“It’s hard to get here, and I wanted it so bad. It’s hard to process right now.” – Monty Williams
This piece was supposed to show some love and appreciation on the team that exceeded expectations – win or lose.
It has been a mixed bag of emotions that all diehards of the Phoenix Suns have felt in less than 12 hours after the Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA Finals in front of their home crowd in Wisconsin, rallying from a 0-2 series deficit. A range of feeling has been high that the dust has yet to settle among fans: disappointment, anguish, bewilderment. Some may have expressed contentment that they are elated with wherever their team ended up with, especially that no one thought they would get this far, this deep in the playoffs. It may seem logical after all because this is roughly the same team who came from a decade of postseason absence to barging a ticket in the championship round in just one season.
I belong to the former, the group who has not moved on.
Coach Monty Williams summed up my thoughts in the postgame presser – that I, too, am at a loss for words, trying to make sense of things right now.
Since the NBA Finals ended, I say I can still function as a husband to my wife. I am still able to channel energy to my work and not half-heartedly about it. I can still engage with some people (on the second thought, that part I haven’t been able to do much, or perhaps just a bit). While doing everyday normal things, the thought still lingered in my mind of my NBA team for a long time having lost its third championship appearance.
Yes, I’ve been loyal to the Phoenix Suns. Somehow, as a kid, I gravitated to it, largely due to the fact that (1) Phoenix was in its winning season in 1993 when they went deep in the playoffs, and (2) in the 8-bit Lakers-Celtics PC game, as the youngest among cousins at the time, I was the last to pick a team (out of eight teams in the game) for our “tournament”. It all came down to either Phoenix or the Utah Jazz. That was when I first heard of Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers, Dan Majerle, Eddie Johnson, and Jeff Hornacek.
I barely remember how I felt when Phoenix lost to the Chicago Bulls in the Finals. I didn’t see John Paxson’s 3 that struck the heart of the Suns faithful. I somehow imagined how agonizing that was through Youtube clips, commentaries, or seeing the entire game itself in Hardwood Classics. I was not as invested compared to the years that came after. My first real heartbreak was in the 1995 playoffs, when Phoenix blew a 3-1 lead that led to the Houston Rockets winning in Game 7 on Mario Elie’s baseline 3 with the kiss of death. All I knew back then as a kid was that sad feeling and hatred toward the Rockets and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Enter the 2000s
The Suns never tasted another conference finals appearance until the arrival of Steve Nash that started the “Seven Seconds Or Less” era, the time when Phoenix injected a novelty to the game what would be a predecessor of modern day NBA, more than what the Jason Kidd-led Suns could even show. However, the flipside showed the Suns in a string of unfortunate events: timely key injuries (which many people veer toward as excuses to losing these days), lack of bench depth, a bodycheck leading to suspensions, a head-scratching trade, and a buzzer-beater that ultimately closed the window of opportunity for Nash to win an NBA title. Year in, year out, I always ended up at a state of loss because of these exits, not a single foot in the Finals for the Suns, and having to live with the remarks that “the team was just built for the season.”
Culture of Fandom
I don’t need to even explain the decade of obscurity. Rudderless, directionless, and it’s as if the team was happy getting lottery picks left and right. All this time, I kept getting insults, ridicule, condescension, and eyebrow-raising questions on why I still stick with a team who has been so used to losing. Remarks have been made that I was not even born and raised in the city of Phoenix, nor anywhere in the state of Arizona, or that I neither study, work, nor even basically live in the United States. Pointless questions that even I find myself being offended by.
In general, the fandom in this side of the world revolves around who is popular or has a bigger marketability, whether a player (Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry) or team (LA Lakers, Boston Celtics, Golden State Warriors). Being player fans, they shift their loyalty to a team where their idol goes to (such an example is when the obscure city of Cleveland became media darlings with Lebron, and the increase of the already big fan bases of Los Angeles and Miami).
Why am I not one of them, after all the reasons stated? Simple, really. It’s because living and dying with your team through thick and thin ultimately gives a higher sense of fulfillment, of satisfaction than being a bandwagoner, a fair weather fan. Even when Nash was traded to the Lakers, I still chose the Suns.
It is why I am emotionally invested in Purple and Orange. Thus, taking us to…
“Hello, Heartbreak, my old friend…”
At the start of this 2020-2021 season, I had my Suns pegged in the Top 5, and worse, bottom 8th. As the season progressed, I told myself that I’d be happy with a Western Conference semifinal appearance. When they beat the Lakers in the first round, my confidence grew and so did my expectations, but as I keep referring to the Ghost of the Playoff Past for the far too many misfortunes of Phoenix, who could be in another one again, I tempered it a bit by taking it one game at a time. Injuries can happen, as well as off-nights, and perhaps a Roy Hibbert-related (or Nick Anderson-like, depending on the situation) disappearance. I negated talking trash, but resorted to throwing facts instead when I’m pushed back (just happened one time when I hurled an invective-filled counter – I’m a sore winner like that).
Despite winning two games apiece in the past Finals appearances, given the setting, this year’s two wins is the closest the Suns have ever been on making Larry O’Brien grace its presence in the Valley Desert. Phoenix just needed two more wins. They had those chances in Game 4 (having led most of the time until the final minutes) and Game 5 (double-digit lead by the end of the first quarter, but failing to hold on to it. They also needed just two points to retake the lead by the end and who knows if the Bucks would convert). I could say the same in Game 6 for them to force a deciding seventh game.
This loss is worse than Dirk Nowitzki’s 50-point performance in 2006, Robert Horry’s hip-check on Nash in 2007, and Metta World Peace’s follow-up at the buzzer in 2010. No matter how many times I gave a perspective that it was just one game, they all swung the fortunes away from Phoenix and brought that psychological edge to their opponents. This loss throws a bigger punch, inflicts a bigger pain, and puts a heavier weight – something I have not been able to recover from just yet.
Until that time, only when I can fully show appreciation and gratitude to this team I’ve been rooting for.