The buzzer had just sounded on a Suns loss. It wasn't one of those crippling, memorable defeats that fans remember for years after, but it was a loss I'll never forget myself.
It was what happened after that random 1999 contest that made it memorable. I was 15 years old and attending the game with a friend. He suggested we take the trek from our seats down to the side of the court in hopes of catching a player's attention. Young fans have always done this. I expect they always will, hoping against hope that one of those professional athletes from a far different world than their own will deign to notice and, perhaps, acknowledge them.
One player walked within range of my still-maturing 15-year-old voice. I didn't know him as well as I knew some of his teammates. I remembered his name, though, and did my best to shout it with confidence.
"Hey! Shawn! Will you please sign my ball?!"
A dozen thoughts rushed through my brain as he turned and looked at me. Should I have called him Mr. Marion? Did I sound too pleading by using the phrase "will you please?" Do I look like a dork in my old, worn-out Kevin Johnson jersey?
Marion, then only a month or so into his rookie season, diverted from his original path to walk toward us. He signed the ball quickly. A swarm of other, less opportunistic fans noticed and raced over to claim the same experience. Even as they did, one of his team or personal reps advised him he'd better head out before everyone reached him. I'm not sure he heard our grateful "thank you" as he turned back toward the player tunnel.
Experiences like that are the pipe dream of local fans. You want to feel like 1) the players notice you and 2) that you can count on them.
As a rookie, Marion had already accomplished number one. He'd spend the rest of his time in a Suns uniform doing full justice to number two.
We watched as he provided rare, immediate results despite not being selected until ninth overall in the 1999 NBA Draft. By his sophomore year, he was already averaging a double-double and providing highlights that made us stop relying on memories of Charles Barkley and Thunder Dan. By year four, he was a 20-points-per-game scorer, a full-fledged All-Star, the most valuable fantasy basketball player of the century and owner of the coolest nickname in basketball: The Matrix.
It was Marion who bridged the gap between the post-Barkley transition years and Nash's "Seven Seconds or Less" era. Short-term memories assume The Matrix only defied reality with Nash running the show. In the four years preceding MV-Steve's arrival, Marion averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 1.2 blocks per contest. After his rookie season, he played 79 games or more in each complete season in purple-and-orange.
Suns Undercover: Shawn Marion
Marion prevented the 2005-06 loss of All-NBA forward Amar'e Stoudemire (microfracture surgery) from becoming a death-knell. He did so by first by putting up career-highs in points, rebounds and blocks, then becoming a rock in the playoffs. People remember Tim Thomas' season-saving three-pointer in Game 6 against the Lakers. They don't remember it was Marion who pulled down the offensive rebound and made the pass to Thomas for that shot in the first place. They don't remember Marion scoring six points -- including an exclamation point of an alley-oop -- in the overtime period.
All this, Marion did without a patented go-to move and a funky-looking jump shot that went in 48.1 percent of the time he was in Phoenix.
I take that back. He did have a go-to move: it was being in the right place at the right time, every time. Whether it was an off-ball cut, a lane run correctly on the break, or a seam exploited for an offensive rebound, Marion was always, always there. Fans loved him for that, but their applause was always without surprise because he did it so often.
Marion happened to be in the right place for me that night in 1999. His autograph is almost completely faded, now. With typical teenage short-sightedness, I'd had him sign a rubber ball, on which his hurried Hancock was doomed not to last. My one-year-old plays with it now, because hey, it's a ball.
She knows not to play with my bobbleheads, though, so she points to each one, waiting for me to say its name, then points to another one. Marion is near the front, so his name gets said often. When she's older, I hope current technology and her old man's wistfulness can convey exactly what he did and how he played.
I'll probably just start with this: you could count on him.