Frye's 'Challenging but Awesome' Journey
Channing Frye could only shake his head at the question that prompted recent memories buried by over 2,000 minutes played and 150 three-pointers made.
Looking back, what was the hardest thing about playing basketball after a year-and-a-half off due to a potentially life-threatening heart ailment?
The loaded question deserved a loaded answer, even if it was far more efficient in response.
Frye’s brevity spoke volumes, if only because he’s one of the more talkative interviews you’ll ever come across. He can talk X’s and O’s as easily as the personal/emotional intangibles so prevalent in sports. Often, he’ll squeeze both into one response.
Eventually Frye did get going, but, almost as if he were making up for his one-word revelation earlier, the words tumbled out over each other in an effort to explain the whole comeback process.
“Through the ups and downs of the season, [my support group] has always been there to say ‘hey man, you’ve got to remember’…,” Frye cuts off and ponders that thought before continuing. “Sometimes I have to understand where I’m at right now…I think I have to say ‘good job’. I don’t want to use [my condition] as a crutch when things aren’t going really well, but seasons are full of ups and downs. I have to remain in my perspective of ‘hey, it’s a great opportunity to just be out here.’”
“To just be out here” isn’t a normal thought for a former lottery pick. Frye, however, had been through similar -- albeit less serious -- experiences in the sense that they helped him appreciate the game.
After being drafted eighth overall in 2005 and being named to the All-Rookie First Team, Frye saw his minutes and role deteriorate first in New York, then in Portland.
Phoenix breathed second life into his career, unearthing a catch-and-shoot big man that forces opponents to scratch their normal defensive plans and scramble to close out on the perimeter.
Three years of double-digit scoring followed, punctuated by back-to-back seasons of over 170 three-pointers made, ranking him fourth in the league in 2010 and 2011.
Frye was eager to bounce back after he and the Suns suffered down years in 2011-12, respectively. Training camp was fast approaching.
Then the results of a routine preseason physical came back. They revealed a dilated cardiomyopathy, or enlarged heart.
Just like that, he couldn’t play basketball.
It’s worth noting that not playing basketball in Arizona is essentially the opposite of what Frye did his whole life. He grew up here. Starred at St. Mary’s High School, 2.3 miles up the road from US Airways Center, where he dreamed of playing as a kid. He moved down the I-10 to play college hoops at University of Arizona, where he was part of one Sweet 16 and a pair of Elite Eight Appearances with the Wildcats.
When you’ve already played that much basketball in your backyard, it’s hard to stay inside.
Frye had to.
“I couldn’t rehab it,” Frye said. “I couldn’t go on the court and work on it. It was something I had to just sit, wait and heal.”
So he did that, adding some doctor-approved yoga and golf into the mix.
And he waited.
The Suns in general missed Frye in the 2012-13 campaign, but perhaps no individual missed him more than Goran Dragic.
Indeed, Frye was one of the biggest perks of Dragic’s decision to return to Phoenix for a second go-around in the summer of 2012. The two had formed the majority of the offensive punch off the bench during the Suns’ run to the Western Conference Finals in 2010.
Fans remember Dragic’s 23-point fourth quarter in Game 3 against the Spurs. They’re not as quick to recall Frye’s 5-for-6 spree from three in Game 2, his 20 points in 26 minutes in Game 5 against the Blazers in round one, or his back-to-back double-doubles against the twin towers of the Lakers in the conference finals.
The duo had established a chemistry in the pick-and-pop game, Dragic driving around a Frye screen, with the latter fading behind the three-point line, ready to catch and shoot if the defense stayed with Dragic. If it didn’t, it was often because they were too reluctant to leave Frye open, which allowed the Slovenian playmaker a clear path to the rim.
In a very real way, they filled in each other’s gaps early in their respective careers. Dragic preferred to slash the interior and only shot from the outside when he was left wide open. Frye would only go inside if his defender was significantly smaller.
Without the floor-spreading yin to his slashing yang, Dragic noticed defenses were unafraid to load up on him. His field goal percentage dropped below 45 percent.
After a 25-win season and a busy summer of carrying the Slovenian national team to the EuroBasket 2013 quarterfinals, Dragic could only hope the perfect complement to his game would one day return.
“I was always hoping he was going to come back,” he said.
Three-hundred seventy-five days after the team announced Frye would be sitting out indefinitely, he walked back onto the practice court sporting a new jersey, new hopes…and new concerns.
Yes, he was back. But he wasn’t. He saw teammates old and new, all looking as though they hadn’t spent a day off the court in the summer.
Frye was only too aware of his own conditioning, or as he put it, the lack thereof. Some things in life are like riding a bike. Getting back into basketball shape is not one of them.
“On top of practice, I had to work extra hard to get in better shape,” Frye said. “Guys come in camp in shape. They have confidence in their shooting. To go from not shooting a lot to shooting every single day, to lifting every single day, just the daily grind of it all, I would say was the hardest part.”
He didn’t ease into it, either. Training Camp 2013 was held in Flagstaff, Arizona, a location gleefully picked out by Suns Head Coach Jeff Hornacek for its high elevation, thin air, and subsequently transformative powers when it comes to getting athletes in top physical condition.
This was important, because Hornacek had made it clear since getting hired that this team would run. A lot.
And so Frye ran – a lot. In the unofficial stat of dripping sweat, Frye seemed to lead the team every day. He was admittedly winded.
But he was no longer wounded. Each day in Flagstaff brought fatigue, but that was the extent of his physical ailments. There were no changes in heart rhythm, no struggle for breath beyond the normal exertion needed at such altitudes.
True to his nature of trusting players’ own instincts, Hornacek did not treat Frye any differently other than to hold him out of a couple of the early scrimmages. If the player said he felt good to go, so did the coach, and that was that.
“If you can make it through 7,000 feet elevation at Flagstaff, then I think he felt pretty good that he was okay,” Hornacek said.
Game action is a crueler animal than practices or even scrimmages constructed to mimic the real thing. Between that and Markieff Morris’ offseason improvement, Hornacek’s plan was to ease Frye in off the bench.
A few developments immediately before the regular season started changed all that.
- October 24: The league suspends Markieff Morris for one game after a preseason altercation with Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka
- October 25: The Suns trade former starting center Marcin Gortat, along with others, to Washington
- After two offseason foot surgeries and over six months away from basketball, No. 5 overall pick Alex Len is not yet ready for an expanded role
The flurry of events involving Phoenix post players left Hornacek in need of another big man to pair with Miles Plumlee in the frontcourt.
That’s how, on October 30, 2013, Frye started in his first regular season NBA game in 557 days.
For Frye, the first two weeks of the season hammered home the team-first concept Hornacek had demanded from the Suns in training camp. Phoenix was winning, but Frye’s individual contributions were slow in coming around.
Hornacek kept him in the starting lineup, a rotation decision based on two reasons: 1) Markieff Morris had gelled brilliantly with the rest of the reserves, especially twin brother Marcus. 2) Hornacek’s philosophy for getting back into shape is to “push through the fatigue.”
In his first eight games, Frye’s pushing yielded just 6.1 points per contest on 31.7 percent shooting, including 22.2 percent from three.
Again, he reminded himself to be patient, and asked his teammates to do the same.
“I felt very comfortable and I was like ‘guys, give me ‘till November, December,” Frye said. “That’s when I’m really going to start feeling good about what’s going on.”
Ironically, it was in back-to-back losses that Frye saw the first signs of consistency beginning to emerge. He scored 13 points on an efficient 4-of-8 shooting effort against Brooklyn, followed by 17 points and nine rebounds at Sacramento.
After a second game against the Kings resulted in a zero-point dud, Frye took off, averaging 17.5 points and 5.8 rebounds over his next six games while shooting a scorching 58.8 percent from the field, including 50 percent from three (he averaged over three treys per game over this stretch).
Suddenly Frye was reappearing as an emphasis in scouting reports. Teams had to account for him as half of what was fast becoming one of the best pick-and-roll duos in the game. With Goran Dragic enjoying a career-year (20.5 ppg, 5.9 apg, 3.2 rpg), Frye became the Slovenian playmaker’s favorite option when the defense overcompensated.
More importantly, Frye had found yet another source of confidence in his renewed set-up man.
“Goran’s continually been challenging me to continue to be aggressive regardless if I’m making shots or not, to be the player I know I can be,” Frye said.
Hornacek was fast learning how valuable that player could be, especially in an offense where shooters were vital to spread the floor for Dragic and fellow standout guard Eric Bledsoe.
If mismatches were available, Frye was proving he could take advantage of those as well.
“We can put him in the post against guys,” Hornacek said. “That’s maybe been the biggest surprise, is we’ve been able to use him to guard [centers]. That allows us to play him and Markieff at the same time and gives us some different things we can do there in terms of having Markieff rolling to the basket and Channing pop. It’s been a key for us this year.”
Frye is the only player to start every game for the Suns this season. At home games, he is the first player introduced.
“A 6-11 forward from Aaaar-iiii---zonaaaa, number eight – Channiiiiiiing Fryyyyye!!!”
It’s an understatement to say Frye is grateful he can count on that each and every game, as well as the warmer-than-usual fan response that always follows.
He’s just as grateful for the game itself, which is anything by consistent. He has scored 20 points or more nine times this season. He has finished with three points or less 11 times.
Those games alone are a combined 20 more than many expected from him this season.
When Frye recalls that, remembers how he had to make himself “ready to walk away” before he was told he didn’t have to, he’s able to look at his modest numbers – 11.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 151 three-pointers made and 78 starts in 78 games – and appreciate they exist in the first place.
“During the course of the year, there’s ups and downs, shooting good and not shooting good, rebounding, defensively,” Frye said. “That’s what happens.”
“It’s been extremely challenging but it’s been awesome.”