I was a Phoenix Suns fan before the Phoenix Mercury entered into existence. During the Mercury’s inaugural years in the late 90s that included a Finals matchup against the dynastic Houston Comets in 1998, the names Michele Timms, Jennifer Gillom, Bridget Pettis, Maria Stepanova, and Lisa Harrison didn’t occupy my consciousness the way the names Jason Kidd, Antonio McDyess, Clifford Robinson, Anfernee Hardaway, and Rex Chapman did. I was aware of the Mercury, sure, but there was no room in my basketball fandom for another team. I already had the Suns.
That continued through the 2000s. While I was aware of the exploits of Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor, and Cappie Pondexter — winning two titles during the decade — my dance card was still reserved for the Suns. And with Steve Nash, Shawn Marion, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Grant Hill among others tearing up the hardwood and laying the groundwork for a paradigm shift in how NBA basketball would be played, my basketball appetite remained sated.
Then came the Turrible 10s.
It’s no secret the Suns have performed at an abysmal rate this decade, with four of the franchise’s five worst seasons record-wise coming during this epoch. For a team that held one of the league’s highest all-time winning percentages by virtue of being a model of consistency, it’s been a market correction of epic proportions. And that takes its toll on anyone’s fandom.
Coming off a season where the Suns tanked their way to the worst record in the NBA and saw their general manager, choked with emotion, characterize winning a random drawing featuring the league’s dregs an “accomplishment,” I found myself in the midst of a basketball existential crisis. After all, supporting a losing team is one thing; supporting a losing team whose higher ups cheer the losing — so long as the optics don’t look bad — is another entirely.
What was I a fan of anyway? The past? The idea of the Suns? Certainly not the product on the floor lately. Was I blindly following the jersey? What value was I deriving from this relationship? Why was I so invested in a team that no longer aligned with my core values as a sports fan? Why was I following a team that had become a national embarrassment almost entirely of its own making? Why did it feel like I was putting more work into caring than they were into trying?
These aren’t questions anyone wants to ask about their favorite team, but they were swirling through my mind like a typhoon. My only saving grace was that my summer basketball fix since 2013 — the Mercury — was kicking off its season.
Following a team with title aspirations was like a breath of fresh air. Actually, make that several dozen desperate gasps. There was talk of playoff seeding and home-court advantage from the start, and every game carried the weight of expectations. There was excitement as the Mercury sat atop the league standings. There was disappointment and frustration as injuries had them sliding back down. In other words, I cared.
Landing as the No. 5 seed in the playoffs lent another wrinkle, as Phoenix needed to navigate its way March Madness-style through two single-elimination games to reach the WNBA semifinals. They did so by throttling the Dallas Wings and then running away late against the Connecticut Sun. Now currently in the semis against the No. 1 seed Seattle Storm, Phoenix sits one win away from a trip to the WNBA Finals and a shot at the franchise’s fourth championship. They’ve already done something no WNBA team has done before — dig out of an 0-2 hole in a best-of-five series to force a deciding Game 5.
She returned to MVP contention, improved to 13-0 in winner-take-all games for her WNBA career (35-1 including college), and reminded everyone why she’s the GOAT, entering God Mode at the end of regulation in Game 2 versus the Storm to score 11 points in the final two minutes to send a game that for all intents and purposes was over into OT. She regularly unchained her brash intensity, shouting “Who’s clapping now?” at the Sun roster after eliminating them on Aug. 23 in retaliation for their pregame and in-game taunting and talking. And, as usual, she was full of quotes that were pure gold. After Storm guard Sue Bird broke her nose in Game 4, Taurasi had this to say:
“I was thinking about her the whole game. I hate when Sue gets hurt, especially her nose. She’s very picky about her nose. When you have a nose like mine, you really don’t give a [expletive]. When you have a face like Sue, I would worry, too.”
But reflecting back on not just this season but further, the Mercury have been an oasis from the Suns’ losing all decade, posting a .533 winning percentage since 2010 that increases to .574 if you remove the 7-27 2012 season that Taurasi and Taylor missed with injuries. It’s a lot better than the Suns’ winning percentage of .395 since the 2010-11 season and includes a championship in 2014 and six consecutive trips to the Western Conference Finals/WNBA semifinals from 2013 to 2018.
And there’s been nary a whiff of tanking.
When Taurasi’s Russian team paid her big to take 2015 off, the Mercury didn’t tank the season away to secure the best odds of drafting Breanna Stewart. The team acquired veteran Monique Currie and rode Bonner and Griner to the Western Conference Semifinals.
When the team struggled with consistency in 2016, the Mercury didn’t start resting their veterans. They battled for that No. 8 seed and started flipping tables against heavily favored opponents to reach the semis again.
They have committed to winning and committed to putting the best pieces possible around their stars. It’s a major factor why Taurasi will almost assuredly retire having spent her entire Hall of Fame career in a Phoenix uniform.
It’s also a major factor why I have not had my flickering passion for basketball extinguished completely during this stretch. While the Suns’ front office continues the arduous work of removing its collective head from its collective derriere, the Mercury organization from top to bottom has kept winning at the forefront of everything it does.
So no matter what happens tonight in Game 5 (on ESPNews and NBA TV at 7 p.m. Phoenix time for those interested), thank you, Mercury. For reminding me what it means to be a fan. For rekindling my fire for basketball. For &*%@$ competing!
The WNBA takes a lot of crap from people, but it’s been the women’s game, not the men’s, that has breathed life back into this particular Suns fan’s roundball soul.