RALLY THE VALLEY
Here's how Suns supporters have celebrated this resurgent season and return to the playoffs.
A few weeks ago, Al McCoy was immediately swarmed as he walked into the bar at Christo’s Ristorante on 7th Street. That’s not unusual. That’s everyday life for the legendary Voice of the Suns — especially during a season like this.
“I can’t go any place that I’m not just surrounded by people that want to know about players, the team, how great it is,” McCoy, “and it’s just been fantastic.”
This resurgent Suns season and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2010 is celebrated by far more than the players, coaches and basketball staff. As Arizona’s original professional sports franchise, the Suns are woven into the fabric of The Valley. Over the years, its people rallied around the 1976 Sunderella run that helped legitimize Phoenix as a major metropolitan area, overtook downtown streets for a parade following the 1993 Finals and were captivated by the Seven Seconds or Less era.
As McCoy says: “Phoenix is a Suns town. It always has been. It always will be.” And even in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic that limited gatherings and in-person contact inside and outside Phoenix Suns Arena, the buzz is back.
“You want to be in a place that loves their team, and the Suns’ fan base is second-to-none,” said Monty Williams, who has the perspective as an opposing player and staffer and now Phoenix’s head coach. “… When that place was rockin,’ it was different. If you could come out of here with a win (during the regular season), you felt like you almost won a playoff game … the fans were so crazy.”
Suns.com's Gina Mizell and Cody Cunningham gathered personal stories from 13 people connected to the organization. Some are longtime fans, and others are long-time employees in behind-the-scenes roles. Some are community partners who work with the Suns to make residents’ lives a little brighter. Some are natives, and some have returned home.
All have been swept up in this season’s unforgettable ride, and cannot wait for what’s to come.
JAY GASPAR, HEAD EQUIPMENT MANAGER
When Devin Booker checked out of the Suns’ April 28 victory over the Clippers, he hugged Jay Gaspar and said, “Welcome back to the playoffs.”
The special recognition was warranted. Gaspar is one of the organization’s longest-tenured employees, beginning as a ball boy at age 12 in 1987 and working his way up to head equipment manager over more than 30 years.
During a season when very few have been around the Suns due to health and safety protocols, Gaspar has had one of the closest views. He constantly interacts with players and staff in the locker room, on the road and on the sideline during practices and games while preparing and distributing all gear from jerseys and sneakers to socks and headbands.
“This is your second family,” Gaspar said. “You have three square meals a day with these guys.”
Gaspar’s longevity with the Suns means he has witnessed thousands of games, including the beloved Seven Seconds or Less era. During training camp, he felt a similar vibe with the 2020-21 team. He believes it stems from Chris Paul’s control of the floor, leadership and winning mentality “that rubs off on everybody,” along with a culture of togetherness this team has fostered under the season’s unusual circumstances.
“They just really like hanging around each other,” Gaspar said. “On the road, we’re not allowed to do what we’ve done in years past, when everybody goes their separate ways with friend and family and things like that.
“It’s kind of the bubble mentality, where we basically stay in the hotel. They play video games. They play cards. They’re just friends.”
These days, more people stop to talk to Gaspar when he’s wearing Suns gear at the grocery store. He can feel the energy building from the floor, starting when a limited number of fans were welcomed back on Super Bowl Sunday through the regular-season finale. He has received a barrage of texts from former players about how fun this team is to watch and to pass along congratulations.
“It’s something that not only people the in the Valley are seeing,” Gaspar said. “It’s like, everybody that was a fan of those Suns teams — even the Barkley days — are happy to see the Suns back on the map.”
When a game hits crunch time, Gaspar often hears Jae Crowder patrolling the sideline repeating, “What time is it? It’s winning time.” Gaspar cannot wait for that ritual to translate to playoff basketball.
“It’s good to see our team realizing the importance of this moment and that you can’t take this for granted,” Gaspar said. “It’s something that they need to capitalize on, because you never know if this team will be together next year. …
“They know what’s going on. They know there’s high stakes in every one of these games. It should be a fun ride.”
EDDIE JOHNSON, FORMER PLAYER AND SUNS BROADCASTER
The Los Angeles Lakers entered the 1990 playoffs with the best record in the NBA at 63-19, following a Finals appearance the year prior. However, the fifth-seeded Suns led by head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons pulled off the incredible upset, defeating the Lakers in just five games to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
The city was buzzing following the series win over their division rival. And the fans wanted the team to hear and see their appreciation, their excitement and the overall support they had for their beloved Suns.
As the plane landed at Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix, thousands of fans greeted players as they walked into the boarding area. Among those receiving the special ovation was the “smooth-shooter” Eddie Johnson.
“That experience was tremendous,” Johnson said. “It was ridiculous. It was the best reception. That right there epitomized how happy and how desperate for winning this organization and fans had been up until that point.”
The Suns color commentator for the past 20 years, Johnson has taken his high basketball IQ into the broadcast booth, becoming a recognizable voice for Suns’ basketball over the years. For decades, Johnson has witnessed the passion of Suns fans and the next level it reaches during the postseason.
“This team is this city's baby,” Johnson said. “This was the first professional franchise here. And because of that, the love is always going to be here. Suns fans have been waiting for this moment for a while, and now they have the opportunity.”
After experiencing such a tremendous run throughout the early 2000s with Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion, Johnson understands that it has taken a lot of patience from Suns fans to reach this point again. Johnson won’t be broadcasting Game 1 due to the game being televised by ABC, but highlighted that the Suns are receiving the nationally televised game because of what they have accomplished this season and not just because they’re playing the defending champions.
“If the Lakers were playing a team that wasn't that good, I don't know if it would be on national TV the first day,” Johnson said. “It says a lot about where the Suns are and the expectations that this team has.”
Being a part of the broadcast team — and calling nail-biting games and intense series against teams such as the Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs — is very special to Johnson. But as he reflected on past matchups, it just made him that much more ecstatic for Tuesday’s Game 2.
“I've called so many games for the Suns over the years,” Johnson said. “There are so many games that stand out to me individually. Nothing, I think, is going to touch what I'm going to experience in Game 2 and Game 3 when I call the game.
SHAWN MARTINEZ, SENIOR DIRECTOR FOR LIVE PRESENTATION
Shawn Martinez pulled Devin Booker aside to ask what song to he wanted to hear as the Suns took the court for warm-ups. Booker encouraged Martinez, the Suns’ Senior Director of Live Presentation, to make the selection instead.
Martinez’s chose “What it Feels Like” by Jay-Z (one of Booker’s favorite artists) and Nipsey Hussle. And as superstitions go, the Suns kept winning, so Martinez kept that jam pumping before every home game.
“It was like, ‘Oh, it’s starting to feel like something’s happening here,’” Martinez said. “They’re all bobbing their heads. They’re all feeling it. They’re all vibing. That’s when you kind of know that some of the things that you’re doing help set the mood for them to play well.”
This season has been a thrill for Martinez, who grew up in Arizona’s Navajo Nation and is now back with his home NBA team after stops with the Detroit Pistons and Denver Nuggets. Through a headset while sitting at the end of the scorer’s table, Martinez “calls” all entertainment aspects of a game, including music, videos, Gorilla appearances and other elements that engage fans.
“It’s been the best ride I could ever imagine coming home to,” Martinez said. “ … I’m living my best life, having the best job, doing what I love. if you have a job that you love, it’s not really a job. You’re coming in to put smiles on people’s faces — not only the fans, but the players.”
This season, Martinez has worked with DJ Automatic and DJ Q Ward to create personalized playlists for each player’s pregame warm-up. He loves whenever owner Robert Sarver quickly joins the “slow clap” video prompt from his courtside seat, and when Jae Crowder yells “one … two … three!” from the bench after the Suns hit a shot from beyond the arc. He appreciates that general manager James Jones gives him a fist bump or “thank you” after every game.
He also has a front-row view for the wild on-court moments. His favorite: the end of the third quarter of a May 7 game against the Knicks, when in a matter of seconds, Torrey Craig followed a Booker miss in transition and Cam Payne stole the inbound pass and nailed a jumper right before the buzzer.
“You see Coach (Williams) running out,” Martinez said. “Everybody’s running out so fired up. Those are the things that just give you momentum to keep going.”
Martinez has also felt immense support from the Navajo Nation during this homecoming. He recently guided Vice President Myron Lizer on a tour of the transformed Phoenix Suns Arena and, with a secret phone call, fired up all the LED boards.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, that’s awesome! You just made that happen!’” Martinez recalled.
Up next: Creating a playoff atmosphere. Martinez can’t wait for a new video open and soundtrack for starting-lineup introductions. He is excited to invite local music artists to perform at halftime.
Anything that will set the mood of the room — and help the Suns win in the postseason.
“I’m so grateful and blessed to be home, and I’m glad to be a part of the Suns organization,” Martinez said. “Because it’s in my heart. It’s in my blood. It’s home.”
STEVE ZABILSKI, ST. VINCENT DE PAUL CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
Steve Zabilski stopped by a donor’s home for dinner a couple weeks ago, anticipating a night of business discussions relating to his job as chief executive officer at St. Vincent De Paul.
The donors asked if he minded if they all watched the second half of the Suns’ dramatic overtime win at Cleveland. Zabilski has never been so delighted to multitask.
Zabilski’s relationship with the Suns dates back more than 24 years. Then-coach Danny Ainge called Zabilski shortly after he joined the nonprofit organization dedicated to serving the underpivileged, asking if players could volunteer as a team-building exercise. Over the years, members of the Suns who have served range from Cotton Fitzsimmons and Jeff Hornacek, to Al McCoy and Jason Rowley, to Robert and Penny Sarver.
One of Zabilski’s treasured items in his office is a photo from Thanksgiving 2015, when he and son Matthew stopped by St. Vincent De Paul after dinner and found then-rookie Devin Booker quietly serving in the dining room.
“It reminds me that, yes, basketball is important. It’s darn important. But being a good person is important, too,” Zabilski said. “And when I look at the Suns organization, I see both. … I see goodness and kindness and a genuine caring about the community.
“I just say, ‘Boy, if we had more organizations like the Suns, our community would be a better place. Our world would be a better place.’”
Zabilski’s excitement for the 2020-21 season built after the Suns’ 8-0 finish in the Orlando Bubble, then skyrocketed when Phoenix traded for Chris Paul. Not just because Zabilski knew Paul was a future Hall of Fame point guard, but because he remembered when Paul spoke to a men’s Bible study group at St. Vincent De Paul while in town as a visiting player.
Yet this level of success has been a pleasant surprise. Zabilski remembers checking the standings early in the season, and taking a screen shot of the Suns in first place because he did not anticipate that holding for much longer. Lo and behold, Phoenix was back at the top in early May before finishing second in a highly competitive Western Conference.
Because of his close-contact work with the homeless community, Zabilski has chosen not to attend games in person this season. But he can’t wait to return to Phoenix Suns Arena next season, and won’t miss Game 1 against the Lakers on TV “for anything.”
“It brings life to the community and energy,” Zabilski said. “… The Suns organization is a great blessing to this community, and to see them winning like this and playing like this, wow, it’s a special moment.”
ADAM AND CARLY KORMAN, FATHER-DAUGHTER FAN DUO
While Adam Korman watched a Suns-Lakers game on television, 12-year-old daughter Carly unexpectedly joined him on the couch.
She had never expressed much interest in basketball or sports. But she was immediately swooped up by the constant action of the Suns’ win, and asked when they played next.
Since then, the father-daughter duo has watched every game from their “assigned seats” on the couch. They have memorized the roster, including player nicknames. They have bonded over this team and this season during a time when we have all been staying home to protect ourselves and our community.
“It’s hard to put into words what that means to me,” Adam said. “It’s not, like, a huge thing to maybe everybody else. But the fact that she has that interest with me and we get to do it together, it means a lot to me.”
Adam, who teaches graphic design and advises the yearbook and newspaper staffs at Mountain Ridge High School in Glendale, grew up in Chicago but has lived in Phoenix since 1994. He shifted to supporting the Suns during the Seven Seconds or Less era.
But Carly is an example of how this team has recaptured the imagination of young fans. She follows all the players through their Instagram stories. Her favorite is big man Deandre Ayton, while Dad loves watching do-it-all-wing Mikal Bridges.
They celebrated Adam’s birthday at Phoenix Suns Arena, soaking in the Suns’ April 30 blowout win over the Jazz.
Carly, who had never attended a Suns game in person, was giddy when she walked in and saw Tom Chambers sitting at the Bally Sports Arizona desk on the pavilion. When the Suns ran out of the tunnel for pregame warm-ups, she started crying tears of joy. She loved being able to take in the whole environment, including bench interactions.
“It was just a whole different experience being there than watching from our couch in our living room,” she said. “It was so much fun. I loved it a lot.”
Adam and Carly are filled with a combination of nerves and excitement when thinking about the playoffs. They want to have realistic expectations and savor the moment.
They also don’t want this ride to end. Not just because they love watching the Suns, but because of how the Suns have brought them closer.
“That’s our thing together,” Carly said.
CHRISTIAN SANFT, DIRECTOR OF BOYS AND GIRLS CLUB VIRGINIA G. PIPER BRANCH
Whenever Christian Sanft walks into his office at the Virginia G. Piper Branch of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Scottsdale, he sees a signed placard that Kevin Johnson gave to him on a visit to his elementary school.
What’s new is how the kids are reacting around the club. More and more are showing up in Suns shirts, hats and backpacks, Sanft said. They’re marveling more at the Devin Booker jersey in their trophy case, and talking more about players up and down the roster.
This season has doubled as a neat full-circle experience for Sanft, a lifelong fan now seeing this generation of kids getting hooked on the Suns.
“It’s just been so much fun to have the city start to feel that way again,” Sanft said. “Because there isn’t really another team in the Valley that is so connected to the DNA of the Phoenix area.”
The Boys and Girls Club and Suns have been intertwined for decades.
There’s a Jerry Colangelo branch in metro Phoenix. Jeff Hornacek once filmed an (unreleased) instructional video at the Piper branch with athletic director Jeff Berman, who has been with the organization since the 1960s. Their court was refurbished through the Suns’ 50 Seasons 50 Courts project in 2017. Though the Jr. Suns program, Boys and Girls Club kids play their championship games at Phoenix Suns Arena, where they are announced over the PA system like NBA stars.
“That’s something that we’re very proud of, and something that we talk to the kids about,” Sanft said of the Club’s relationship with the Suns.
Sanft’s early Suns memories include going to NBA Jam tour at then-America West Arena, watching the NBA on NBC and learning of the Hornacek trade that brought Barkley to the Valley. He has remained loyal through all eras.
These days, Sanft engages in “astounding levels of trash talk” with his cousins who live in Utah and are also enjoying a terrific Jazz season. An early season Suns win in Salt Lake City, along with victories against the Bucks and Sixers, gave him confidence that Phoenix could compete with any team in the league.
But he welcomes the outside doubters who subscribe to the narratives that Chris Paul can’t win the playoffs, Devin Booker is a stats-only player and Cam Johnson was a reach in the draft. Even before Wednesday’s play-in game, Sanft proclaimed, “Ideally, I want the Lakers, and I want us to beat the Lakers.”
“Everybody wants to see us play, but nobody expects us to win,” Sanft said. “That’s unique, and that’s gonna be just so great when we come through and just lay a beatdown on somebody. That’s just gonna be so satisfying.”
Sanft expects this weekend to be “totally bananas” while his family group text blows up. He also cannot wait to continue sharing his enthusiasm with the kids at the club.
Someday, he hopes they talk about this year’s team in the same way he reminisces about when he got hooked on the Suns.
“To be able to see that happen for kids the same way it happened for me is really cool and exciting,” Sanft said. “When they’re old guys, they’ll be talking about, ‘Do you remember when Chris Paul played for the Suns?’ in the same way I talk about when Jeff Hornacek was traded.”
KEVIN MCCABE, FORMER SPORTS REPORTER
The game was tied with 11 seconds left on the clock.
Charles Barkley took the inbound and was quickly guarded by the 1991-92 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, David Robinson. Barkley spun the ball in his hands, patiently watching the clock roll down. With just over five seconds remaining, the 1992-93 MVP attacked.
Faking going inside, Barkley created just enough separation as he pulled up above the free throw line and let it fly over the outstretched arm of Robinson. Swish. Game. Series. The Suns defeated the San Antonio Spurs in six games during the 1993 Western Conference Semifinals.
As long-time Suns reporter Kevin McCabe stood outside the locker room for his live shot, the gleeful team traveled toward him. Barkley and the rest of the squad decided to have some fun with the sportscaster that they had grown close to, grabbing his nose, messing up his hair and giving him some friendly shoves in celebration.
“There was giddiness,” McCabe recalled. “We were all the same age, but it was just one of those kinds of experiences where you felt like you were inside the team. … It was golden. It is a lifetime of memories.”
McCabe began covering the Suns in 1984, but his career change to Channel 10 in 1990 assisted in developing these close ties with the players. In a time without social media and with very limited internet, it became critical for reporters to establish trust with the players in order to share their stories and help build their brands.
“It was a whole different era,” said McCabe, who is now the Associate Vice President for Corporate Relations and Events at HonorHealth Foundation. “That's one of the things I'm most proud of is I gained their trust and the respect as a journalist that they allowed me to do those kinds of things.”
The player he grew the closest with was none other than Sir Charles himself. Barkley was able to show a little glimpse of what he does now at the desk on NBA on TNT, joining McCabe on local broadcast shows to breakdown highlights and, of course, share a laugh or two.
Barkley’s first appearance ended up being more nerve-racking for McCabe than Barkley. The team was in Portland and McCabe had asked Barkley if he wanted to come on the 9 p.m. Sunday night show that they would be recording at the hotel. Barkley agreed, but at 9:01 was nowhere to be found.
“Bum, bum. It’s Sports Night with Kevin McCabe live from…”
“All of a sudden the doors to the hotel open up,” McCabe said. “In comes Charles. He climbs over the couch and sits down and puts on the microphone. He goes, 'What's up little man?' Then he proceeds to do an hour of standup.”
As their relationship grew, so did the excitement around the city. The Suns finished the regular season with best record in the NBA on the way to their second Finals appearance in franchise history.
“I don't think people fully realize what this city was like in those days,” McCabe said. “Buses were painted up, houses were painted up, flags on every car. You walk into stores and everybody had something Suns on. It was a glorious time.”
And as a “kid from Phoenix,” McCabe is excited to once again see the resurgence of the Suns as they gear-up to take the court for postseason basketball on Sunday.
“I'm really happy and I'm really proud,” McCabe said. “You've got to embrace it and go for it when you can. … I'm really excited for the organization.”
BARRY GOSSAGE, TEAM PHOTOGRAPHER
Surrounded by Oklahoma City Thunder defenders in the paint, Dario Šarić fed the ball back out to Devin Booker at the top of the key.
After a couple flinches and crossovers, Booker put his head down and accelerated full speed through the paint. The two-time All-Star rose up over two Thunder players and threw down a rim-shattering, one-handed slam to extend the Suns’ lead to 35-9 in the first quarter on April 2.
Milliseconds before the ball went through the rim, a flash of white light shot through Phoenix Suns Arena, as long-time Suns photographer Barry Gossage’s strobe provided added theatrics to the dramatic finish.
“He doesn't dunk that often, but he's been more aggressive this year,” Gossage said. “He had taken it upon himself to get to the basket more that game. He had it at the top of the key and he started dribbling. I knew he was going to dunk. I just saw it in his face, the way he was going at the basket. He wasn't going to try to lay it up. That was probably my favorite (photo) for this year.”
Gossage has had a front-row seat as the team photographer since 1997, capturing the thrill, the emotion and the historic imagery over the past two decades. From Jason Kidd to Steve Nash to Goran Dragić to Chris Paul, Gossage has witnessed the glorious highs and the defeating lows as closely as anybody not on the Suns’ bench.
But with the playoffs on the horizon in the Valley, Gossage is excited for Suns fans to get to experience postseason basketball again.
“The people that haven't witnessed the playoffs are going to be blown away at how people around town get into it,” Gossage said. “The signage, you see cars with paint on the windows in support. Then the games themselves, it's a completely different beast as far as excitement and energy from players, the coaches, people working in the arena.
“Everybody just kind of feeds off each other, and everything is ramped up.”
Entering the playoffs with the NBA’s second-best record, this is one of the best Suns teams that Gossage has seen through his lens. The rise in positive momentum that this team brings shows up in the smiles, the celebrations and overall togetherness he has captured along the way.
And a first-round series against the Lakers will rejuvenate the rivalry that created some of Gossage’s favorite playoff memories.
“The series with the Lakers and Kobe and all that at that timeframe, those were some intense games, going back and forth,” Gossage said. “It'll be crazy just in the same way that it was crazy back then.”
KATHY AND GARY GASH, LONGTIME PAYPALL SIXTHMAN MEMBERS
A section of Kathy and Gary Gash’s garage doubles as a time capsule of Suns memorabilia. There’s a shelf lined with bobbleheads, including Tom Chambers, Steve Nash and Devin Booker. There’s a “Cotton Express” towel from the 1989 playoffs, and a “Rally the Valley” towel from earlier this season. Above a signed Goran Dragic jersey hangs a hat from the 1993 Finals.
What started as a way for Gary, Kathy and son Chris to spend time as a family turned into a deep fandom spanning nearly 30 years. They had season tickets from 1992-2002, even keeping them for two years after moving to California. They became members again when they returned to the Valley from 2008-19, and are back again for this season.
“It was something to bond us together and have a common interest,” Kathy said.
Some of their favorite moments include traveling to Palm Springs for preseason games, or volunteering with the organization at a park off Baseline in Mesa. They once asked Booker to sign a license plate from the year he was born (1996). Kathy, who is now retired from Earnst & Young, was part of an interview team that spoke to Jerry Colangelo for the organization’s Entrepreneur of the Year program.
Kathy was also one of the thousands who gathered in front of then-America Wes Arena for the parade following the 1993 Finals.
These days, Kathy and Gary still watch every game together. When the Suns clinched their playoff berth with a win over the Clippers, they poured an extra glass of wine.
They plan to travel to their second home in Laguna Beach on Monday. But before departing for cooler weather, they’ll be at Phoenix Suns Arena for Sunday’s Game 1 against the Lakers.
And if the Suns make a deep run, they’ll bring 14-year-old grandson, Beck, back from Southern California to experience playoff basketball first-hand.
“We’re just so excited for our team to be back there,” Kathy said. “We want to see a championship. We’re proud of the guys. We love them.”
FRANK MEJIAS, GUEST SERVICES TEAM LEADER
Frank Mejias already had a full-time job in 1992. But when the new America West Arena began hiring for its guest services department, he took on the challenge to also work events at night.
Mejias has been in the building ever since, ensuring fans have the best experience possible while watching one of the NBA’s hottest teams inside their transformed home.
“Even though COVID has put a damper on folks’ smiles,” Mejias said. “… Through their eyes, you can tell they’re really enjoying it and they’re happy that we’re back in the playoffs.”
Much of Mejias’ job revolves around fixing issues such as lost tickets or fans who need to be relocated in the bowl. But he’s had plenty of happy interactions during this special season.
He loves when he can tell fans to try to get on camera behind Tom Leander and Tom Chambers during the Suns Live! pregame show. He’s grateful when he can help somebody in a wheelchair get to their seat. And he appreciates meeting fans from all over the world, because the arena will be part of their memory of Phoenix.
Mejias remembers that first season in this building, when a 1993 Finals run “electrified” the city. He believes this version of the Suns has a similar spirit.
He saw the young players’ potential last season. Following 8-0 Orlando Bubble run, he entered the 2020-21 season with playoff expectations. These days, he talks frequently with his adult children and co-workers about the team, including marveling at Chris Paul’s impact.
“Chris Paul is just orchestrating like an opera,” he said. “He’s just moving his arms, and the music is just so great.”
Starting Sunday, Mejias expects a “Madhouse on Jefferson” for the first round against the Lakers. He’ll be leading the crew whose job is to make it all a positive experience — and is thrilled to cheer the Suns on along the way.
“It’s hard to win games, but it’s even harder to put a squad on (the floor) that plays the way they did (in the regular season),” Mejias said. “To bring everybody in and to play that well, that’s just magical right there.”
DON BRANDT, FORMER APS CEO
Despite the cracked backboard, slippery cement and worn-down baskets, neighborhood kids still gathered to play some pick-up basketball at Florence Crittenton.
This was until the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Public Services teamed up to refurbish the court with a fresh paint job, new rims and a sturdy backboard. The dedication ceremony featured three prominent Valley figures: former Suns President and CEO Rick Welts, APS CEO Don Brandt and two-time MVP Steve Nash.
A crowd that featured at least a hundred local children, it was clear to Brandt early who the center of attention was.
“The three of us were up there. Rick and I had remarked, 'Nobody here wants to talk to the two of us. They want to talk to Steve,’” Brandt said laughing.
This was just one of many Suns court dedications done throughout the Valley over the past decades, many in partnership with Brandt and APS.
“It was great because most of those kids hadn't seen anything that nice,” Brandt said. “When we got done, they were first-class courts.”
Giving back and connecting with the local community has always been a strong commitment from the Suns, one that is reflected through the team’s partners and players. Brandt has witnessed a similar dedication from one of the Suns young stars, meeting him at the very beginning of his career.
An 18-year-old Devin Booker joined Brandt and his wife at their table during the annual Phoenix Suns Charities Jump Ball event.
“He was a kid, but a tall kid,” Brandt said. “You could tell he was kind of a newbie to Phoenix, to the team, to the NBA. But you could tell he was a good kid.”
Brandt has watched Booker blossom on and off the court, leading the Suns to the playoffs as well as reaching out to the community through his charitable efforts.
“My wife works at Phoenix Children's Hospital and, although they haven't allowed visitors in there for a while, Devin used to come down and visit with the kids,” Brandt said. “He’s been a great member of the community too, which is a trademark in the Suns entire organization being involved in the greater Arizona community.”
Booker will take the court for his first postseason action of his young career on Sunday, and Brandt is anticipating great things in the near future for Phoenix Suns basketball.
“Phoenix fans are in for a real thrill this year, and in years to come,” Brandt said.
JIM BREWER, BROADCAST STATISTICIAN
Jim Brewer holds up a towel from the 1990 Western Conference Finals, complete with the “100 percent Cotton” pun as a nod to legendary coach Cotton Fitzsimmons.
Then, he finds an autographed placard from the 2000 postseason that reads “Scorch the Spurs.”
Then, he lifts a copy of the 1991 playoffs edition of Fastbreak Magazine, complete with a photo of the Larry O’Brien Trophy that got Brewer in trouble with Fitzsimmons for “messing with the basketball gods.”
Brewer jokes he’s done “everything but sell tickets” during his more than 30 years connected to the organization. These days, he is a statistician for the television broadcasts, logging and relaying the numbers from this sensational season in real time.
“It’s been a lifelong attachment,” Brewer said. “I kind of grew up with the Suns, both as a kid and in my career since the ‘90s. That attachment to me has been an important part of my life, and the life of my family.”
The Phoenix native first joined the Suns as an intern in 1990, about a week before ground broke on America West Arena. In his various roles over 15 years as an employee, he helped launch Suns.com, created publications for season-ticket members and oversaw other marketing, communications and corporate sales endeavors. For the duration of the 2004-05 season, for instance, his family’s minivan was one of 60 cars wrapped in vinyl featuring the Gorilla to promote the season.
After leaving the organization, he joined the Suns Charities board, eventually moving up to chair. Now the Executive Director of the Desert Region of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Brewer’s organization was one of initial recipients of the $100,000 Devin Booker Starting Five grant.
Brewer began compiling stats for the television broadcast about nine years ago, rapidly feeding numbers to Kevin Ray, Eddie Johnson and Ann Meyers Drysdale. These days, Brewer gets more text messages from buddies when Ray shouts him out at the end of the game, a sign of the increased audience. From the suite inside Phoenix Suns Arena where home games are currently called, he has watched the fans steadily turn the environment into a true home-court advantage.
“Even though it’s a third of the fans, it’s still a playoff energy in there,” Brewer said. “That night when we clinched to get into the playoffs (against the Clippers), it was one of those things where it was like, ‘You know what? This is really cool.’
“It’s fun to kind of live and breathe — and live and die each day — with what happens with grown men running around in shorts.”
For Game 6 of the 2005 Western Conference Semifinals at Dallas, Tom Leander (then doing television play-by-play) recruited Brewer from the stands to handle stats. The Suns won a 130-126 overtime thriller, with Steve Nash totaling 39 points and 12 assists. Brewer saved his notes from that game, knowing he had just witnessed an unbelievable contest.
Brewer now sees common threads with this season’s Suns, from the stellar point-guard play to strong chemistry throughout the team. Now that Phoenix is back in the playoffs, he encourages those inside and outside the organization to savor it all.
“It has the potential of really being a special, kind of legendary group in Suns history,” Brewer said, “which is hard to think about when it’s happening. But now that I have the benefit of hindsight looking back at some of the teams that I was involved in who now are a part of history … it has that look and feel.”