I write to you in times of relatively good health and fortune. I hope things are going as well for you as they are for me. I wish to recount a story to you during our time together. It is a coming of age story, a classic "me against the world" tale. The ending might not be in place, but the script has been well written for our little unfinished narrative. Now, you might be sitting there, thinking, "Why are things so dandy in your neck of the woods?"
Allow me to give you a little background to where our protagonist comes from. He comes from a land of relative success and popularity, always remaining one of the hometown favorites. Kind of like the setting for the movie Rudy. However, there has been one big obstacle that has remained in our unsung hero's way. Remember how Rudy was the little guy? He was the fan favorite that no one expected to ever make an impact on his team, let alone provide the emotional and inspirational spark to lead his team to victory.
That's basically where our lead character comes from. And yes, this character's name is none other than the Phoenix Suns.
Chapter One: From Lofty Heights to Dire Straits
In years past, the Phoenix Suns have experienced what many other teams have dreamed of experiencing: a legitimate chance to be a contender. An actual shot at being the best in the world. Led by point guard extraordinaire Steve Nash, the Suns were consistently favored to be the one to bring home the proverbial bacon. However, it was always something that got in their way.
Critics cried out, "Defense wins championships!", while defensive diehards shouted, "It's a conspiracy!" Whatever it was, the Suns were not able to reach the promised land of the NBA Finals. This led the Suns' fearless fearful leader, Steve Kerr, to attempt to disassemble the fun-loving, high-flying squad of Suns in favor of a slower, more defensive oriented team.
It didn't work.
The Suns missed the playoffs for the first time since old Captain Canada came back to town, and the Suns faced some serious decisions. Was the team to stay intact, and try for another shot at redemption, or was the panic button about to pressed, jettisoning the key players and components that made the past four years possible?
Chapter Two: Standing Pat
Perhaps scared of what might happen to the franchise if a full blow up occurred, or deliriously confident that the current squad could have a chance, Steve Kerr kept the team together. Steve Nash garnered a new contract, Grant Hill was wooed back to Phoenix, and the Suns looked ready to give another spirited, yet altogether unfulfilling, campaign.
Prior to the season starting, the same critics who routinely wound up saying, "I told you so" about the Phoenix franchise again sputtered out the same words. Phrases like "The window of opportunity has been slammed shut!" and "The sun has set for the Phoenix Suns" made national headlines. Despite the Suns front office brass telling people to "wait and see" what the team could do, It seemed as if the whole basketball-loving nation had taken on the Doubting Thomas mentality.
Much to the chagrin surprise of all those critics, the Suns came out the gate firing, winning 14 of their first 17 games, and proving to everyone that yes, this team could bang with the best of 'em. They were defending. They were a cohesive unit, utilizing their newfound bench firepower to give the starters much needed rest. However, when the highs are at their highest, the lows feel even lower than ever before.
Chapter Three: The Slump
Once December rolled around, the Suns faced what was possibly one of the toughest months any team would face during the 2009-2010 regular season. Now, it would be extremely shortsighted to expect the Suns to continue their torrid pace, but it had appeared that the Suns had fallen. Not just "Mommy, I fell down an' got a owie on my knee" fallen. I'm talking grape-stomping news reporter epic fail fallen.
One might say, well, 7-9 isn't too bad. Well, when you're a team searching for a championship, and you lose to three of the worst teams in the league, it's pretty embarrassing. However, thanks to the Suns' incredible start to the season, they remained among the top teams in the Western Conference, as far as records go.
The Suns needed a shot in the arm. During January, the team again posted a 7-9 record, and the doubts began to creep in, even inside the Suns franchise. Amar'e Stoudemire, even after gaining a berth as a starter on the All-Star team, was shopped around the league for the second time in as many years. The team appeared to be on the brink of disarray. Yet, after the trade deadline had passed and Amar'e remained on the team, something happened.
Chapter Four: Doing What a Phoenix Does Best...Rising
Amar'e Stoudemire, after being benched in the fourth quarter against the Dallas Mavericks in favor of the more defensive minded Lou Amundson, decided to take things to another level. I'm not sure if it was spawned out of sheer anger, his insatiable desire for a max contract, or if he truly has become the leader we've all been waiting for, but it happened.
Amar'e Stoudemire was a man possessed. After the All-Star Break had passed, there were few players that had such a quantifiable leap of productivity as Amar'e. The Suns were once again in the "Well, wait a second, what if they could actually..." category of teams among national radio and sports pundits around the nation. The Suns were following the lead of their co-captain and stepping it up when it mattered most, and their newfound desire and hunger for victory carried on even into the postseason.
Chapter Five: Taking Care of Business
The Suns were matched up in the first round against the Portland Trail Blazers, a team that traditionally has given the Suns fits. I'm sure the doubters were out again after the Suns dropped game one at home, but the Suns remained cool. They came up with a game plan to contain the Blazers' weapons, and went on to win the series. They again stepped it up.
The second round saw the Suns outfit facing their hated nemesis, the San Antonio Spurs. I'm not even going to talk about the history between these two teams, as I'm sure you are well aware of the rivalry. However, instead of sulking off into the corner and preparing for a grim, bloody defeat, the Suns remained resilient. The games were close. There were even times when defeat was almost assured. However, what did the Suns do? They stepped. it. up.
I had the opportunity to speak with Amar'e Stoudemire about what it meant to him to finally be viewed as a legitimate leader on the team, and what the team's "step it up" attitude meant to him. Here's what he had to say:
Becoming a leader takes a lot of sacrifice. When you're really trying to win ball games and get your teammates involved, you really utilize all your weapons. If you've got guys that are good at shooting threes, then let those guys shoot threes. If you've got guys that are good at finishing around the basket, then let them finish around the basket. Having a vocal leader out there helps us, so I try to implement my leadership skills.
The Prologue to the Epilogue
No one can be quite sure what the future holds for the Phoenix Suns. Facing the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the next round will be no small task. And if the Suns take care of the Lakers, there's an equally as talented and hungry team waiting for them in the Finals. The future is far from certain. However, one thing that can be said about this team is that it seems to play up to its full potential when playing with a chip on the shoulder.
So, please, my friends in the media, keep counting the Suns out. You might just be surprised with their ability to rise up to the occasion.