So I’m watching the Suns play on Sunday against the Magic, a nationally televised game on a huge afternoon of sports, and I’m looking in the stands. And what do I see? A whole mess of empty seats. And I immediately think about the glory days, back when the Suns were by far and away the most exciting team in the league. When the motto was to get up a shot in 7 seconds or less. When Nash to Stoudemire was starting to sound a lot like Stockton to Malone. When you couldn’t find an empty seat in the nosebleeds. Those, as they say, were the days, and the end of them was was one of the great disappointments of the current NBA era.
And it’s not so much that everyone was traded and the run came to end. After all, that’s life. All things run their course. But when a good thing ends, it at least makes it easier to swallow when it ended for the right reasons. But that era of Suns basketball didn’t end for the right reasons. It ended for no other reason than dated, shortsighted stubbornness, and it illuminated one of the true misconceptions about sports fans.
See, analysts love to talk about legacies and titles. But fans live in the moment. Sure, they want their team to win a title, but it’s the pursuit of that title that they really care about. Fans don’t necessarily need a championship. They just need a team that has a chance to win a championship. A team that late in the season is playing meaningful games. A team that leaves seats empty not because nobody’s at the game, but because nobody can sit down.
Take the Oklahoma City Thunder for instance. Those fans are so jacked up that that arena sounds like a shuttle launch. And are they winning championships? Think back to those old Sacramento Kings teams with Chris Webber and Mike Bibby. I’ll never forget those games, with 18,000 people ringing cowbells, with every series against the Lakers coming down the final game, the final minute, even the final shot. Did they win a championship?
And what about Reggie Miller and all those battles with Spike Lee at the Garden? Did the Pacers ever win a championship? Or for that matter, did the Knicks during that era? The answer is no. They didn’t. And yet, everyone had the time of their lives watching those games. And I assume the players felt the same about playing in them. I honestly don’t think Reggie Miller would trade those days for a championship for all the money in the world.
Reggie, like the fans, lived for the moments. For the pursuit.
And make no mistake: The Suns were in hot pursuit. For years they were a lock for a late playoff run, a few times coming within a ref’s whistle of The Finals. But then Steve Kerr had to come in and blow up the roster like a one-man demolition crew, slowly casting off guys like Shawn Marion and Raja Bell and bringing in guys like Shaq – the ultimate square peg in a round hole, clogging up Steve Nash’s operating space like hair in a drain. And just like that, it was over. Kerr tried to backtrack and re-assemble the same run-and-gun style team that he’d inherited in the first place, and ironically enough, it did result in a trip to the Western Conference Finals last year. But by then the damage had been done. The culture had been re-defined for the worse. The excitement had been sucked from a team, from an entire city.
Now Stoudemire and D’Antoni are in New York, where, wouldn’t you know it, basketball is once again thriving. Energy is in the Garden every night. Players are excited. For the next decade, championship or not, Knicks fans and players alike are in for the time of their lives.
And the Suns? Well, they’re currently battling for the absolute last seed in the playoffs in front of a bunch of empty seats.
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Written by Brad Botkin