the good suns

(this is how sports ought to be covered…courtesy Neal Pollack over at Slate…)

The Good Suns
How Phoenix saved the NBA.
By Neal Pollack
Slate Magazine

If I had said last October that the San Antonio Spurs were going to win Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, the prediction would have been met with the shrug reserved for other even-money bets, as if I’d guessed that the Patriots were going to the Super Bowl or that Barry Bonds would blame his problems on the media. But what if I’d said that the Spurs were going to need 121 points—43 of them in the fourth quarter—to win that game? Or that they’d have to do it on the road, in Phoenix? I suddenly would have been the most popular man in Nevada. Such are the transfigurative powers of this year’s Phoenix Suns. In every one of their games, something miraculous happens, even when they lose. The Suns have saved the NBA.

Because I had the immense bad fortune of growing up in Phoenix, I’ve been a Suns fan my entire life, a claim that, until this year, had about as much force as saying “I like cheese,” or “I take my tea black.” The Suns have always been one of those teams that rarely inspire great misery in their fans, but also never deliver the final championship goods. There was that one year, 1992-93, when Sir Charles took the team to the brink of Hollywood, but they quickly fell back to playing the role of Hakeem Olajuwon’s bridesmaid, just as they’d bowed to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s and would serve the needs of the Spurs in the late 1990s.

From the first minute of the last Suns pre-season game this year, in which they shattered Sacramento by 28 points, I sensed a change. First, these Suns were fast. Second, they jumped very high, at impossible angles. They also made a lot of three-pointers and didn’t seem to make a whole lot of mistakes. In fact, they so dismantled the Kings that I found myself disturbed. Who were these guys, and what had they done with my team?

The regular season began, and NBA Jam never stopped. The Suns won their first four games by something like 90 points. Then they lost in overtime to Cleveland after being up by 19 in the fourth quarter, setting a pattern for the year: They’d lose, occasionally, but only if the other team played the game of its life. They won a bunch more, and lost maybe one, and then they kept on winning, until they were 31-4 and I started to carve out my television-watching schedule for June.

I began to idolize the Suns. These guys were cool. Steve Nash, the league’s MVP, is a longhaired Canadian who spoke out against the war in Iraq and reads The Communist Manifesto. Quentin Richardson declared after a game-winning shot that it “was like Hamlet. It was a suspense thriller, and I killed them at the end.” Amare Stoudemire, when asked to comment on a 22-point third quarter against the Kings, said, “I’ve got a tendency to jump over some guys’ heads and throw it down.”

The coach, Mike D’Antoni, doesn’t get out-cooled by his team. Though American by birth, he’s arguably the greatest player in the history of Italian basketball. He’s married to a model and hangs out with the Benetton and Versace families. TNT recently showed vintage footage of a shirtless D’Antoni, wearing the same crisp ‘stache he still has today, holding aloft a trophy while a crowd of Italian revelers dumped champagne on his head. The Italians call him Arsenio Lupin, after a movie about a cat burglar. That’s not a reference that means anything to me. I call him Coach Pornstache.

Coach Pornstache might be the greatest basketball innovator since Tex Winter drew up the triangle. He’s certainly the first coach to bring the true European game to the United States. D’Antoni’s philosophy revolves around ball movement, speed, defense in short spurts, and sense of humor. In one regular-season game, the Suns fell short after a furious comeback when reserve center Steven Hunter missed a dunk at the buzzer. Nash and Stoudemire came over, doubled up laughing, and dragged him back to the locker room. I’ve never seen players less affected by losing. If it’s possible for a basketball team to be run by wit, then the Suns, with their intellectual point guard and their Continental coach, are that team.

For the first three quarters Sunday, the Suns played true to playoff form. At halftime, they were down by six. Just like in Dallas two nights before, they roared ahead with one of those unstoppable above-the-rim-Steve-Nash-falling-out-of-bounds-finding-the-open-guy-at-the-top-of-the-three-point-key runs, the NBA equivalent of getting hit on the head by a board from behind. The Spurs suddenly looked like the last vestige of the Old Ways. Tim Duncan fronting the post and banking the ball off the glass with two seconds left on the shot clock? Boring. Soon, I thought, the rest of the world would come around to meet my point of view.

Then there were four minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Suns were down by eight, and I was trapped watching the game in a hotel bar in Utah with an old lady who asked the bartender pertinent questions like, “What was that Admiral’s name with San Antonio? He was a good Christian …”

It didn’t disturb me that we lost—I never doubted that the Spurs would drive the Suns to the brink—it was the way we lost. If Duncan had buried us with his typically efficient but uninspiring heroics, I wouldn’t have been forced to down an extra Bloody Mary. But unlike the Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, and just about every other team in the league, the Suns didn’t leave San Antonio dazzled, befuddled, or heaving for breath. The Spurs took our bet, raised it, and they weren’t bluffing.

The Spurs hit more three-pointers than possibly the best three-point-shooting team in NBA history. They looked just a little faster, just a little sharper, just a little more freewheeling. Their shooting guard, Manu Ginobili, is an improvisational genius from Argentina who drives the lane wildly but effectively and with little regard for his health. Our regular shooting guard, Joe Johnson, had equivalent skills—until he fell and broke his face.

Next year, a lot of NBA teams will copy the Suns, minus the incredible athleticism and the sense of humor. The Spurs, though, don’t need to plagiarize. They’re like one of those cartoon supervillains that absorb the powers of whomever they’re fighting. They can plod in the post and they can run with the ponies. The Suns may be the best team in the NBA, but the Spurs are the hardest to beat. In a couple of weeks, I hope I’m looking back at the Western Conference Finals as Coach Pornstache’s, and Steve Nash’s, finest hour. I just hope there’s something in The Communist Manifesto about transition defense.

Neal Pollack’s memoir, Daddy Was a Sinner, will be published in the fall of 2006. He lives in Austin, Texas.