by Kate Petersen
(Editor’s Note: Adolescence is, amongst other things, often the time that we discover habits, interests, obsessions, fandoms that will shape the rest of our lives. Below, in her customary lovely prose, Kate Petersen details her discovery of sports, The Phoenix Suns, and a love that bore unexpected fruit.)
I can’t remember the first Phoenix Suns game I watched, or when I learned who K.J. and Thunder Dan were. But there’s a good chance I was flopped on a beanbag in front of the old Sylvania in my next-door neighbor Andrew’s sunken living room.
But I can trace the underdogged roots of my Suns love to my first NBA playoff series, when I found myself rooting against Andrew’s Detroit Pistons and for the doomed Portland Trailblazers in the 1989-90 Finals. Portland got creamed.
Along the way, Andrew taught me what a pick-and-roll was, and zone defense, how to spot a 3-second lane violation. He taught me about the layup and the board, how to hate Pat Riley and the LA Lakers, the difference between Skybox and Topps cards, which we bought in five-packs at Osco. By age 10, my room and large swaths of my wardrobe had turned purple and orange.
The Suns played in downtown Phoenix, first in the Veterans Memorial Coliseum and then after 1993 in the new arena on 1st and Jefferson. My dad took me to some games at both. He’d pick me up after work and we’d drive down the 51, hardly any traffic, listening to the pre-game show on KTAR and watching the warning lights on South Mountain get closer and brighter in the dusk. If we got there early enough we found a spot outside the tunnel on 3rd St where a little group gathered before games to meet the players as they arrived. Just a little rope barrier then, and we leaned over it, waving our basketball cards, our hats and black markers. I got Danny Ainge’s autograph this way, and Joe Klein’s, various unremembered small forwards’.
One night, a guy wearing a janitor-blue shirt, cap and belted keys, passed into the staff entrance. No one stopped him or called out. After he’d passed, we all turned to each other, asking who that was, embarrassed we didn’t know. Later, inside, as the lights dimmed and the starting lineup high-fived down the dark court, my dad pointed: “There’s the janitor!” he said. “Frank Johnson. I’ll be darned.” For years, Frank Johnson’s been a fairytale in our family: Pay attention, don’t judge books on covers. That janitor might just be your back-up point guard.
There were other lessons I learned, too, growing up a Suns fan. Here are the big ones.
Wanting it isn’t enough.
Despite what sportswriters say, wanting a ring is not enough.
Sure, it’s a nice idea, that want and ambition are the key ingredient in a championship team. But as a Phoenix Suns, I know better.
Probably all sports fans come to understand that such want – variously referred to as heart, drive, grit—is actually some blend of its constituent parts: savvy and committed coaching, health and talent, and, I think, an accumulated, contiguous desire – desire with institutional memory. As The Team has given way to The Player in pro basketball (and indeed, all professional team sports) that institutional memory has gotten harder to build, sustain. This is hardly a new phenomenon. But teams, perhaps more than ever, are now collections of skill-sets and contracts, some that add up to more than others.
Because if all it took was want, Charles Barkley and the Cinderella Suns of 1993 would have found a way to box out John Paxson’s 3-point shot at the buzzer, gone back to Chicago, and gotten the fairytale ending right. But instead they became just the third notch in the Bulls’ three-peat.
And while Chicago burned their cars in victory, Phoenix, home of a nice-guy team with nice-guy fans, held a You-Came-Close parade. On the hottest day of the year, 300,000 of us showed up, three times the number officials expected. We went, stood in the shade of a parking garage and waved at our almost heroes as they went by.
The Doorknob Paradox, AKA Someone’s everywhere until you start looking.
In the years he played there, spotting Charles Barkley in Phoenix was a little like spotting a seagull at the beach. Everyone I knew had seen Sir Charles in the wild: in the supermarket, at some Mexican restaurant, waiting in line at the bank, taking his daughters to the orthodontist.
Everyone except me. Me who had a rotation of Charles Barkley T-shirts. Me who had a Barkley poster hanging over my bed. Me, whose favorite number #28 was quickly losing ground to #34.
One Christmas, my parents gave me a basketball doorknob with the idea it would be perfect for getting Barkley’s autograph. We kept it in the car, under the front seat, ready for a run-in in the freezer aisle or drive-thru window. It became my grail.
Last year, back in Phoenix for another Christmas, my fanship and the doorknob quest came up over dinner with my sister and her friend, who worked as a bar-back. “I see him all the time,” he said. “Bring it to me.” He’d get Charles to sign my doorknob.
I went home and dug through the boxes of seashells and news clippings in my old bedroom. There it was, perfect and blank in its weird 90s packaging. I handed it over.
I went back to school, didn’t hear. I saw Charles on TNT broadcasts, making jokes, getting skinnier on Weight Watchers. I wondered if that meant he’d stopped going to the bar. My sister and the bar-back dated, then broke up. And my doorknob, collateral I guess, remains at large in greater Phoenix, unsigned, stashed, I sometimes imagine, under a stack of towels or behind bottles of seldom-ordered liquor, or maybe in another car, tucked under another front seat.
The game turns out the same way, whether you watch it or not.
My dad first developed this theory in June 1976, when he found himself at the bottom of the Grand Canyon during the Greatest Game Ever Played (this one), chaperoning my sister’s Girl Scout troop on a rafting trip down the Colorado River. I heard this one as I got older, whenever a game fell on the same night as a choir rehearsal or school function. It’s the first rule of growing up, really: learning that the world doesn’t hinge on your participation in it. I think my dad’s version is also related to principles of Zen, and fate. Frankly, I’m still agnostic.
The best defense is a good offense. Kind of.
The accepted wisdom is that Phoenix has never won a championship because it’s never really learned to play defense. (Or, in related news, had a reliable big-man.) Like all sports axioms, it’s oversimplified, and true. Despite putting up decent defense numbers in parts of the past few seasons, Phoenix has appeared much more frequently atop the points-per-game and 3-pt field goal column. If you can’t beat ‘em, outscore ‘em.
In this way, Steve Nash seemed made for the Suns. Drafted first-round by Phoenix in 1996, Nash left but came back in 2004, and took the Suns’ up-tempo offense from a style to a science. ‘Seven seconds or less’ became the catchphrase for the Suns’ signature offense, and when it worked, it was so much more fun to watch than the old East Coast half-court slog. On a good night, the Suns could out-offense anyone. But when the shots weren’t falling, they were in trouble. Since I’ve been a watching NBA basketball, this up-tempo play has gradually caught on in the Western Conference, then the league. Though the Suns haven’t won a championship with it, you can see their trademark offense in the pace of playoff games and small, quick teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Good guys don’t finish last. Or first. Sometimes they just finish.
And then they become a local restaurateur, or the spokesperson for the local pool supply company. Or the emcee who riles up the crowd when the mascot delivers free pizzas to section 314. Or the Mayor of Sacramento.
Or, they go to play for L.A.
Since Steve Nash announced this summer that he’ll join Kobe Bryant and the Suns arch-rival LA Lakers on a sign-and-trade, and Nash’s co-captain Grant Hill signed with the LA Clippers, I’ve been wrestling with how to be a grown-up Suns fan. To reconcile my long-shot girlhood belief in the Good Guys in Purple and Orange with the adult in me who wonders whether to count as an underdog you eventually have to triumph.
I’ve been trying to make moral sense of the fact that Steve Nash, our shaggy selfless David of an MVP, 5-time league leader in assists and charity darling, will now play alongside Ron Artest/Metta World Peace, that famously thuggish and undersized Goliath (who’s also, to mix metaphors, the troll who prevented the Suns’ last attempt to get to the finals).
This summer, I’m being forced to accept that the thing on which I staked so much of my adolescent identity and affection has gradually turned over, moved on, been broken up and sold for parts. To admit that I’ve gotten old and cranky, can no sooner become a Lakers fan than I can become a Minnesota Timberwolves fan (Read: not soon). That some stranger is driving around with a piece of that old hope under his front seat, if he even still has it. That me as a Suns fan and Steve Nash fan may have just become a false position. That maybe all fanship is.
Was another season together really the answer for the 38-year-old Nash or the center-less Suns? Probably not. But tell that to my inner 13-year-old.
Kate Petersen's work has appeared in New England Review, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Collagist, The Arizona Republic and elsewhere. Her favorite Suns player before Steve Nash and Charles Barkley was definitely Andrew Lang. She becomes an unrestricted free agent next year.