I love basketball, always have. My dad painted a court on our driveway when I was a kid and I lived on it. For hours a day I’d practice free throws, three pointers, half court shots, layups, ball handling skills, I lived basketball. I didn’t often have people to play with me though, my neighbors weren’t really into the sport and my brothers were 5-6 years older than me with at least a foot on me, I was no challenge for them. So alone I’d stand, shooting over and over until I made enough free throws in a row to call it a night.
I also had a wild imagination. I was certain I wanted to play professional basketball when I got older. I’m talking NBA, not WNBA. I wanted to play against the best, I wanted to be the best. Hindsight tells me math was probably a better path for me, I wouldn’t want to embarrass Lebron (although I’m definitely more of a Steph)… Now that imagination led to some pretty crazy games in my mind. I remember in my head I could hear the crowd going wild as I’d dribble down the court, pump faking and pulling up for a long three. The wild imagination came in though when I’d look the other players in the eye. I was playing Bugs Bunny and the other members of Space Jam and I whooped up on them. I think I retired undefeated in my head.
I did play basketball competitively for quite some time, against real people that is. I loved the sport, loved the team, and loved winning. I was always the point guard, I was little and young for the league so I wasn’t going to be down low, and I could handle the ball well. So it made sense that in 2004 when the Suns got Steve Nash back from the Mavs, I became his biggest fan.
I watched every game, learned to yell at the TV like the refs could hear me, learned to hate the spurs and love our team. The Suns were the most fun team in the NBA at the time, we were fast paced and had an incredible dynamic between our players. The pick and roll between Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire proved impossible to defend. Shaw Marion’s hops and Raja Bell’s defense took care of anything Steve and Amare couldn’t. We had Barbosa’s speed, Diaw’s off the bench energy and Grant Hill’s composure. The team was a class act, led by some of the league’s greatest. Now, not many people would put any member of the team up against today’s Lebron James or even Kobe Bryant to say that they are the best basketball player in the world. But they built teams. They made magic occur on the court in a way that few have.
I could write a book about my experience as a Suns fan, a Steve Nash fan, a basketball fan, I won’t. I’ll try to keep this fairly brief. But allow me to describe two experiences that help encompass my story as a fan of the 2004 – 2011 era Phoenix Suns (let’s heretofore refer this timeframe as the Nash years).
In 2006 the Suns made it to the Western Conference finals only to lose to the Dallas Mavericks. In 2007 the Suns finished the regular season, dominating the Pacific division with the Lakers 19 games back headed into the playoffs. In Round 2 of the playoffs the Suns were up against the San Antonio Spurs. Through three games the Suns were down one, headed back to Phoenix. I was a senior in high school, about ready to graduate. I got a call from my dad during band one day, “Nikki, we’ve got game 7 tickets. I just bought them!” he told me. I couldn’t have been more excited. Game 7 tickets to this series was the dream. If we got past the Spurs there was no stopping us.
That night was game 4, one of the most infamous games in playoff basketball history. The Suns were up 3 points at the end of the fourth quarter when things took a dark turn. Robert Horry of the Spurs body checked Steve Nash into the scorer’s table. A flagrant foul, he was ejected. The move was so blatant that both benches stood up which is arguably what caused us to lose the series. Amare and Diaw both left the bench and stepped onto the court in reaction to the foul. This move was no different than Duncan and Bowen of the Spurs who had left the bench earlier in the game and yet earned the Suns stars a one game suspension. Leaving us without two of our best players for game 5. In the end, the Suns won game 4 leaving us tied at 2-2. But without Amare and Diaw we lost game 5 and the Spurs momentum carried them through game six to win the series. It was later that it ended up coming out that the refs of the series had been betting on the games all season long, and ended up going to prison for their scam. One of those refs, Tim Donaughy reflected on the series, saying
“… there’s no doubt I feel the Phoenix Suns were the best team in in the league in 2007. And that whole series was officiated poorly… And one of the reasons is that Tommy Nunez was the supervisor of officials in that series. And he had a dislike for the (Suns) owner Robert Sarver, and he enjoyed the lifestyle in San Antonio, and liked to get back in the next round of the playoffs and continue to go to San Antonio. So it was a situation that he was steering the series to San Antonio in tape sessions.”
Whether or not this caused the Suns loss or not is unclear. But this was the series that cemented the deep hatred between the Suns and the Spurs. This isn’t a rivalry, there is often respect in rivalries, this is something far deeper. It is also the year that the Suns fans started to feel as though it could never happen for us, we couldn’t have built a better team and still the league was against us. And still the championship eludes us, with no appearance in the finals since the 1992 Bulls (and we all know how that turned out).
So obviously that story is not great. But this next one is.
I love Steve Nash. He was the ultimate team player. Being small he had to find another way to make a difference in a game full of near seven footers. His bio would always show his height at 6’4″ which we all know means 6’2″. So he worked tirelessly on his ball handling skills, becoming the greatest the game had ever seen. No look, behind the back, through the legs, over his shoulder passes would confound the greatest defenders. He was fast, worked hard and put his body through so much for his love of the game. It wasn’t until a few days ago he earned his first championship ring as a coach with the Golden State Warriors. Finally.
In 2009 I got a call from a high school friend, Kayla. I always really liked Kayla, but we never really hung out after class, not sure why. But she was smart, friendly and we got along really well. She went to Northern Arizona University and I Arizona State. When I answered the phone she said, “Hey are you going to the game tonight?” and I said “No, it’s in Tucson” assuming she was talking about the ASU v UA football rivalry game that evening. She wasn’t. Kayla (and my entire high school) knew I loved Steve Nash and so “when I came across an extra ticket I thought of you” she explained. “I’ll be right there!” with my apartment only 20 minutes away from a parking spot at the Suns arena.
I met Kayla outside the arena as she put a lanyard over my neck. Now, I’d been to enough Suns game to know that a lanyard meant lower level, so I was stoked at this point. “Kayla, where are our seats?!” I excitedly asked. “Just follow me” was her reply. And so I did, like a chick following her mom, trusting the whole way as she led me down, row by row, until we were on the court. “Kayla, tell me we are courtside!” I now squealed. “Nikki, I want you to take a deep breath. Tonight, you are sitting on the bench next to Steve Nash”. This was a dream come true. And she was being very literal. I was the seat next to Steve Nash for the whole game. Except for when he was on the court or when he was laying down (as the man with the bad back tended to do). And when he was laying down, you know where he was? Literally in between my legs in front of me. As soon as we sat down I was informed that I could not speak to or touch the players else I’d be kicked out. That was like putting chocolate in front of a two year old for 3 hours. Torture. But the best kind of torture. It was epic. And Kayla has gone down in history in my mind as the coolest, most thoughtful person ever.
I tell you all of this only to set the stage for what I’m about to tell you. It gives much more context so that you understand the excitement I had on Thursday night.
One of my co-panelists at the conference I attended this week was named Sean. We got along at the introduction dinner the night before and during the panel as well. In fact, the whole panel got along very well, it was a blast. After the panel, Garry, Sean’s coworker, approached and let us all know that we did a great job. He said that Sean and I speak identically, with the same mannerisms and enthusiasm. That afternoon Sean emailed me and invited me to a dinner with several other conference attendees at a fabulous restaurant (it was amazing, and deserving of its own post). The food was to die for and the conversation super fun. We were all getting along great. Now, the meal that evening was special and came with unlimited wine. I don’t drink wine but everyone else was so I had a few cocktails to keep pace. This is when I get really fun. I overheard Garry talking to someone else about basketball so of course I tuned in. He looked at me and said, “do you know who invented basketball?” Of course I did. “Of course I do” I said. This surprised him, he didn’t believe me. “He was KU’s head coach, started the program. He is a legend.” I couldn’t recall his name but I knew all about him, I have several friends who went to Kansas and he is literally like a God over there.
“His name is James Naismith” I was reminded. “Yeah, Naismith!” I responded. He then asked if I’d heard that name anywhere else. Only in talking about the founder of basketball I’d explained to him. “You haven’t heard that name any other time today?” he asked. I couldn’t recall. Then it hit me. The panel. His name is Sean Naismith. He turned a little red as we talked about him. He clearly knew what story was being told. At first he acted like it wasn’t a big deal, but after a few minutes you could tell he was extremely proud to be a Naismith, as he should be. I freaked. He is the great grandson of the founder of basketball. I explained my love of the game, my point guard days as a young kid, my dream to be in the NBA and most importantly my love for Steve Nash.
He followed by telling us the whole story about how his great grandfather invented the game. He was a gym teacher at the local YMCA in 1891. It was a particularly harsh winter, leaving all the unruly boys inside with no way to kill all of their energy. His assignment: in 14 days, create a game that expelled the energy of the boys, keeping the track athletes in shape, that was fair for all players and not physically rough. Like his great grandson he was quite analytical in his approach. He first thought, all great team sports of the day revolved around a ball. So there must be a ball. If the ball was small it typically involved a bat of some sort, but indoors a bat didn’t make sense. And so it would be a big ball, like a soccer ball. In order to avoid a physically rough game he decided that the ball could only be moved around by passing it. No player should move while holding the ball. So on and so forth, setting out the original 13 rules of the game. From this came the unwritten rule of dribbling. Since no player could move while holding the ball, players would “drop the ball” retrieving it themselves, the great loophole of the rulebook. In 1936, basketball became an official sport in the Berlin olympics. Yes, Berlin, in 1936. Sean said that his great grandfather attended the olympics, returning home to tell his family that after meeting Hitler, he was sure that that was a terrible, terrible man. He died 3 years later.
Sean passed his phone across the table. On it, a photo of his father giving Steve Nash the Naismith Good Sportsmanship Award. “We chose him for one of the first recipients of the award because of how much we love what he did for the game” Sean told me. “You know, one of the best perks of being a Naismith is attending the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies every year.” Taunting me. “You know Steve Nash will be inducted one day, and after this conversation I hope it has become abundantly clear how much I’d love an invitation” I followed up. Time will tell, Steve becomes eligible (and will almost certainly be inducted) in 2019 for the class of 2020.
What a cool experience to get to know someone so close to the game that I have loved my entire life.