Suns, Sun Devils spark Phoenix-area basketball revival
PHOENIX -- The story of this area's unexpected basketball renaissance includes impeccable handwriting and Golden Grannies and three game-winning blocked shots and a favored son returned and a backstory fit for a movie (or five).
It is mostly the story of two teams on the cusp of two postseasons, of the NBA's Phoenix Suns and college basketball's Arizona State Sun Devils. A story driven by a Canadian center and a Slovenian point guard. A story about youth and development and timing.
A story about Phoenix rising on the basketball court.
If you had to start in one place, with one guy, to begin an explanation, you start with Goran Dragic. He is the Slovenian point guard. He plays for the Suns. And he counts the time period from July 2013 until the present as the single best stretch of his life.
Training camp for the national team started last July. On the first scheduled day off, Dragic rode, per Slovenian custom, in a horse and carriage to his fiancée's brother's house where he laid out his argument for marriage and, per another custom, paid a sum he declined to disclose for her hand. Fortunately, his wife's brother is also a basketball fan.
The next day, Dragic married Maja in a small ceremony attended by their respective families. Per yet another custom, Dragic shot a gun for the first time, aiming rubber bullets at an apple roughly 15 feet away. The gun was unsteady, his attempts wildly inaccurate, and then it dawned on him what it must look like to the audience as it watched a sharpshooter who could not shoot. Not with a gun, anyway.
Maja gave birth to their first child, a son they named Mateo, three months ago. Dragic nearly made the Western Conference All-Star team (many believe he should have). His team, the worst in the West last season, is 33-22.
The Suns were the surprise story, the best story, of the first half of the NBA season. Dragic, 27, attended the All-Star festivities in New Orleans, where he competed in the skills challenge. Everywhere he went, everyone asked him not about what had unfolded but about how. National team comrades sent text messages from Slovenia.
"It's my year," he told all of them.
"If I'm being honest, I didn't expect like this," he said, as he sat at his locker last week. "This season. This year. It just happened."
Tell that to Jeff Hornacek, the favored Sun who played six seasons in Phoenix, was part of the trade for Charles Barkley, returned his family to the area in 2003 and became a head coach for the first time with the Suns this season. Full circle, as it were.
After he finished discussing Dragic and his merry band of NBA castaways, Hornacek walked through the corridors of the US Airways Center, and he ran into a women's dance team with a median age of you-should-know-better-than-to-ask. They are the "Golden Grannies," and they wore white T-shirts and gold pants and perms and glasses and gray hair. They slapped Hornacek on the back and drew him in close for hugs.
"My demographic," he quipped.
The Suns are not alone. Fifteen minutes to the east in Tempe is a college basketball team with a chance to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009.
Its meeting room features two chairs that read "Road 2 the Final Four" and one goal to be "the toughest, hardest-working, most prepared, unselfish and disliked team in college basketball." It also contains several plays diagrammed in red, blue and green marker laid out in handwriting so neat it looks typed.
Those anti-scribbles belong to coach Herb Sendek, and his players say it highlights his tendency toward meticulous preparation. Sendek can be obsessive in that way. In practice, the details matter: the angle of a screen set, the force of a cut to the basket -- all must be performed just so. One assistant, Eric Musselman, likes to rearrange the pens lined up neatly on Sendek's desk at night, then picture his puzzled face upon arrival the next morning.
Alas, Musselman's own handwriting is less than ideal, more scribe-like than Sendekian. "Guys are just killing me," Musselman said. "I try to tell them, 'In the NBA, guys don't read anything you write anyway.' "
The Sun Devils dropped a handful of games they should have won this season, a pattern that Sendek attributed in part to a Pac-12 conference he argued is as strong as any in the country. This after two relatively down years, the result of short stints by NBA-bound stars who left a depleted reserve of top-end talent across the conference. Indicative of that depth, Arizona State lost consecutive games on the road last week, at Colorado and at Utah.
Also indicative of that depth, Arizona State garnered its biggest win of the Sendek era, which began in 2006 and included 12- and 10-win seasons from 2010-12 and a 22-win rebound last season. Down went Arizona, its rival in proximity if not results. Students stormed the court and the players whooped and hollered and dumped the contents of a Gatorade bucket on Sendek. The "good Catholic boy" in him would later admit to receiving an ice-water bath, not a Gatorade shower. Still, the night produced chills.
The Sun Devils (19-8, 8-6 Pac-12) may have set a record this season among the oddest ever in college basketball. They won three games when Jordan Bachynski, their Canadian center, blocked a shot in the final seconds. This was college basketball's equivalent of a walk-off home run, even if one block looked an awful lot like goaltending and on another Bachynski's hand caught in the net.
Still, Sendek and Musselman have coached in more than 1,500 games combined at all levels and never witnessed anything like that. If only someone kept track of such statistics.
"If there's a more improved player over the course of the last four years, I certainly haven't seen him," Sendek said.
Bachynski is an outlier, both at Arizona State and in the wider world of college basketball. He is 24 years old, Mormon, married, straight-edge and expecting a son in June. Sendek calls his center a "consummate gentlemen." When was the last time a coach said that about a college kid?
In this era of star freshmen who spend one mandated season on campus and then jump to the NBA, Bachynski, the old-man center, also developed at a decidedly old-school pace.
He missed basically three years of basketball, first with an ankle injury in his senior year of high school that would require surgery and then with a two-year Mormon mission in Miami. Bachynski said he could "count on one hand" the number of times he played hoops during his mission. He exercised only when he rode his bicycle to various appointments.
He missed basketball, missed the competitive environs of organized sports. He learned Spanish. He knocked on doors, and a few were slammed back in his face. He put on the wrong kind of weight. He became, in his description, "skinny-fat."
Thus Bachynski arrived at Arizona State without muscle and oddly flabby and underweight. Sendek removed him from games after a handful of minutes, and he returned to the bench gasping for air, as if marathons had just been completed.
So began the workouts, the miles run and weights lifted and body reshaped. Bachynski cut McDonald's from his diet. His favorite order consisted of four McDoubles from the $1 menu, cookies and a large soda. The last time he placed that order was around Thanksgiving, and the first burger made him sick.
His story is a case study in development. Freshman year: averages of 2.8 points, 2.3 rebounds and 10 minutes. Those numbers rose in his sophomore (6.0, 4.0, 17.4) and junior (9.8, 5.9, 25.4) seasons and again this year (11.7, 8.7, 31.3).
Bachynski struck teammates as someone who wanted to get better. He asked Jahii Carson to drive at him in practice, so he could time the acrobatic shots of perimeter players who penetrated inside, only to duck under or around or shoot over him. He displayed a balletic grace rare for someone his size (lidsted at 7-foot-2, 7-4 wingspan), perhaps, Sendek ventured, because of his relatively small size-14 feet.
Bachynski preserved wins over Marquette, Oregon and mighty Arizona with walk-off blocks. He won Pac 12 Player of the Week honors earlier this month. His average of 4.4 blocked shots would rank 90th among all eligible teams. He also became the conference's all-time leader in shots blocked, although, as Bachynski himself noted, they did not keep such statistics when luminaries like Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton patrolled the paint.
Musselman coached Manute Bol and Dikembe Mutombo, two of history's best shot blockers, and never saw anything like three winning blocks in a roughly 20-game span. He attributed the season-long block party to Bachynski's continued development, which included a stint with the Canadian national team last summer. He said Bachynski reminded him of putty, in that "whatever you tell him to do, he does." Example: Before this season, Musselman implored Bachynski to cut his long hair. He compared each game of Bachynski's senior campaign to a job interview. The next day, the locks were gone.
"I don't think Metta World Peace was like that when I had him with the Kings," said Musselman, who coached Sacramento and Golden State in the NBA.
Sendek described Bachynski's development much like Phoenix-area basketball this season: heart-warming and inspiring and "the kind of story you gravitate to" and the "kind of story they make movies about."
Now Bachynski is an unlikely NBA draft prospect. "Someone brought that up in our staff meeting after last year," Musselman said. "I thought the guy needed drug testing."
Ladies and gentleman, your 2013-14 starting lineup for the Phoenix Suns: Miles Plumlee at center, Channing Frye and P.J. Tucker at forward, Gerald Green and Dragic at guard. A playoff basketball roster? Sure looks that way.
Frye missed the 2012-13 season with an enlarged heart that required treatment. Green, once a phenom who won the league's dunk contest, ended up in the NBA's development league and played in Russia and China before he revived a career on life support.
Phoenix rounded out their rotation with the Morris twins, forwards Markieff and Marcus and guards Ish Smith and Eric Bledsoe, who often twinned with Dragic for a lineup driven by two point guards. Bledsoe is out with a knee injury but expected to return this season.
The Suns of a year ago won all of 25 games, a number they easily surpassed by the All-Star break this season. They fired their general manager and replaced him with Ryan McDonough. They fired their coach and brought in Hornacek. Then they collected all those misfits, mashed them onto one roster and expressed surprise when so many pundits ventured that the team planned to tank for the most-anticipated draft in years.
Then the strangest thing happened: The Suns played well from the outset. They lost close games at Oklahoma City and San Antonio in November and parlayed that into one winning streak after another. Where most of the NBA's great turnarounds featured the addition through draft or trade of a major star (think Larry Bird in Boston, David Robinson in San Antonio or Jason Kidd in New Jersey), the Suns had added a surplus of spare parts that somehow made a greater whole.
To Hornacek, an assistant coach with the Jazz the previous three seasons, the turnaround felt familiar. He played on the 1987-88 Suns team that won 28 games and on the '88-89 team that won 55. That marked the beginning of the Suns' glory years.
Hornacek sees parallels in more than just the win column. Bledsoe reminds him of Kevin Johnson, the point guard who arrived in Phoenix a backup but shared starter's minutes on those teams. Tucker recalls Tyrone Corbin, a defensive stopper with a mid-range touch. Plumlee is this team's Mark West, a big man who sets picks and plays defense and rolls to the basket. Green can shoot it like Eddie Johnson. He could go on.
Those teams never won an NBA title, the streak now 45 years and counting for the franchise. But they did shape a roster that contended for several seasons, that made the Suns relevant and dominant, that shaped this haven for baseball's spring training into a basketball town. Just like the current group.
"A lot of our guys never had this opportunity," Hornacek said. "We figured we could all grow together and build up to something. We probably didn't anticipate everything happening like this. We moved the process up a step."
Hornacek and Dragic still compete, in three-point competitions, or to see who can make the most half-court shots after practice. According to Dragic, Hornacek almost always wins. "That's just in his blood," Dragic said. "He was a killer. His weapon is the shot."
In Dragic, Hornacek sees himself. When he took over, tape revealed that Dragic needed more room to operate. Hornacek spread his players, opened up lanes for Dragic to slice through, gave him room to work. He played well both when teamed with Bledsoe and without.
The Sun Devils, meanwhile, dropped back toward the NCAA tournament bubble after those two losses last week, with four Pac-12 games and the conference tournament remaining. They could easily finish second in the conference -- or sixth.
Dragic has been playing basketball without rest from when his national team training camp started in July, and yet, he does not welcome any break. The Phoenix-area basketball renaissance must continue without pause, he reasoned, as the Suns and the Sun Devils approach the postseason and the Golden Grannies dance like it's 1989 again.