by Cody Cunningham

Headline

ROAD SUPPORT
Fans from all walks of life travel to enemy territory to support the Suns in return to NBA Playoffs

The energy inside Phoenix Suns Arena for Games 1 and 2 of the Suns’ first-round playoff series was electric. Fans from throughout the Valley gathered together to watch their beloved Phoenix Suns take the Los Angeles Lakers in the latest chapter of the deeply rooted rivalry between these two teams.

The fans are carrying that same enthusiasm 376 miles to Los Angeles, entering enemy territory at Staples Center to continue that endless support.

“It’s awesome,” head coach Monty Williams said. “To see our people in the crowd and cheering, it’s pretty cool. It’s one of the reasons I was excited about coming to Phoenix because of what I had competed against, that type of fan base, that kind of craziness.

“To be on the road and have your fans cheering for you, especially when you make a run, is pretty cool. We’re thankful, grateful and we’re fighting our tails off to make those fans that we have in this environment have something to cheer for.” 

Whether traveling from Phoenix or different parts of California, Suns.com gathered personal stories from six Suns fans making the trip and cheer on their favorite team.

Zanezor

The line of primarily Lakers fans began forming outside of Staples Center about three hours before tip-off for Thursday’s Game 3.

In the distance, a beat began blaring from a speaker carried around by a long-haired man with a large Sun on his hat and the name “Zanezor” across his chest.

“Hey everybody, I'm just an artist,” Zanezor told the crowd. “I'm just trying to make it in this business. I knew there'd be a lot of people here. I thought I might get some new fans. I want to play my new song and just let me know what you'd think.”

A relatively captivated audience listened in as the rapping Suns fan turned up his mic. Then, he caused a commotion in the crowd as he began chanting along to his song “Beat LA”

The man known as Zanezor grew up around the Suns, watching games with his family since he was a baby. He eventually moved to Chicago, but his love for the Suns remained as strong as ever.

“I wore Suns gear basically every day in some way, shape or form,” Zanezor said. “I'd get heckled by like 50-year-old dudes, like, 'What happened in 93?' …  All I could say was, 'Go Suns'. I was definitely on an island out there, but every once in a while, I would run into someone in some Suns gear and I'd always just take a picture with them because we were few and far between in the Midwest.” 

Zanezor was equally passionate about his desire to create music. After moving back to Phoenix, a devastating loss pushed him to pursue his dreams.

“It was really a spiritual thing. My grandmother had passed right before COVID,” Zanezor said. " …  It was hard, but just kind of shift my perspective. There are no guarantees in any field, so why don't I just focus on what I really care about and believe in.”

What he cared about was hip-hop, Suns basketball and the community that ties it all together. 

“I love sports and I think what sports represent and, especially what the Suns represent, is just energy and community,” Zanezor said. To me, that's really what the core of hip-hop is about.”

He began rapping as a teenager, but earnestly started at the beginning of this Suns season. The first game of this season, he released his first rap titled “Valley Boyz” and continued this trend following every win this year, totaling 51 raps during the regular season.

“I'm not turning back. I'm all in on this path,” Zanezor said. “It just felt like a good way to try to build some community within Phoenix and connect myself while moving back to my hometown.” 

Zanezor eventually took his music to the streets, rapping outside of Phoenix Suns Arena before and after games, hyping up Suns fans on the way in and building on the celebration on the way out.

“I really do believe that that my music can play a small part in supporting the team,” Zanezor said. “I believe music is powerful and that's why it blasts in the stadium. I figured if it's blasting in the stadium, why shouldn't it be blasting and outside of the stadium with a good message?” 

Zanezor took his talents to near Venice Beach, traveling from Arizona to Los Angeles in order to keep the beat bumping for both Games 3 and 4.

“It was not planned. I just felt like I had to be here,” Zanezor said. “We've got to keep these Lakers fans in check ... So, me and a friend came out here.’

Zanezor received mixed reactions outside of Staples Center. But through it all, he kept a smiling while putting positive vibes out for his hometown team. Some displeased Lakers fans got in his face, others danced along, some chanted back and fellow Suns fans joined him in support screaming “Beat LA.”

“I met a lot of cool people,” Zanezor said. “People were having fun. People were laughing in general. I'd say people enjoyed the experience. Yeah, some people were (upset), but in general, the Lakers fan base, at least the ones who showed up here in person were good-natured. I enjoyed the experience a lot more than I expected to.”

Hunter Lambert

Hunter Lambert arrived at Staple Center 45 minutes before tip-off for Game 3 wearing the Warren Lotas “The Final Shot” shirt and large black cowboy hat. Within seconds of stepping out of his car, he received a warm welcome from a Lakers fan nearby.

“Go back to (expletive) Phoenix.”

Although the aggressive greeting caught Lambert by surprise, it also assisted in setting the mood for the playoff atmosphere between the two rivaled franchises.

“The guy starts heckling me and I immediately get butterflies,” Lambert said. “I'm so excited. I'm like, 'This is what playoff basketball is like.'”

Lambert is an Arizona native from Scottsdale and has kept his Suns pride strong since moving to Los Angeles. Frequently in attendance at Suns games whether in Los Angeles or back home in Phoenix, Lambert faced a drought of not seeing the Suns play in a year and a half due to the pandemic.

But with Los Angeles now allowing fans to attend sporting events, Lambert received his chance.

“This is going to kind of seem crazy, but sometimes I just feel like I'm a part of the team and I need to be there to support them,” Lambert said.

Lambert finished work early on Thursday and realized that some of his meetings were cut short. Knowing that he had the opportunity, he acted impulsively and was heart-set on being in attendance for Game 3, regardless of how much it was going to cost him. 

It was so impulsive that any potentially interested friends did not have time to respond to Lambert’s invitations to join him. Instead, he quickly purchased a single ticket behind the Suns bench. 

“There was no like mental process. I just did it,” Lambert said. “I just had to be there. I texted some people and I just never got responses back until like 30 minutes before game time. I didn't care if I was going with anybody or by myself, I had to go and support.” 

Rather than shying away from the immediate trash talk, Lambert embraced the passion of the rivalry.  

“It was definitely the most I've gotten verbally abused,” Lambert said laughing. “It was just a crowd of purple and gold. So, I was just hearing chirps non-stop. I'm gonna wear my jersey loud and proud, no doubt about it.”

Lambert was grateful to be back in a sports stadium again, and his excitement only grew the more he came across other Suns fans. Though a Los Angeles resident, he said he felt like a tourist on his own journey, snapping photos and sharing his passion for Suns basketball with the other Phoenix fans in the building. 

 “They'd give like a nod or a thumbs up. A couple of us took some pictures together,” Lambert said. “We're not home, but we're in this together.”

Rosa Guillen

The “Suns win!” that echoed throughout Phoenix Suns Arena was nearly drowned out by the thunderous applause of the crowd as Chris Paul dribbled out the clock in his team’s Game 1 victory over the Lakers. Fans celebrated throughout the walkways, flooding the pavilion and dispersing out into the Fry’s Plaza.

A divided household was part of that crowd, as the awkward tension grew between Suns fan Rosa Guillen and her boyfriend, Lakers fan Alonzo Vazquez. The couple left with opposite feelings and emotions, as they prepared for their long car ride home to Los Angeles.

“He definitely was not happy leaving that arena,” Guillen said. “But he let me have my fun. He let me talk my (expletive). He let me be in that energy. I'm just grateful for him because he's such a good sport, honestly.” 

Although growing up in Los Angeles, Guillen became a Suns fan in the early 2000s when she was in middle school because of Steve Nash. She loved the way that he played, how smooth he was on the court and how humble he was off of it.

“I really just decided, if I can go to bat for Steve Nash, I can go to bat for his whole team. So, that's when I decided the Suns were my team,” Guillen said. 

But being a Suns fan in a Laker town was not always easy. Guillen witnessed up close and personal the intensity of the Lakers’ community, which only added fuel to her own fire. 

“When you are a fan of any other team being out here in LA, you really have to bring it,” Guillen said. “You have to commit. You have to be confident in how you feel and what you say. You really have to go harder than they do, even though you're outnumbered.”

Guillen quickly realized that she was the only Phoenix fan in her section during a 2017 Suns vs. Lakers game at Staples Center. But instead of being intimidated by the hometown fans around her, Guillen remained confident, cheering loudly for her team despite the mass of Lakers fans trashing-talking and booing her prideful support for the Suns.

“We ended up winning that game. The last 30 seconds, I'm up on my feet, clapping nonstop,” Guillen said. “The guys behind me were so mad that the Lakers were about to lose this game, but I walked out of there with a ‘W.’ I love talking about that story, just because sometimes you do gotta wear (the trash-talking) from Lakers fans because of their intensity.”

Guillen made it a tradition to travel to Phoenix every March to watch her Suns at home during an annual birthday trip. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Guillen missed the opportunity this season.

But following the Suns’ victory over the Clippers on April 28, the Suns officially clinched the playoffs and Guillen acted quickly knowing that she had to be there. Before the opponent or date were even announced, Guillen purchased two tickets for the to-be-determined matchup and prepared travel plans. 

It became even more perfect when the Lakers defeated the Warriors in the play-in game, giving Guillen and Vazquez the opportunity watch their two favorite teams square off in the playoffs.

Guillen joked that it was basically unavoidable to date a Lakers fan because nearly everyone around her growing up cheered for them except her. But she also noted that Vazquez is not a “typical Laker fan” and that he respects her fanhood, despite the rivalry.

“He understands my intensity for sports. It's one of the reasons why he loves me so much,” Guillen said. “He wasn't trash-talking. There's a little bickering here and there, but nothing too intense.”

Driving from Los Angeles to Phoenix for Game 1 brought back a sense of normalcy following the extremely unprecedented year. And right as Guillen stepped foot through the doors of Phoenix Suns Arena, she felt back where she belonged.

“Being around so many Suns fans, I honestly didn't expect for the ratio to be like nine-to-one, Suns fans versus Laker fans,” Guillen said. “That was incredible. The energy was amazing. It just felt like I was home.”

Vazquez was a good sport about the Suns’ win, putting up with Guillen’s fiery passion that left her voice raspy for nearly an entire week. 

“My voice is still really hoarse just from last Sunday,” Guillen said. “I'm pretty much the only Suns fan most of my friends out here know. So, they're all just making fun of me because I can barely talk.” 

Those tables will turn between the couple this Sunday when Guillen and Vazquez attend Game 4 of the series. But growing up in a sea of purple and gold, Guillen is prepared to go to battle for her beloved Suns.

“I feel like, after all these years, I know what I'm getting into,” Guillen said. “I know what it's going to be like going to Staples Center, walking in, only yellow jerseys … I feel like I have to be there for my guys. I’ve got to make sure that I'm supporting them as much as possible.”

Erik Ramos

Following the Suns’ Game 2 loss to the Lakers to even up the series at 1-1, diehard Suns fan and girls varsity basketball coach Erik Ramos’ phone began lighting up.

“What happened?” read the light-hearted, trash-talking texts from his players at Santa Maria High School in California.

Despite coaching at a Southern-California school that is mainly occupied by Lakers fans, Ramos makes it a point to show his Suns pride around campus — especially during a season in which the Suns claimed the fifth-best winning percentage in franchise history.

“I bought so much Suns gear this year,” Ramos said. “The gear they put out this year was so cool, the Valley collection and all that. I feel like almost every day I'm wearing something Suns.”

Ironically, Ramos became a Suns fan with an assist from his cousin, a Lakers fan. His first memory of basketball was when he was six years old, gathered with his family watching the Suns against the Dallas Mavericks on television. 

Ramos grew entranced by a long-haired Canadian making flashy passes and running a quick-paced offense that featured highlight-reel alley-oops and a flurry of 3-pointers.

“Who’s that?” Ramos asked. 

“He explained, ‘That's the Suns and that's Steve Nash,’” Ramos said. “I was just drawn to them right away because it was fun … Ever since then, I tuned in for the next game and that was it. I fell love right there with the Suns.” 

Two weeks after that game, Ramos’ mother bough him his very first jersey — a purple 2000s-styled Nash jersey with the orbit around the number 13.

But Ramos quickly realized how hard it was growing up in southern California as a Suns fan. People often asked him, “Are you actually a Suns fan?” He’d proudly respond, “Yeah. This is my team.”

Ever since high school, Ramos has attended every Suns game he can in Los Angeles., whether it’s against the Lakers or the Clippers. But he’s always wanted to attend a game in Phoenix in order to experience the environment of a home game. 

Ramos vowed that the next time the Suns made the playoffs, he would be at the very first home game. However, the pandemic forced a change of plans.

“Fast forward, COVID messed everything up because now at the high schools here in Cali, we have playoffs coming up this week. So, I'm in the middle of my season,” Ramos said. 

Ramos was bummed he could not make it out for Game 1, knowing his team was relying on him back in California. He nervously awaited the schedule release in hopes of a Sunday game, the only day he would not have practice or a game of his own.

Game 4: Sunday, May 30.

Despite a four-hour drive from his home in Santa Maria to Staples Center, Ramos purchased his tickets, knowing he received his chance to witness the Suns in the postseason.

“I can't miss an opportunity to watch them play a playoff game. I'm just excited,” Ramos said.

Ramos purposely picked his seats to be near the Suns’ bench in section 106, an effort to stay close to the team and assist in channeling any and all support he can provide. 

“We're not going to be louder than Laker fans in their own home,” Ramos said. “But we've just got to do the best that we can and make sure that the Suns know we're there, the players know we're there supporting them. I think they'll feed off that energy, knowing that they've got a good amount of supporters on the road.” 

Ramos immediately purchased the Rally the Valley playoff t-shirt when it was released, but intentionally saved it for this moment. His first time wearing it will be on Sunday at Staples Center.

Patrick Steward 

“Ladies and gentlemen, if you don’t know, now you do,” Suns broadcaster Eddie Johnson said following Devin Booker’s buzzer-beating game-winner against the Los Angeles Clippers in the Orland Bubble.

Meanwhile, Patrick Steward celebrated from the other side of the country in his Los Angeles home. As an actor, the pandemic was a tough time for Steward with the entertainment industry put on pause. But the return of Suns basketball created a sense of normalcy, shutting out the unprecedented environment around him and granting him a great amount of joy. 

Steward was raised in Scottsdale, and grew up a supporter of all the Valley sports teams, but none to the level of his Suns fanhood. 

“I'm just a complete Suns junkie,” Steward said. “I watch every game. I consume any morsel of content that anyone puts out about the Suns.”

Steward was first introduced to Suns basketball during the Nash era, but became even more enticed by the team following Nash’s departure when he was in high school. 

“I'm really interested in roster construction and stuff like that. The idea of the next great Suns team really just became super interesting to me,” Steward said. “So, I started paying more and more attention to the Suns.”

His love for the Suns grew throughout the rebuilding process, but reached a more sentimental level after moving to Los Angeles six years ago.

“I feel like it definitely got deeper once I moved away,” Steward said. “It was kind of a way of staying connected with my home, something that I can always hop on the phone and talk to my dad about … It keeps me connected with my roots.”

Whether it’s with a jersey, a jacket or even his license plate frame, Steward has done all he can to stand out as a Suns fan within a Laker city. For the first five years, Steward said people didn’t seem to really care, but the relit rivalry has caused the trash-talking to ramp up. 

As a local bartender, Steward reps his Suns gear to work, knowing it’ll always spark conversation — positive or negative.

“I like it,” Steward said. “Just like the Suns team this year, we're chippy. I don't care what you think. I'm gonna rep my home state. I'm going to rep my team.” 

And on the flipside, sporting his Suns gear opens up the opportunity to meet other Suns fans also living out in Los Angeles.

“Whenever I see someone wearing Suns merch on this street, it completely makes my day,” Steward said. “I'll always say like, 'Hey man, nice hat, nice jersey.' It's on the off chance that I see a Suns fan in the wild.”

Steward jumped at the chance to witness his favorite team in the playoffs this year, purchasing his tickets to Game 3 at Staples Center. In a city that has become his home over the past six years, Steward is still repping Phoenix, still supporting his Suns and, of course, still doing his best to drown out the mass of Lakers fans around him.

“There's so much history wrapped up into this game, which makes me even more excited,” Steward said. “Just to be able to witness the continuation of that rivalry, to see Devin Booker play in the stadium his hero, Kobe Bryant, built, LeBron James and Anthony Davis’ first playoff game in LA, just all of it wrapped up.

“I could not be more excited. I'm going to feed off their energy. I hope that they can feed off of mine. I just want to be there for them and they'll be there for me.” 

Isaac Coppola

Paul crossed over, faked a drive and stepped back before launching a 3-pointer from the top of the arc to seal the Suns’ victory over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on April 26.

Isaac Coppola debated becoming a Suns SixthMan Member throughout this season, but witnessing Paul takeover and score the final seven points for the Suns to defeat the Knicks solidified that decision. 

Coppola grew up in Arizona as part of a basketball-loving family. However, his dad was a Bulls fan from Chicago. Coppola’s first NBA memory was during the All-Star Weekend in 2005 that featured Amar’e Stoudemire in the dunk contest and Nash winning the skills challenge. Following a trip to the Western Conference Finals that season, Coppola dedicated himself to the Suns.

He began attending games the next year and made it out to about 10 games or so a season before the COVID-19 pandemic. And as the years went on, the more enticing becoming a SixthMan member became.

“It's something that I've wanted to do for a long time,” Coppola said. “I just graduated from ASU last year, so I can actually afford to do it now. Decided to pull the trigger on it.” 

He arrived at that decision because of a combination of the excitement following the victory over the Knicks and the potential that the Suns and Lakers could meet in the playoffs’ first round — a rivalry that Coppola didn’t want to miss. As part of his ticket package for next year, he received the playoff plan including tickets to all of the home games throughout the postseason. 

“I wouldn't want to buy my tickets off of StubHub,” Coppola said. “So, I was like, ‘If I want to go to as many games as I want to go to, I’ve got to be ahead of that.’” 

After experiencing the thrilling atmosphere of Phoenix Suns Arena during Game 1 and Game 2, Coppola decided to hit the road for Los Angeles. He flew out to San Diego, where his girlfriend lives, and will be driving up to Los Angeles on Sunday morning for Game 4 at Staples Center, traveling a total of over 350 miles to watch his Suns.

“It's just a totally different experience on the road,” Coppola said. “It's not going to feel the same as it did Game 1, because I'm assuming that there were more Lakers fans at Game 1 and 2 than there are going to be Suns fans on Sunday, just because of the amount of Lakers fans everywhere and the capacity at Staples Center is lower. But it's going to be cool to see if there's just a few Suns fans in your section. To be able to talk with them is really fun.”

Coppola isn’t concerned about entering enemy territory. As a frequent visitor to Southern California, he’s used to the environment, blocking out the negativity and just focusing on his support for the Suns.

“When the Suns are playing the Lakers or Clippers and I'm here, we'll go out to a bar,” Coppola said. “It'll be mostly Lakers, Clippers, whoever fans, and I'll wear my Book jersey and I'll wear my Suns stuff. They'll talk (expletive). I'm not the type of fan that's like overly aggressive to other fans. I just go and cheer.”

 

ICYMI:

PLAYOFF PAYNE

Thanks to a fresh start with the Suns, Cameron Payne is proving he belongs

Cameron Payne plays with a fiery passion that somehow looks both free and furious, prompting some to compare him to the “haboob” dust storms that disrupt the Valley air during the summer monsoon season. It’s a fitting style for Payne, a former lottery draft pick who had his NBA career stripped away in early 2019 and is now savoring his shot on a Suns team with championship aspirations.

LIVING UP TO THE MOMENT

The young Suns proved themselves under the bright lights, stepping up & executing in their playoff debuts

Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson showed consistent effort all season, preparing them for the bright lights. They lived up to the moment in Game 1 and, in some cases, churned out historic stat lines — even during an intense game complete with the magnitude of the franchise’s first playoff game since 2010, a jarring injury to their Hall of Fame point guard and a scuffle that resulted in a teammate being ejected.

MONTY'S MANTRAS

A frontrunner for NBA Coach of the Year, Williams’ immense impact on these Suns is woven throughout his motivational catchphrases, and how they resonate with his players.

There are enough “Montyisms” for Monty Williams to write a compilation book — which Devin Booker has publicly and privately suggested to his coach. Even while repeating them to players, Cam Johnson said, Williams will preface by acknowledging some might call them “corny” or “goofy” or “coach speak.” Yet Johnson says those mantras are “big-time anchors” that have kept the Suns emotionally centered during the franchise’s emphatic rise to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. They create personal connections with players by instilling belief and relaying constructive advice. They provide reminders that resurface in the head and heart when one least expects it, and can apply to both basketball and life.

RALLY THE VALLEY

Here's how Suns supporters have celebrated this resurgent season and return to the playoffs.

Suns.com 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.


TOGETHER

How these Suns have created a team spirit that threads the needle between intensely competitive and endearingly fun-loving.

“You look around the league at some teams, and not everybody has a vibe like this or an energy like this throughout,” Booker said. “I always say it’s a great environment to get better in. When you have everybody supporting you, everybody being honest with you — those are the same people that can give me constructive criticism at any point in the game, and I’m listening to them — that’s the name of our group, man.”

Culture, chemistry and overall spirit are intangible qualities that cannot be measured by traditional stats or advanced analytics. But players and coaches know it — feel it — when those attributes have manifested within a team.

UNCANNY PARALLELS CONNECT FOUR PHOENIX ICONS

Chris Paul’s impact in The Valley has rejuvenated Suns basketball with an MVP-caliber season

Through his team’s journey to out-perform external expectations, his league’s-most-efficient playmaking and the leadership and passion he’s provided to the organization, Paul has entered the NBA Most Valuable Player conversation. And while making Paul’s case, one can draw parallels to the other Phoenix basketball icons who have won the award: Charles Barkley, Steve Nash and Diana Taurasi.


WE'RE BACK!

Phoenix Suns clinch playoffs, another step in franchise's resurgence.

The Suns’ full playoff berth is the latest benchmark in a historic turnaround. In less than two seasons, the Suns have transformed from a team that tied for the NBA’s second-worst record to one that currently possesses the league’s second-best record. Should that standing hold, the Suns would become just the third team since the NBA-ABA merger that jumped from bottom-two to top-two in two seasons or less, joining the Boston Celtics in 1979-80 and 2007-08.

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