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This Is Just What The Phoenix Suns Do

The Phoenix Suns
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Throughout the 2021-22 season—in which the Phoenix Suns posted the best record in the NBA by eight games, tallied a franchise-high 64 wins, and led the league in point differential—I was asked how I felt about the team that is, for better but mostly for worse, my favorite in sports. It’s a team that I’ve followed from the days of All-Star Jeff Hornacek (my first Suns memory is crying in a Village Inn diner in Phoenix when he got traded, which shows you I was a literal child because they got Charles Barkley back in the deal), through the nearly glorious Seven Seconds or Less years, to the tremendous tanking 2010s, to today.

I know everyone meant well when asking me about the Suns. How could you not when checking with a friend on a team that had just made the NBA Finals and seemed to be even better this time around? And yet, whenever I heard the question, without fail, I gave the same answer: Ugh

Now, this ugh was not short for “Ugh! Let’s get to the playoffs already! I’m so excited!” The ugh was not uttered because the unhinged Phoenix housing market was pricing me out of a sweet vacation condo steps away from the Suns’ arena, where I could watch the inevitable championship parade from my balcony. Some of it did have to do with the extensive report by ESPN about Robert Sarver creating what was called a “toxic and sometimes hostile workplace,” but even without this widely disliked owner, the ugh would have remained. The real meaning of the ugh was fatalistic. Ugh, I know how this ends. 

It ends on something like what you saw on Sunday night. As you well know, the Suns turned a 2-0 second-round lead against the inferior Dallas Mavericks (a team Phoenix had beaten 11 times in a row), into one of the sorriest playoff endings you’ll ever see. Admittedly, I didn’t think the Suns’ season would end like this; I predicted a COVID-19 outbreak would derail them. Still, I knew that, no matter who they played or what happened, it would end without a championship. The NBA media and fan ecosystem, with its virtually nonexistent collective memory, will surely treat this failure  as an isolated incident, making it about Chris Paul or Luka Doncic or the fraudulence of each individual Suns player. But this is not a one-off or some historical anomaly. 

The Suns have existed now for 54 seasons. They have zero titles. They have the most wins in NBA history among ringless franchises. The most Finals trips, too. They have been legitimate contenders in four separate eras, with nothing but condescending “that was a fun team, though!” platitudes to show for it. By my measure, only two other “major league” franchises can compare in terms of consistent, sustained success without summiting the mountain: the Buffalo Sabres and the Minnesota Vikings. 

This might be somewhat easier to stomach if each defeat were accompanied by any sort of moral victory. But Suns history is littered with bad breaks and choke jobs that range from annoying to abjectly absurd. The Suns are truly one of professional sports’ most snake-bitten franchises, finding ways to lose, disappoint, and get upset in ways that border on the impossible. If Phoenix were a more famous city, someone would have invented a curse by now. But we don’t even get anything that fun. Instead, Suns fans are stuck in a time loop where all we can say at the end of every season is: “That sucked. Guess we’ll do it again next year.”

Below I give you, as they say in the writing-tropes world, an orgy of evidence:

    • The No. 1 pick was once decided by a coin toss—as recently dramatized in Winning Time – and in 1969, the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar flip came down to the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns. The Bucks won and swept the NBA Finals a season later. What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss? Not as much as my team!
    • In Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals, in the Boston Garden, with the series tied 2-2 and Game 6 going to Phoenix, the Celtics’ Paul Silas tried to call a timeout with the score tied at 101 and three seconds left in the first overtime. The Celtics did not have any timeouts; this would have been the Chris Webber Moment before the Chris Webber Moment. And yet … the referee “didn’t see him.” The game ultimately went to three overtimes. Guess who won it, and the series.
    • In Game 6 of the 1979 Western Conference finals vs. the Seattle SuperSonics, the Suns led 3-2 in the series and by eight points heading into the fourth quarter at home. They still led into the final minute. They did not lead at the end of the game. The Sonics won the Finals in five.
    • In Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals (the formative moment of my sports fandom), with the No. 1 overall seed Suns trailing the Chicago Bulls 3-2 but the final two games in Phoenix, the Suns led by four in the last minute. They led by two with 15 seconds left. Then they said to themselves, “Hey, let’s not guard three-point specialist John Paxson.” The Suns lost, and I was primed for a lifetime of sports sadness.
    • In 1994, with Michael Jordan retired and the No. 1 seed Sonics out in the first round, the Suns took a 2-0 lead on the road against the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semis. They blew that. The Rockets won the title. At least the Arizona Republic hooked us up with a “Hammer Houston” sign for that series, which I still have (one must cherish one’s fondest memories, for those provide true wealth in life).
    • In 1995, with Michael Jordan rusty after coming out of retirement, the Suns took a 3-1 lead over the Rockets in the Western Conference semis. They blew that one, too. The Rockets won the title, again. (I distinctly remember talking my dad into recording Game 7 on a VHS tape because I, young and naive, thought they would win and I wanted to have a copy of this for history. Anyway, I’m pretty sure we taped over it.)
    • In 2005, with the revitalized Suns owning the best record in the NBA, star guard Joe Johnson literally broke his face in Game 2 of the Western Conference semis. They still got past the Mavs, but were no match for the San Antonio Spurs in the next round.
    • Before the 2005-06 season, Amar’e Stoudemire underwent microfracture surgery in his knee. He missed all but three games of the year, which incidentally—thanks to zero expectations and a hilarious 3-1 series comeback vs. the Lakers—is my absolute favorite Suns season ever.
    • In 2007, with Stoudemire healthy, the 67-win Mavs out in the first round, the underwhelming Utah Jazz waiting in the conference finals, and the not-ready-yet Cleveland Cavaliers ultimately claiming the East, it seemed like it might be The Year. The Suns were closing out a road win vs. the Spurs in Game 4 to tie the series at two. Then Robert Horry body-checked Steve Nash into the scorer’s table. In the ensuing split-seconds, Stoudemire and beloved wine connoisseur Boris Diaw, who were already standing up near their bench, ran toward Nash but didn’t get close to any Spurs. Stoudemire and Diaw got suspended. Years later, I’m still pissed about this pedantic, “red-letter rule” nonsense. I can’t remember where I was when I saw it happen because, when I try to access that part of my memory bank, all I can see and feel is white hot anger.
    • Admittedly, 2010 never really was going to be their year—after missing the playoffs in 2009, the Suns were more scrappy than super-powered. And yet, there they were, in the Western Conference finals vs. the Los Angeles Lakers, series tied 2-2, game tied at 101 with 3.5 seconds left. The Lakers had possession, and the Suns played it perfectly: They forced Kobe Bryant into a horrible hero shot, and he airballed badly … right to Ron Artest, who scored immediately. That was basically it for the series.
    • Nearly 50 years after the Kareem coin flip, the Suns for the first time ever got the No. 1 overall pick. And in the Luka Doncic year, yay! Except, just their luck, the draft also included a big guy from their owner’s alma mater. And because the Suns had missed out on Kareem all those years ago—I kid you not, the fact that the team had “never had a dominant big man” in its history was actually a major discussion point leading up to the draft—they went with Deandre Ayton instead of the obvious-to-anyone-who-wasn’t-being-foolish choice. Doncic, of course, just beat the Suns. Ayton, well, let’s have a look at how that’s going. (Side note: Please read this article titled “Anonymous evaluator reveals his Luka Doncic scouting report” from a Phoenix media outlet, published before the draft. It is a true masterpiece.)
    • In the 2021 NBA playoffs, the Suns absolutely got breaks—in fact, if you listen to NBA Twitter, the injuries to Anthony Davis, Jamal Murray, and Kawhi Leonard meant Phoenix might actually have been the luckiest group in the history of anything competitive. And yet … those instances merely offset the fact that Chris Paul sustained a stinger and could barely use his right arm early in the Lakers series, then became one of the very few players in the postseason to miss games due to COVID-19, then saw his backup Cameron Payne roll his ankle. After that, once the Suns got to the Finals, it got worse. In a Game 1 win, Dario Saric—their lone reliable backup big against a Milwaukee Bucks team that required many—tore his ACL. Devin Booker injured his hamstring in Game 3 but kept it quiet. And Chris Paul, who very well might have been hurt in this Dallas series, sustained a wrist injury sometime late in the playoffs, probably in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals when Patrick Beverley did what he tends to do, but kept that quiet, too, and had surgery immediately after the season. So yeah, the Suns got lucky. Until they became the Suns again.

I actually forgot all this history last year. After Game 2—for which I’d driven from Los Angeles to Phoenix, stood in 110-degree heat with thousands of fans, and watched the victory through the windows on the arena’s in-house TVs—I distinctly remember walking down Fillmore Ave. and thinking … maybe … the Phoenix Suns … could actually … win? It was a surreal feeling, this emotion, I believe it’s called joy? 

Then came the crash. Game 3 was a blowout loss, almost as embarrassing as Sunday’s Game 7. To my credit, I recognized it right there. The trance was broken, reality restored. I immediately told everyone who’d listen, “Bucks in 6.” Damn if I’m not always the first person to be right about this team! 

I never forgot that feeling. That’s why, without fail, I said ugh all year. Ugh at the Suns’ 18-game winning streak in October, November, and December. Ugh every time they dominated the Lakers (OK, I did laugh a little at those). That’s why I was absolutely baffled at seeing otherwise intelligent Suns fans and analysts act as though this season was different, saying that because this one specific iteration was genuinely good (and it was!), this team might actually have a chance to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Well I am here to say that, to believe in the Suns, ever again, is to shroud yourself in a fog of denial. Actually, since this is Phoenix, we’ll call it a haboob of denial. The thing about haboobs, though, is ultimately the dust settles. Maybe when the dust settles from this, everyone will finally see what’s going on here. There is simply too much history—54 long years of having the basketball gods-as-Anton Chigurh say “call it,” and the Suns always getting it wrong—to think that it will ever be different. I don’t know why it happens, whether it’s supernatural, conspiratorial, or some sort of strange losing mania that takes hold when someone puts on the purple and orange. All I know is, no matter who plays for or coaches or owns the team, this is what the Phoenix Suns do.

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