Scattered around Phoenix are about 2,500 fans who gathered to watch the NBA draft at the Civic Plaza five years ago and who booed lustily when the hometown Suns, with their first-round pick, the 14th overall, selected Dan Majerle, a little-known guard from equally obscure Central Michigan. These days it would be easier to find a Phoenician in a parka than to locate anyone who will admit to having been among that sadly misguided group. Besides, all of the people who were so displeased on that June day have undoubtedly disguised themselves by wearing T-shirts from Majerle's line of clothing, or driving a car purchased from the string of local dealerships he endorses, or eating at the fast-food chain for which he is a pitchman. And there were probably quite a few of the erstwhile nonbelievers among the celebrants at the impromptu block party outside Majerle's, a sports bar and grill, last Saturday after the owner helped the Suns advance to the NBA Finals against the Chicago Bulls with a 123-110 win over the Seattle SuperSonics in the seventh game of the Western Conference finals.
Never has a community been so happy to have been so wrong. Phoenix may be having a love affair with Charles Barkley, the Suns' outstanding and outrageous forward who had 44 points and 24 rebounds in Game 7, but it is Majerle, known as Thunder Dan for his crashing drives and three-point bombs, for whom it reserves unbridled passion. That is especially true of the Suns' female fans, many of whom considered the 6'6", 220-pound Majerle an all-star long before he was named to the Western Conference team for the first time, in 1992. "He's single, he's big and strong, he's got a pretty good tan, he's a great player," says teammate Danny Ainge. "Doesn't it just make you sick?"
But Majerle's life isn't all just one big male fantasy. He has his problems, the most pressing of which is named Michael Jordan. The task of keeping Jordan from turning the upcoming series into more fodder for the be-like-Mike highlight film belongs primarily to Majerle. "How will I play Jordan?" he asks, rhetorically. "How does anyone play Michael Jordan? This series isn't me against Michael Jordan. If it were, we'd be in a lot of trouble."
But as humble as Majerle may sound, there are few big guards in the NBA with his combination of strength, size, quickness and tenacity, all of which he will need to keep His Airness relatively earthbound. The nature of Majerle's contributions to the Suns varies from game to game. In Game 5 he set an NBA single-game playoff record with eight three-pointers (in 10 attempts) on his way to scoring 34 points in the Suns' 120-114 win. His Game 7 effort produced a more typical Majerle line—11 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, two steals and two blocks. "Dan's one of those guys," says Phoenix coach Paul Westphal, "who just gives you whatever it is you need."
The women of Phoenix can only hope. Majerle's female followers are legendary. There was the time one woman was having dinner in a restaurant when she spotted Majerle heading into a movie theater. She abandoned her date and called a few friends, and they followed Majerle into the theater, just to watch him watch a movie, which, appropriately enough, was Under Siege. Then there was the woman in Majerle's one evening who monitored the amount of beer being consumed by the woman next to him, waiting for her to make the inevitable trip to the bathroom so she could sidle up next to him.
"It gets pretty crazy sometimes," says Majerle, 27, whose sheepish smile indicates that while he's somewhat embarrassed by the craziness, he's in no hurry to see sanity restored. "Sometimes I get women asking me to autograph parts of their body."
And does he comply? Another smile. "Well, usually, yeah."
Despite all that, Majerle insists that he's no Dan Juan, that his famed tan is just the result of playing in the yard with his dogs, a pair of black Labradors named Mookie and Dre. When a local news show televised a tour of his home, the look into his bedroom was trumpeted as if viewers were about to enter Oz, but Majerle had nothing more unusual there than a pool table.
Another fringe benefit of the Suns' success has been free publicity for Majerle's, which, by the time the Finals are over, will have appeared on NBC almost as often as Cheers. "I did an interview on NBC the other night, wearing my Majerle's shirt," Majerle said last week. "The next day we got a ton of calls from all over the country from people who wanted to order shirts."
That's the way life goes for Majerle. Everything he touches turns to gold. It's enough to make you wonder if he's not onto something with all of his superstitions, one of which is that he always wears his right sock inside out for good luck. He also eats the same meal before every game—grilled chicken breast, mashed potatoes, green beans and iced tea—at the same restaurant when the Suns are at home. Dan Majerle, restaurateur, eats at...Houlihan's. "Hey, I started doing it before we opened Majerle's," he says. "I don't want to mess with what works."
What works for Phoenix is having Majerle on the floor as much as possible. He entered the Chicago series averaging a team-high 43.9 minutes per game for the playoffs. Sun management will tell you they knew long ago that Majerle had the stuff to handle such demands. Before he was drafted he took a psychological test from a team consultant that was designed to measure such traits as determination and the ability to focus on goals and complete tasks. Majerle scored so high that the consultant I immediately telephoned Phoenix president Jerry Colangelo and begged, "Take him, take him, take him!"
The Suns took that advice, which is why the Bulls may find out during this series what Phoenix fans have already learned—that a clap of Thunder in the desert can be a powerful thing.