There's something going on at the Purple Palace, and it's hotter than a Midwestern summer. If you haven't heard, the Phoenix Suns have blazed to a phenomenal 14-2 record, far and away the best record in the conference. The fans are raucous. Games are sold out. It's got sportscasters, NBA analysts, other owners, and the average fan all scratching their heads in wonder. Just how is this team doing this? What drives them to play at such a blistering pace? The stats are amazing. Offensively, they're good, with center Alonzo Mourning averaging 31.3 points a game, followed by Penny Hardaway's 22.1 and Derek Fisher's 10.5, but it's the defense that has everyone raving. 10.2 steals per game. 5.7 blocks per game. 87.1 points allowed. How is this happening?
Maybe it's the length that does it. At 6'10", Alonzo Mourning's undersized for a center, but the 6'10" PF/SF Robert Horry, the 6'11" SF/SG Toni Kukoc, and the 6'7" SG/PG Penny Hardaway more than make up for it. Maybe it's Alonzo's intensity that's driving this team to clamp down on D. Or perhaps we should go to the source to find the secret to the Suns' success. That leads us to the Suns' practice facility, where Coach Scott Skiles has his own answer.
"We've all got something to prove. You look at our team, and you see a group of average role players and two injury-prone superstars. We look at ourselves as under appreciated guys, a group of individuals coming together for the greater good."
Perhaps Scott is right. Each player has his own story to tell, a reason to play at the highest level he can. For Anfernee Hardaway, better known as "Penny", it's a chance at redemption.
"A lot of people thought I was finished," says the former No.3 pick in the 1993 draft. "That I was more hype than reality. When you look back on it, it wasn't that bad. Only two real tough seasons. But I guess they heard about my recent microfracture surgery and freaked out." Once given the dreaded "Next Jordan" tag, a dubious honor bestowed on many that has proven to be more of a curse than a blessing, Penny endured two injury-filled seasons, one with the Magic in 97-98, the other in 99-00, just before another lockout forced a league-wide reset. But Penny's done his best to forget his past, and continues to redefine himself as a player. "I'm not at the level I used to be, and I might never be again, but I'm not just going to sit here and let my talents go to waste. I'm doing something."
"Do something." That's what they were saying to Derek Fisher. "They wanted me to beg the Wizards for a spot. For some reason, they thought that I couldn't exist without Kobe." For Fisher, it's about going it on his own. "It's not easy being the sidekick to the Boy Wonder," he says with a smile. "I mean, if Shaq was Batman, and Kobe was Robin, then what was I? Alfred?" When Kobe Bryant became the first overall pick in the new NBA era, that left Fisher alone and waiting for a team of his own. "I mean, we originally got drafted together, rode the pine together, became starters together. So most people would go, 'Well, what do I do now?' I just waited for my name to get called, and here I am." When asked about the often-arid weather, Fisher replies, "I love it. It's just like summer back home in Arkansas."
Toni Kukoc is a long way from home. The Croatian finds himself in a new role, one that's more suited to his opinion of himself. "I wanted to be more than the sixth man," the 3-time NBA champ says. "I never got that opportunity playing behind Michael and Scottie, and after that......" his voice trails off. After the demise of the Bulls, Kukoc was the last to go. The Bulls only wanted a role player out of him. Robert Horry can relate.
"I was the bandwagon guy. If it wasn't Hakeem and Clyde, it was Shaq and Kobe. Very few people thought I was anything more than a tag-along for those finals teams, and certainly not worthy of being a starter." And so it seems that Coach Skiles' words are true, that this is a collection of guys who are hungry, a force greater than the sum of their parts. But their driving force, Alonzo Mourning, says otherwise.
"Yeah, I know Coach is just saying what he thinks is true, but let me tell you something," he growls. "The reason why we're playing so hard, the reason why we've got everybody stunned, is because we're pissed off. We're all pissed off at a lot of things, but mainly we're pissed off at him." At this, he nods his head toward their new owner. "You see, everybody's stunned because they didn't expect this out of us, and I know for damn sure that HE didn't. They look at us, he looks at us, and they all compare us to other teams, trying to figure out just how we do it, and he's trying to figure out just who he can get rid of, because he didn't want us." Zo pauses for a minute and takes a breath, not used to this kind of expression. "He didn't want us. He didn't want Toni, he didn't want Rob, he didn't want Mikki or Song, and he damn sure didn't want me. You know who he did want? He wanted Shawn (Kemp). He wanted Skittles, Vin Baker, Stockton, all those guys. We were all his third or fourth draft options, he took us because he had to, and everybody here knows that. He was shopping me in the preseason, and he's got our entire bench on the trading block right now. He's just waiting for our stats to drop and then, boom, we're gone. We play hard to prove him wrong, ya dig? And when free agency comes, after we get that ring, he's either going to have to pay up, or try to build the team he wanted by himself, and let us go on to bigger and better things. He doesn't want any of us."
So who is this new owner, this mysterious figure who rules his team with an iron fist? Catching up with Johnny Felders, he just looks tired.
"I've always had a trigger-finger with my stuff," he says, wiping his glasses on his shirt. "When you've missed all the opportunities I have, you tend to hold on to what you do own a bit more tightly, and jump at the chance to improve things." When asked about his team, he draws a deep breath. "You know, if there's one thing I've learned, it's that my predictions suck. When I think good things are going to happen, I'm rarely right, but when I predict bad things, I'm never wrong. I'm 20 years old, and if you asked me how I got to be the owner of an NBA franchise, I honestly couldn't tell you, it's all a blur. But when I do sit down and think, I know three things. One, that everybody's just waiting to see us fall; two, that our luck can and will run out; and three, I have to do whatever it takes to keep number two from happening so that the people in number one can't say anything." At this, he lets out a breath eerily reminiscent of Alonzo's.
"They're going to blame me, you know. No matter what happens, it'll all come back on me, and then everybody will go on their merry way. Nobody crunches the numbers more than I do, because I know that if something goes wrong, they'll be looking at me. Riddle me this: If Zo goes down, who's gonna step up? You think Mikki can fill that role? You think Toni's going to explode for 40 in a game? What about Penny? You think that Fish, Raj and Travis can give me what he gives in case he breaks down? Do you really think we can get away with Zo averaging almost 40 minutes a game, and guys like Chris Gatling and Darius Songaila getting averages that are almost better than guys like Kukoc and Horry, who are getting much more minutes but are doing far less with it? It's not going to happen," he sighs, now running a hand through his hair. "Yeah, I'm looking to deal. I'm looking to find out just what makes this team tick, so that when a part breaks or gets rusty, I know how to fix it. There's no instruction manual for this, every owner in this league is doing it all on the fly. I've had to recalibrate and reassess this team constantly ever since the draft. I wasn't even here for Zo's pick, our commissioner handled that. And it's not like I can go out and tell these guys, 'Hey, look. I love you all, but if your performance isn't up to par, then you've gotta go, no exceptions.' I mean, how do you do that? I have a hard enough time dealing with the ordinary people in my life, how do I go up to the rich and famous and tell them how their lives are gonna be? I'm a 20-year old guy born and raised in the countriest of country places with the careers of fully grown men in my hands and the expectations of an entire fanbase to meet. As it is, I'm just thankful we're doing well."
Strangely enough, it's now pretty clear from talking to them as to just how this young Phoenix squad is roaring through the league. Appropriately enough for a team called the Suns, they're a proverbial ball of fire, a collection of combustible elements that are burning bright as we speak, but it remains to be seen whether they'll flame out in spectacular fashion...or set the world ablaze. But if there's one thing for sure, it's that there isn't a single soul in the state of Arizona that's not trying to keep the flames alive.
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