Phoenix Suns fans never forget the hard workers of seasons past

You CAN Go Home Again

Phoenix fans still love Jeff Hornacek, who went from the 46th pick in the 1986 draft to an NBA All-Star in 1992.

WHEN THE CHICAGO BULLS stammered through America West Arena in late November, the lines were long and loud for what may have been the final Valley visit of No. 23. Yet in the second quarter, when Jordan reentered the game, he walked on the court to a smattering of applause. Ten seconds later, the crowd erupted into a standing ovation. He turned around to see a slightly red-faced Joe Kleine, the object of 19,000-plus fans' adoration. Jordan turned back around, a smile across his face and shook his head in disbelief.

Lesson one: Phoenix fans never forget!

The title of the 1940 Thomas Wolfe novel, You Can't Go Home Again has obviously never been required reading for Phoenix fans. They continue to remember those who fought valiantly for them in the deep trenches of NBA warfare. Most members of the 1993 Suns team that ran the Bulls a bit farther than Pamplona are especially recognized. Like a grateful thrill seeker on a roller coaster, Suns fans will never forget that ride.

"I have said all along that playing here in Phoenix was probably the best four years of my life," says Kleine about his warm and fuzzy reception earlier in the season. "The people here were great and I can't say enough good things about them. I'm glad they appreciate me."

It hasn't always been like this. Early on, while the franchise struggled to sell itself to the state, fans wondered WHAT a Sun was, let alone WHO. But as the franchise became steeped in NBA annals as a perennial winner, and the Suns' front office continued to sell the idea of working together both on and off the court with aggressive community relations and a just as aggressive offense, the team was looked upon in a different light.

Now, Suns fans have a mental score sheet of who gets those rare ovations for a visiting player.

"It's a great reception," Elliot Perry, now with the Milwaukee Bucks says of the pre-game cheers he receives each year when returning to the Valley. "It was a great relationship I had with the fans, the city of Phoenix and the ball club. I really enjoyed my time here, I think everybody sensed that.

"I don't get that anywhere else I go, only from the fans here. It makes me feel great. You carve a niche for yourself in the league somewhere where people really, genuinely like you."

Jerry Seinfeld uses a routine in his comedy sets that includes fans rooting for their team. He explains that a player on your team for one season is cheered like a demigod for that year. However, if he is traded and comes to your arena the next season in a different uniform, fans are rabidly attacking him. Thus, fans are really cheering for laundry.

That twisted logic does actually apply to many NBA confines and yes, even AWA at times. But Suns fans are some of the most intelligent around. Players that gave all while they wore the purple and orange are usually remembered for their efforts. Wesley Person, for example, received a rousing response when he returned to Phoenix for the first time since being traded to Cleveland last summer.

"I don't think I left any bad marks here," he says. "When I was in the game, I gave 110 percent and gave them a chance to win the game. That's all I could do. Every night, play hard and hopefully they appreciated it."

Even his Cleveland teammates were surprised at Person's thunderous greeting. "It's a great feeling to come out and have an opportunity to play here," Wesley muses. "I miss the fans and I miss some friends on the team. To see the guys and play against them, I think it's kind of fun to come back and play your former team."

Even the quipster Kleine was a bit choked up at his reception.

"I was surprised," he says. "I was very appreciative and it meant a lot to me." When pressed on why, he gave an honest answer that may be the key to fan adoration in the Valley. "I try to be who I am."

Suns fans not only appreciate hard working players, but players who may never grace the covers of national magazines or earn a 30-second sound bite on ESPN. Blue collar-type players like Mark West, Cedric Ceballos, Michael Finley, Jeff Hornacek and Dan Majerle are always given a hero's welcome when they come back to Phoenix.

A.C. Green earned the respect of the fans for giving 100 percent every night. He even played, wearing this mask, after undergoing several operations on his mouth when he was hit by an elbow during a game.

A.C. Green, who left blood, sweat and teeth on the AWA hardwood when he was traded to Dallas last season, was the recipient of a lengthy ovation in his old stomping grounds nearly a month after he broke the NBA's consecutive game streak, a streak he spent three and a half seasons tallying in Phoenix. The fans reaction to his re-introduction was resounding proof of how much Phoenix fans love the working-class hero.

"I remember telling Charles Barkley this before he went to Houston," says retired Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons of the Rockets forward who receives a healthy mix of cheers and catcalls when returning to Phoenix. "Charles said he wanted out and he said some very unkind things about the franchise. I told Charles, who I was very close to at the time, 'Charles, this is not Philadelphia. The Phoenix Suns fans love the Suns and their players and don't you ever forget that. Even though they love you while you're playing here, if you leave they will still respect you. But if you say nasty things about the organization, you will not be as well received as other former players.'

"Hornacek, Majerle, A.C., all those guys get standing ovations because they did their job when they were here. They weren't sent away or abandoned. They did their job while they were here and they have a lot of class and that's why the fans love them."

The other side of this fan-induced lovefest is truer still. When a player gets on the wrong side of the Valley faithful, one hopes he has earplugs. Robert Horry currently fills the bill as the NBA's version of Snidely Whiplash when he visits AWA in his Lakers gold and purple. His detractors still, over a year after "the incident," wave towels at the beleaguered forward and send him messages of dissatisfaction. And that's a kind description of his reception.

Oliver Miller, once a fan fave, fell into the fans' doghouse with disparaging remarks of both team and management as the door was hitting him on his very large posterior on its way out of town. Fans don't forget that kind of mistake and they let him know about it each and every time he rattles the wooden floor of the arena.

Although the selection of the little-known Dan Majerle in the 1988 draft drew boos from Suns fans, his good looks, great personality and all-out hustle on the court, made him one of the all-time favorites in Phoenix.

T here is no one, however, that gets Suns fans on their feet faster during the visitors introductions than the man known as "Thunder Dan." (Dan) Majerle's work ethic, clutch performances and team-comes-first attitude have made him Phoenix's favorite former Sun.

"It makes me feel good," he understates eloquently. "I had a great relationship with the fans and the city while I was here and I think I continue to have a really great relationship."

Having an after-game tavern with his name in neon within a country stroll of the arena doesn't hurt his popularity either, but even three years after his departure from the desert, his three-point attempts have the crowd holding their breath.

"I come here and spend my summers," Dan theorizes. "I think what we had will always be very special because I gave all that I had and they gave it right back. It always feels good to come back and receive that type of ovation because I definitely feel the same way towards the fans."

Giving it back is what Phoenix fans, regarded as the some of the best in sports, are noted for. Rooting for uniforms may be commonplace for other sports venues, but Phoenix fans go that extra yard. They remember the man under the uniform and players like Green, Kleine, Perry and Majerle are grateful.

Reprinted with permission of Fastbreak magazine.

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