When I reported to training camp with the Phoenix Suns in the fall of 2004, it was on a nonguaranteed contract—my fourth straight trip to a training camp in such tenuous straits. But I was in no position to complain. The previous season, I’d had both my kidney and spleen ruptured while playing for the Chicago Bulls. I was lucky to be alive, let alone playing basketball.
It was in this state of mind that I walked with my new teammates to a conference room inside what was then America West Arena. We were about to meet the head of the team’s new ownership group: Robert Sarver.
As we took our seats around a long, oval table, apprehension was in the air, and not just because basketball players don’t know how to behave around management types. This was a new Phoenix Suns team with a revamped and rejiggered lineup whose success would likely depend on the health of new (but comparatively old) point guard Steve Nash. The year before, the Suns had gone 29-53 while slogging through the end of the Stephon Marbury Era.
I plopped down in a seat that was out of the way, because that’s what you do when you’re on a non-guaranteed contract.
Sarver knew one thing about basketball players: they have short attention spans. So he got right to the point, telling us about his own personal history, an autobiography that centered around one important detail—how, like many of us, he was a self-made man.
He went on to explain how he’d built a banking empire out of nearly nothing—just a small financial gift his parents had given him, to get him started.
I grew up in a small town in Kansas. Most of the people I went to high school with joined the military, or went to work at the nearby Frito-Lay plant, or went to junior college. So when I think about financial gifts, I think about, say, five hundred dollars. And when I think about small financial gifts, I think about, say, fifty dollars.
I do not think about an amount of money that allows a man to buy a bank, which is what Sarver said he did with his “small financial gift.”
Sarver continued, asking a question of the assembled.
“So, let’s say I took a million dollars and put it away in 1985. How much do you think that would be worth now?”
I looked around for someone to make eye contact with. Was this really happening? This was the sort of thing you asked middle school children.
Sarver called on a player who I will not now name because what he said was pretty dumb.
“Uh,” said the player. “A million and a half?”
“Nope.” Sarver pointed at another player. “What about you?”
“I don’t know, a billion dollars?”
Meanwhile, I was doing some furious calculations in my head, half-hoping he’d call on me.
Let’s see, they say that you should be able to double your money every, what is it, seven, eight years, so twenty divided by eight is like two and a half so basically doubled twice..
Sarver interrupted my train of thought.
“It’s something like 5 million dollars, guys, jeez.”
The condescension in his voice was thick. Condescension that was obviously born of insecurity. Sarver was using this meeting not to get to know us, but to try to impress us.
This insecurity probably wouldn’t have been an issue except for one problem. That Phoenix Suns team turned out to be good. Really good. I was released after making my first Opening Day roster, but I rejoined the team midway through the year after two very long months in Russia. I had a front-row seat as the Suns of Nash and D’Antoni and Stoudemire and Marion and Johnson posted the best regular season record in the NBA.
So why was this a problem? Well, because Robert Sarver was compelled to think that he was responsible for the Suns’ success. Just as he’d forgotten that most of us don’t come from families who can give us enough money to buy banks, he’d forgotten that most NBA owners don’t get their well-constructed teams handed to them by Jerry Colangelo.
During the Suns’ historic run, Sarver was front and center, waving his arms and beating his chest during Suns wins, like a wannabe Mark Cuban or a proto-Steve Ballmer. I almost felt bad for the man. I was once the nerdy kid—math contests, spelling bees, Boy Scouts—trying to impress the cool kids.
But the reason I only almost felt bad for him was because we are adults now, and we should grow out of these things.
I don’t know that Robert Sarver’s hubris is responsible for the current state of the Phoenix Suns. I do know that, while I didn’t feel all that bad for Robert Sarver, I do feel bad for Suns fans. In my (lengthy) experience with fanbases, you’ll find few who are more passionate, more loyal, more forgiving.
Those fans deserve better, I think, than a thin-skinned owner who, in the words of Barry Switzer or Eddie Vedder, was born on third, but thinks he hit a triple.
Paul Shirley can be found on twitter under the handle @PaulthenShirley.
He played for the Phoenix Suns during the 2004-05 season, his last in the NBA. During that season, he famously gave us all insights into that crazy first SSOL season through chats on ESPN and later a blog, which turned into his first book “Can I Keep My Jersey?”.
Paul’s second book, “Stories I Tell On Dates” was just released on October 17, 2017.
He will be in Phoenix on November 11 for a book signing at the Barnes and Noble, just off the 101 at Shea Blvd. in Scottsdale. Here’s the facebook link for more.
Remember - November 11!