A long time ago I was a professional sportswriter, and even occasionally wrote about the Phoenix Suns. They were maddening back then — the Paul Westphal, Walter Davis, Alvan Adams, Truck Robinson, era — always close but never winning the championship.
Similar in many ways to the past four years. Tonight my son Will Munsil wrote a eulogy to the D’Antoni-Nash-era of the past four seasons on Facebook. I thought it was pretty good, so I decided to post it below. In fact, if newspapers weren’t going defunct right and left, I would suggest some sports section give this kid a job:
A Shakespearean Decline and Fall, or, the 2004-2008 Phoenix Suns
Today at 8:30pm
So it’s finally the end of the Suns era, at least this Suns era. Four years ago, when Nash was the MVP and Marion was still underrated and Amare was the next great power forward, and D’Antoni was a genius and Joe Johnson was the future…who knew it would end so soon, and so uncomfortably.
Suns fans are bitter, disillusioned, shell-shocked, delusional–it’s not pretty how a titan tumbles.
As the league descends on Phoenix, here’s the hard truth: this Suns team, no matter who we trade, hire, fire or boo, denounce or cheer, will not win a title this year, or likely soon.
So consider this my eulogy to the most heartbreaking and literary rise and fall sports will soon see, from the harsh territory of 28-23, ninth and sinking.
People say: “They were never going to win a championship, regular season success is meaningless, nothing matters except winning a ring.” These people don’t remember.
First and obviously, the regular season isn’t meaningless. You can’t tell me that four straight 58+win seasons, numerous All-Star selections, a Coach of the Year, two MVP Awards and three thrilling playoff runs (even with the attendant disappointments) mean nothing. Ask any team but the Spurs or Celtics or Heat if they would trade their last four years for ours.
Their answer would prove it. Those seasons were meaningful. Teams wanted to be the Suns. The fact that we didn’t go all the way doesn’t erase the truth that the Suns were, by any historical metric but the cruel tyranny of the trophy, an incredibly successful team.
What’s more, the past four years of run-and-gun basketball not only revolutionized the league, but they provided more thrills and memorable moments than any other style of basketball could have produced, and I’ll firmly believe this.
I still remember the moment I realized the Suns were going to be great that first year with Nash. I still remember when Q won the 3-point contest and the Suns were the talk of the league that first All-Star break. I still remember those games when Eddie House absolutely went insane hitting threes. I remember where I was when Tim Thomas hit that three against the Lakers to save our season without Amare, and when Raja Bell hit that miracle shot against the Clippers, and I remember how that season felt like us against the world–some upstart team with no center and a six-man rotation was within a few shots of winning a conference title.
I still remember the thrills and even the heartbreak of those Spurs series. Losing to them over and over, but always feeling like we were one break, one call, one bounce away.
“We beat on, boats against the current…”
I remember knowing we were better than them, just knowing it. It just wasn’t in the cards maybe, but there’s no way all of that was meaningless just because there was no title attached.
See, only one team can win a title every year.
It was never us. That doesn’t mean the style couldn’t win, or Nash couldn’t lead us that far, or that D’Antoni’s system was fatally flawed. It just meant that, for whatever reason, it didn’t quite happen. It was tantalizingly close, but it never happened.
I’ve played in a few championship games in sports, and there are a few things that stick out to me. First, you have to get so many breaks to win a championship, no matter how good you are. People have to be healthy, your lineup has to be clicking, you have to get the bounces, you have to get lucky, sometimes. The Suns never had things break right like the Cardinals this year. They never had the easy draw, or the healthier team. They never got a little bit lucky.
Another thing about championships: there’s nothing mystical about the games. One team wins, one team loses. Nothing about any particular style preordains it. The Spurs are not “built for the playoffs,” they were built to be a good basketball team. The Suns weren’t “built for the regular season,” they were built to be a good basketball team.
The game is the same game, whenever you play it. With a few breaks, the conventional wisdom would be that in the new NBA, only high-scoring, great-shooting teams win in the playoffs, when games are further apart and teams have more time to rest. And you know what? The conventional wisdom would still be wrong. The Suns had their flaws. So did the Spurs. Their flaws were just ever-so-painfully, ever-so-slightly smaller. And they got the breaks.
So don’t throw the past four years of Suns basketball away. I have a sneaking suspicion that twenty years from now we’ll still remember these years as a sort of Golden Age. Sometimes greatness sneaks up on you, and it looks different than you expect, and it disappoints you, a little or a lot, in some unmeasurable way. Were the D’Antoni/Nash Suns any less great because they didn’t win a title?
I say no. Their greatness just, for whatever reason, never won them a crown. So what? I’d take the last four years over this year, and, sadly, probably the next four, in a heartbeat.
In this Shakespearean tragedy the Suns of the early millennium have become, this was our tragic flaw:
We never quite recognized what was just out of our dim and murky vision. “We” means the fans, the owner, the GMs, the coaches, the players who wanted out, everyone. We never quite understood how great those Suns were until we lost them. C’est la vie, I guess. You can blame everyone, anyone, no one.
But what wouldn’t you give to watch one more fast break dunk after a make, from out of bounds, to a streaking Nash, to a gliding Marion for the slam. One more Nash 3 in transition. One more perfect Dish to a thundering Amare, while the other center hangs his head and the basket screams for mercy. One more fusillade of glorious long-arching shots that forces a flustered timeout, while the arena rocks, and we wouldn’t trade this team for anything, and it could never end.
But it ended. We may never see anything like it again
The Suns will probably win a championship someday. Who knows how long it will be, or what the team will look like. The uniforms may be different. The league may look different. The coaches and the players will be different. It will be indescribable. It’ll feel like no team in the history of sports was as beautiful or as memorable or as meaningful to its fans.
Sic transit gloria mundi. Even that will fade, someday.
See, fans don’t get rings. We don’t “win” anything. Being a fan isn’t about that. It’s about the moments. Following a team is about the moments that, in some small way, shape a time in your life and give a city, a community, some ineffable thing to hold in common.
And those Suns gave us more moments that made us proud and thrilled to be a fan than any other team I’ve followed, even teams that have won World Series, or made Super Bowls.
It’s a shame we never won. It would be a bigger shame if we let a few tough losses in epic playoff series wash those moments away.