by Gina Mizell

Headline

A HEROES' WELCOME
Suns say thank you to healthcare workers as their first fans in 336 days

The crowd at Phoenix Suns Arena erupted when Devin Booker buried a pull-up jumper with less than a minute to play, all but sealing Sunday’s win over the Boston Celtics.

But the most sustained applause occurred during a first-quarter timeout, when public-address announcer Vince Marotta asked healthcare heroes to stand and be recognized for their efforts during an unfathomably challenging year. 

The Suns on Sunday afternoon welcomed a limited number of fans to their transformed home for the first time in 336 days. Appropriately, the bulk of the 1,493 in attendance were local healthcare workers treated to complimentary, socially distanced tickets as a thank you for their sacrifice while the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I woke up with them on my mind, just knowing that they’re the first people who are gonna be out here,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said. “They’re the real MVPs, they’ve been holding it down all along, to be honest with you. Lord knows what they’ve seen and went through with their families.

“(We’re) waking up a couple times a day just to do a test, but those people are actually in contact, helping people and being there for them. All we can do is just say thank you from the bottom of our hearts and just put a smile on their face and perform.”

Those healthcare workers and their guests witnessed a thrilling, down-to-the-wire Suns win against an Eastern Conference contender — and experienced several of the arena’s new amenities.

They walked into the grand, reimagined pavilion, featuring The Valley’s Largest Sports Bar, giant high-resolution LED walls with Super Bowl pregame coverage and black curtains drawn to open into the seating bowl. The Team Shop, as well as select concessions and grab & go stations, were open for business. The new center-hung scoreboard welcomed those fans to their seats with “Thank you healthcare heroes!” and flashed submitted photos of professionals in those fields on the job. 

Just before tipoff, Suns wing Cam Johnson took the microphone to deliver a heartfelt message on behalf of his team.

“We recognize your incredible commitment and service at all times, but especially over the past year through such unprecedented challenges,” said Johnson, whose mother is a nurse in Pittsburgh. “We appreciate all you do, and we couldn’t be here playing today without all of you. So, from the bottom of our hearts, thank you, and we hope you enjoy the game.” 

The small-but-vocal crowd gave the Suns juice throughout the win. In return, they got much of the in-arena experience. The Gorilla, donning The Valley gear, pounded a drum during the “de-fense!” chant. Local music artist Berna Blue sang the national anthem live. A “Mask Mode Cam” allowed fans show off their face covering’s creative colors and patterns. DJ Automatic kept the tunes rolling throughout the game, including a tribute to healthcare workers during halftime. 

“I can’t tell you how amazing it is, feeling that energy,” Johnson said. “Even 1,500 (fans), the energy is just different. … It’s just straight-up appreciation, and I’m glad we could have them in the building today.”

The Suns pulled it all off with a commitment to health and safety. Masks were required except when eating and drinking in ticketed seats. Social-distancing markers on the floor guided fans through the concourse and seating bowl. Two- and four-person parties were spread out across the lower bowl. Protocol reminders were announced before and during the game. 

Ticketed fans will return for Monday night’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. But it was more than fitting that the Suns’ first invited guests of the 2020-21 season were the healthcare heroes who have done so much for our community during these unprecedented times.

Booker recognized as much when, after his postgame television interview, he pointed to the fans as he jogged off the floor.

“(It) speaks to where we are as a society,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “Speaks to the kind of fan base we have here. It also speaks to the organization making sure that we take care of people that have done so much to help us during this pandemic.”

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