How a Mom Turned a Suns Fan's Tragedy into a Happy Memory
I was 9-years old when John Paxson make my dad cry. A three-pointer to bury your team in the NBA Finals will do that. I cried with him (though it may have had as much to do with my dad crying as it did the actual game).
Four and a half months later, my dad was dead.
This is how my mom and the Phoenix Suns got me through it.
Dad, Me and Mom
What do you do when everything right and everything wrong about your first marriage collide?
That’s the question my mom confronted on Nov. 8, 1993. She was a fiercely independent woman, forced to be that way when my father’s struggles with drinking and gambling left her with a divorce, bankruptcy and the need for a fresh start.
As she often points out, however, her first marriage also gave her two kids.
“I wouldn’t trade that for anything,” she still says.
As a man, Dad had his faults. As a dad, I thought he was the man. He was funny, cool and the best friend you could have. When we played H-O-R-S-E, he’d let me get him to H-O-R-S before making a “miraculous” comeback, cementing his awesomeness in my mind. He came to my youth games. I still remember how excited he got the day I told him I scored a whopping four points. He made my freaking day.
Mom knew this, knew my love for the Suns and sports in general, knew that I had gotten all those things from my dad. A lot of what made me the son she loved came from the man with whom she’d fallen out of love.
I have a few photos of my dad, some from when he was a kid, others from when he was in his late 20s and early 30s. Frankly, the father-son resemblance is scary. A lot of moms take pride in that. For my mom, it was a little bittersweet.
But when Nov. 8, 1993, happened, she wasn’t thinking about any of that. She was thinking about her son, one who had a physical and emotional bond with a father who was suddenly gone.
For that - and for what she did next - I will always thank her.
Something you need to know: we were not rich. My mom waited tables. My step-dad had recently arrived on the scene by then, but at this time the four of us were living in a modest two-bedroom apartment while they tried to solidify their finances.
With all that in mind, Mom was racking her brains, trying to come up with something spectacular that would help me, 1) remember my dad, and 2) not be sad about remembering my dad. Anyone who knows anyone who has grieved knows how delicate a balance this is. My mom was trying to do this with a 9-year-old.
As fate would have it, the team over which my dad and I bonded - the Suns - were kind of popular that year. They were fresh off a trip to the NBA Finals. To this day, whenever I hear the old NBA on NBC theme song, it takes me back to watching the Suns at Dad’s place, since they were a near-guaranteed part of every Sunday’s NBA double-header.
At that time, they were THE show in town. Everyone talked about them. Kids wanted to be them.
I wore my first jersey, a home-white Kevin Johnson, every other day. My friends and I would call dibs on which Suns player we were before each pickup game.
“No, I’m KJ!”
“Fine, I’m Barkley, then!”
In a weird way, there couldn’t have been a better time to find a positive way to remember my dad. My mom, a casual sports fan on the best of days, recognized that. Then she went to work with one goal: to morph my bedroom into a Suns shrine.
Selecting the Swag
I need to stress again that this was the early ‘90s. There was no internet, no Google, no Amazon, no click-and-drag customization of products. Any and all shopping was done in person or over the phone.
Mom dug out the phone book, located all the sports stores in town, pinpointed what she could afford and what she thought I would like.
Some objects were official Suns team items. A trash can. A license plate. Posters. Pennants. A Suns-themed wall clock.
The best already-made item was a Suns backboard and hoop. It was bolted to the wall, because it wasn’t a cheap, plastic mini-hoop. The backboard was solid wood, the rim was metal, with screws fastening it to the backboard.
Mom didn’t stick with store-bought. She also snagged cheaper items that could be customized at home. Wood block letters that could be painted, eventually forming a slanted, purple-and-orange “SUNS” across a portion of the wall. Framed trading cards of Charles Barkley.
She bought two cans of paint, one orange, one purple, and painted racing stripes on the top of the way that ran all around the room. She painted a wooden coat-hanger that doubled as a shelf on the wall.
She took the paint and re-designed our old, heavy wood toy box, coloring different sections purple and orange. The lid had “GO SUNS” painted on top, the sides sported the stenciled and painted last names of the Suns’ big three: Barkley, Johnson and Majerle, wrapping around the middle of the box itself. Small, painted basketballs separated each of the names.
Mom dug out the sewing kit for other objects. Two decorative pillows sewn from two Suns' shirts, including a 1993 Western Conference Champions edition. Purple-and-orange trimming for the bottom bunk bed and the top of the window also made an appearance.
All of that was child’s play, however, compared to the final item on the list.
The Bed and The Voice
Beds are the most prominent piece of furniture in the bedroom. Mom knew she had to do something Suns-related on our bed to finish her project, otherwise there would be a huge set of very non-Suns-looking bunk beds serving as an eyesore in a sea of purple and orange.
The comforters and pillow cases were easy enough: solid purple. Mom had something more ambitious in mind for the sheets, however. She wanted them customized with logos and other images from the team.
Again: early 1990s.
“I called a dozen different places, asking them if they could do this, explaining to them why I wanted to have this done,” she said. “Most of them couldn’t do anything like that on this scale.”
Finally she talked to someone who had the ability and desire to help, but the guy was upfront with my mom: he couldn’t violate copyright rules concerning team logos.
He followed his reality check with a different idea: what if I use different colors, designs and fonts on unique Suns images and phrases?
Mom’s response: Great. Do what you think you can do.
The result on a plain white sheet was nothing short of iconic. Purple-and-orange basketballs and hoops. A purple silhouette of a ball player leaping in an orange background, with “Purple Palace” wrapping around the top-left corner. Orange “Phoenix” and purple “Phoenix Suns” scattered in different locations.
The clincher: catch phrases from the Voice of the Suns, Al McCoy. “Shazaam” was vertically written in huge purple letters, with an orange player silhouette dunking inside it and white lightening striking on one side. A basketball with old-school glasses and broadcaster headphones was nestled toward the bottom-left.
Other McCoy homages: plain black writing of “Swish-a-roo for two” and, dead-center in the middle of the sheets and written in orange signature font: “Hoop-de-do, Al McCoy.”
Every Suns fan appreciates Al, remembers his/her usual scene when listening to him call the games. Mine was usually in the car, often with Dad voicing his own thoughts, opinions and emotions throughout the course of the game.
Sometimes memories can get half-buried, only to be dug up again by a key sight, sound or smell. Those McCoy-themed sheets kept the car rides with my dad from ever sinking too deep. Listening to McCoy call a game today has the same effect.
It’s a big reason why Suns fans esteem his work so highly. Like the team whose action he calls, McCoy becomes a part of your life. Having that featured in customized fashion was the icing on my mom’s purple-and-orange cake.
Again, it’s the year immediately after the Suns went to the NBA Finals, the height of the Barkley/KJ/Majerle era. Imagine being a kid with a room like that. Imagine how badly you’d want your friends to know you had a room like that.
I can’t count how many times I had friends over at my place, in my room. We’d play H-O-R-S-E on the Suns’ hoop or Tecmo Bowl and Ice Hockey on the NES (NBA Live finally debuted a year and a half later). That room captured my childhood memories and happiness in a nutshell.
Mom, of course, had given me more than a Suns room. It was a reminder of what I loved to share with my dad, of his favorite player (Barkley), of playing H-O-R-S-E, of drowning myself in our team.
Most importantly, it was a reminder that healed instead of hurt. I wasn’t allowed to see my dad in the hospital. His face was too disfigured from the car. Mom didn’t want me to see, didn’t want the last memory of my hero to be a broken, disfigured reality check a 9-year-old didn’t need.
She knew what I needed: to remember what every kid should remember about his/her dad. The good times we’d shared, good qualities I’d inherited and, as luck would have it, the good team we both rooted for.
Sports are an equalizer that way. Completely different people can bond, become best friends when sport is involved. This probably isn’t news to you. There are a million stories like this out there, of how sports help bridge gaps, heal wounds and foster family bonds.
Only a few things from that room have withstood the test of time. The black Suns pillows made from 1993 t-shirts. The framed Barkley cards. The license plate.
More importantly, I gained an appreciation for what a mom and a sports team can mean, especially when you’re down.
In this case, both of them picked me back up.