Suns Throwback: Steven Hunter

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With the present Suns’ players enjoying their offseason, decided the summer time is a great chance to catch up with former players for a weekly #SunsThrowback edition of Phoenix basketball history. How does it work? Basically we get their memories going just enough to do what they do best: tell us their most memorable stories from their playing days.

This week’s #SunsTBT guest is Steven Hunter, the Suns’ backup center during their 2004-05 run to the Western Conference Finals. That season, Hunter logged a career-high 1.3 blocks per game and shot 61.4 percent from the field in just 13.8 minutes per contest.

On being a Bulls fan in the 1990s…

Growing up in Chicago – I grew up during the 90s and I was a huge Michael Jordan and Chicago bulls fan.

I know exactly where Paxson was [when he hit the series-clinching three-pointer]. I remember that battle the Bulls had his Phoenix.

On his Chicago-tinted thoughts/memories from the 1993 NBA Finals...

I think the only team that came close to beating the Chicago Bulls were the Phoenix Suns. That was the only team that had a real chance of beating them. More than Portland, more than Seattle, more than the Lakers, more than Utah.

[The Suns] were just tough. They had weapons. Chicago had a hard time stopping them. Bulls normally played team defense, but they had shooters. Guys like Richard Dumas, Dan Majerle, Danny Ainge, not to mention Barkley. If [Cedric Ceballos] had played, it might have been different. They just matched up with the Bulls better than anybody.

On playing with former Bulls forward Horace Grant and Chicago nemesis Patrick Ewing in Orlando…

I’ll tell you what, Patrick Ewing and Horace Grant gave me so much knowledge. Horace grant is the funniest person I have ever been around. He was so good to me. Growing up in, they made me want to go to the NBA, watching those guys.

To have the opportunity to play with Horace Grant was something that I’ll never forget. He took me under his wing from day one. He invited me over to his home. He taught me about the game. He told me, “Steve, in order to make it in this league, you’re going to have to find a niche.” He used to always say that to me. “You have to find a niche. You have to find an identity.”

When I first came in, I was just wild. I was all over the place. I didn’t know if I wanted to try to be a scorer. I didn’t know what I was doing. I finally settled into my niche of being a shot-blocker and an active defensive guy under the prowess of Horace Grant and Patrick Ewing.

On being part of the recent wave of athletic, mobile seven-footers...

Even when I was in high school and college, everybody always told me “You’ve got to bulk up. You’ve got to be able to bang with Shaq if you’re going to go to the next level.”

The most effective thing for me was my speed and my quickness. I just used all my God-given tools to my ability. I was a big man and I used to love to run the floor. A lot of times in our sprint drills, I would be the first one to win. I would beat out some of the point guards. I was always the fastest guys on the team, one of the most athletic guys on the team.

On how the game has begun favoring smaller, faster big men…

I think the reason Roy Hibbert is struggling so much right now is because he’s just super slow to the ball. He’s one of those old-school, lumbering big men.

I think in today’s game, where most of the teams are playing small lineups, the lumbering big man is pretty much instinct.

[Phoenix] picked me over Joel Pryzbilla [in 2004 free agency]. Solid big man, but obviously he was too lumbering. We wanted to play a faster, up-pace style.

On how his game fit in with the Suns’ style…

From the first day of playing pick-up ball with these guys to training camp, I knew this was the place for me because of the way we played. We played up-tempo. I was able to use all my strengths. I was able to set screens for Nash and roll to the basket hard and use my athleticism to dunk. They would use me as a defender to block shots. Mike D’Antoni’s system was tailor-made for my game.

I do think we kind of paved the way and opened the eyes of a lot of GMs and coaches to play more athletic big man and some big men that can spread the floor a little bit.

On how the running game was instilled in practice…

It was never just “get on the line and start running”-type running. It was always basketball running, which we enjoyed. We did a lot of running drills. We did a lot of fast break drills. We did a lot of team drills that forced us to share the ball..

On taking the league by surprise in the 2004-05 season…

We were blowing teams out. Teams had never seen a team like us, who would just run on you and just be relentless. I believe it was coach Sloan of Utah. We ended up coming back on them and beating them by 20 in the fourth quarter. He said – and I get chills just thinking about it – “once they get going, they just suffocate you. It’s like you can’t breathe because they won’t stop.” We were like a runaway train.

Maybe a couple weeks into the season, we figured out we were a unique team and a lot of people couldn’t figure us out. They couldn’t compete with us because we had a new style. We were pretty much playing five smalls. We didn’t start with a traditional lumbering big man…centers couldn’t keep up with Amar'e. Fours couldn’t run with Shawn Marion. No one could run with Shawn Marion.

On playing with another athletic big man in Amar'e Stoudemire…

He reminded me of a linebacker playing basketball. He would do a screen-and-roll and roll down the lane and put his head down. He would jump from close from the free throw line and just dunk everything. He had huge hands. Once he got that ball in his grip, he could just use his athletic ability to jump over the whole team.

I remember being in the game with them and him and Nash doing a screen-roll. I’m standing near the wing. Amar'e caught the ball at the top of the key. I just remember the lane parting like the Red Sea and everybody looking up at him while he jumps way over the rim and dunks the ball.

On how his role with the team solidified during the season…

Mike actually brought me into his office. That whole year it was always a competition between me and Jake Voskhul for who was going to come in as the backup big. One day after practice Mike brought me into his office and told me ‘look, we’re going to go with you for the rest of the season. You don’t have to worry about looking behind your shoulder. We believe in you. I believe in you.’ Once he gave me the green light, I was able to just go out there and showcase my talents and play mentally free and clear.

When you know you’re going to be on the floor on a team that matters and your teammates and coaches believe in you, there’s no greater feeling than that. That’s when you can really play like you’re home in your backyard.

On playing with eventual Suns player Grant Hill in Orlando…

Class act. Great guy. Taught me a lot. He was a mentor to me. I’ve never seen a guy with a better attitude. He was hurt all three years I was there. He came in and worked his butt off every day. He kept his head up, he kept believing in himself and he never gave up.

On playing with former Suns player Bo Outlaw in Orlando…

I remember Bo from the first day of training camp. He tried to test me right away. Extremely funny guy. Extremely hard-working guy.

Bo could bench-press 200-pound dumbbells. He was strong as an ox. He worked hard. He could run all day. He never got tired.

He was definitely the life of a team. He brought personality to a team.

On playing with former Suns player Pat Garrity in Orlando…

Lights-out shooter. I would watch him shoot after practice. I think I once watched him make 50 15-footers in a row. He had a great work ethic. He just shot lights out.

He was like the smart guy on the team. Pat Garrity would read novels. He was very normal. He was the most normal NBA player I ever met. If you met Pat Garrity, you wouldn’t think he was an NBA player. You’d think he worked in an office space or a cubicle or something like that.

On playing with Pat Burke in Phoenix…

Pat Burke is still a great friend of mine today. We actually talk a lot. He lives out in Florida and runs his own gym. Comedian. He is so funny. He’s the person that everybody should want in their locker room. He adds a great character to the team, a great personality.

On playing with eventual Suns player Lou Amundson in Philadelphia

When I played with Lou, I had no idea he would take his career this far. He was always a hard worker, but he was always a little unsure of himself and nervous. Once he came to Phoenix. He got his identity. He’s had confidence ever since.

On how Phoenix has become the place for NBA players to experience breakout seasons…

This place, for seems reason it seems to bolster [the careers] of guys who are on the fringe. Myself. Lou Amundson. Gerald Green. Boris Diaw. Raja Bell. Everybody that comes to Phoenix, it seems to bolster their careers.