotel, eat and then back to sleep. This was repeated the next day and the day after that and the day after that. I must admit, though, there were some nights after the evening workout and dinner, some of us would head for a place where we could quaff a few beers and relax. Those were good times when guys let down their guard a smidge and relationships were built and old ones possibly strengthened. Unless you were a rookie and then it was no day at the beach. Perhaps things have changed, but I doubt it as far as rooks carrying extra equipment, being last to get taped and generally getting harassed by the vets. We took cabs often then and if a rookie was in one or waiting he could be removed by a veteran and the rookies always had to pay for the cab and hope to be reimbursed. Fortunately, back then there were more rounds to the draft and accordingly there were more rookies in camp and a hierarchy developed among them. Still, being a rookie, one got no respect unless earned and certainly no favorable calls from the officials.
In retrospect, since the beginning of this blog, it once again occurs to me that although 40 years have passed and outside of duration, facility, accommodations and some equipment, a training camp remains virtually the same now as it was then. I am sure that the best day is still when the last practice is over and the team heads home to begin exhibition season.
And for me, the best thing is I won’t have any stiff muscles, sore body parts and I’ll not have to take part in the block out drills. Here’s looking forward to a fine, fun and successful season with a bright new coach in Terry Porter and some newly acquired talented players. Go Suns!