The Phoenix Suns Went To Italy And All I Got Was The Time Of My Life

Originally published on Suns.com

November 2, 2006

AB-Nash

I’m a long-time Suns fan.

I mean, I go back.

I’m a guy who’s read his copy of Joe Gilmartin’s legendary tome, The Little Team That Could (And Darn Near Did), about the equally legendary Suns team of 1975-76, so many times, I actually bought another copy on eBay in case my first copy (which I got as a camper at John MacLeod’s summer basketball camp) falls apart. I used to rebound for Paul Westphal and Walt Davis when they would shoot around before practice at the old Phoenix Jewish Community Center. I was in the room full of people that booed the drafting of Dan Majerle (I swear I did not boo).

I’m not some bandwagon boy. I grew up purple and orange. I’m the read deal.

So when the Suns announced they would hold their training camp this year in Treviso, Italy, I called Suns Vice-President of Interactive Services Jeramie McPeek from my home here in Los Angeles (I would absolutely boo the Lakers, but never Dan Majerle). It wasn’t a cold call – I’d met Jeramie several years before through my friend, Suns super-staffer Steve Koek, and Jeramie had even hired me to write an article for the Suns team yearbook a few seasons back. For that article, I’d interviewed Connie Hawkins, Alvan Adams, Dick Van Arsdale, Jerry Colangelo, and a host of other names from Suns history. I thought that was probably the closest I could ever feel to the team. Here, though, was another opportunity.

“Jeramie,” I said, “It just so happens I’m going to be in Italy at the same time the Suns will be there!”

Now, that wasn’t exactly true. Sure, I’d wanted to go to Italy for a long time – a buddy of mine from high school is stationed over there in the Air Force – but I didn’t exactly have a trip planned. But if there was a possibility I could see the Suns and combine it with a trip to see my pal, then I’d be happy to plan such a trip.

“Anything I can do to help out when the team is there?” I asked.

“Sure,” Jeramie said without a moment’s hesitation. “We’ll be sending a skeleton crew to cover camp for the website – It might just be me – and I could use the extra assistance.”

And so, it was on. I bought myself a plane ticket. Made hotel reservations for Treviso. Another pal from high school, Robert Webber, decided to come along, and Jeramie told us he’d get us both press passes, and that, while I was helping Jeramie get quotes from the Suns players and coaches after practices, Robert could snap photos for use on the website. We’d be doing this all at our own expense, but who cared, we’re Suns fans, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

September 29

Rocky start. We catch a plane from Los Angeles to London, connecting to Venice. We’re two hours late getting out of LA, miss our connection in London, arrive in Venice in the dead of night, and of course, our luggage isn’t there.

Like any good Suns fan, I blame the Lakers.

But we don’t believe in bad omens. Everything will be fine. We’ll decompress in Venice for two days, get used to the time change, acclimate to the pasta diet, let our luggage catch up to us, and strike out for Treviso on October 2. And may I say, if you’re looking for a place to decompress, Venice is a great place to do it. The beautiful Grand Canal, the gorgeous Piazza San Marco, the exquisite food, the legendary gondolas…all of it is almost enough to make you okay with the fact that it’s apparently impossible to get NBA TV anywhere over here so we can find out the injury reports from other camps.

Like I said, we’re fans.

October 2

Having tearfully reunited with our luggage, and in clean clothes for the first time in more than 48 hours (to the relief of all Europe), we board a train for Treviso, half an hour north. We arrive, and it’s a lovely, small-to-mid-size Italian town, not very touristy at all. Robert and I get lost again, trying to find our hotel (this will become a tradition as we continue our trip), dump our bags, and head for the bus station. We know the Suns are practicing today, and the remaining two days of their stay in Treviso, at Palaverde (their first days were spent at La Ghirada, a vast training complex that serves, among others, the Italian League’s Benetton basketball team, and the Sisley rugby squad), but we don’t know where the Palaverde is. For that matter, we don’t know what the Palaverde is. We assume it’s a stadium of some sort, and that once whatever bus we need drops us off at whatever stop we need, the Palaverde will be obvious to us.

So, after some broken Italian (I’d taken 12 Italian lessons via podcast and learned exactly nothing), some broken English, and some exceedingly embarrassing pantomime, we find the right bus. The bus driver takes us to the end of the line. “Palaverde?” we ask. “Si,” he says. We’re pretty sure that means yes, so we hop off.

Not a stadium in sight.

More pantomime. More broken Italian as we accost pedestrians. Finally, a lady driving by in one of those are-you-kidding-me “Smart Cars” is sufficiently amused by our helplessness that she pantomimes that we can walk to the Palaverde, it’s over that way, it’s not that far.

Two miles later…

Oh, there it is, that great big, green and white building in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Robert and I laugh. Surely, we must be the most crazed, devoted Suns fans that ever walked through an Italian field.

Little do we know. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

Only when we get to get to the stadium does it occur to us that we don’t know where to go, if anyone is expecting us, or how to communicate with anyone who might be there. Luckily, the first open door we find is a press relations room, and there’s a lovely young woman there named Elisa who’s spent some time in the States, so her English is excellent. We worry that we’re going to have a hard time explaining who we are and what we’re doing there, but we try, “We’re with the Suns,” and she obligingly hands us press passes and points us to the court.

And just like that, we’re with the Phoenix Suns at training camp in Treviso, Italy.

We take our seats (the arena seats maybe 5000 and is entirely green and white, and there’s a long banner at one end reading “Benetton Basket Welcomes the Phoenix Suns”), and it isn’t long before Jeramie arrives. Much “can you believe we’re here” conversation ensues, then he hands me a digital audio recorder and a list of questions fans have sent to Suns.com and tells me to dive onto the court as soon as practice is over so I can query the players. The team takes the court, and all the surreality of the situation washes over me at once: A) I’m this close to Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, et al, B) I’m this close to Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, et al, in Italy, and C) I’m going to have to talk to these guys and not sound silly.

I’m impressed by the focus of the team as they work through defensive sets and a few simple cut-and-pass drills. This isn’t just a pleasure cruise for them, nor a goodwill tour on the NBA’s behalf. These guys are here to work. Robert runs around with his camera, snapping action shots, occasionally stopping by my seat to say, “This is amazing.”

Speaking of…I’m sitting next to a guy in his mid-twenties who looks as stunned to be here as I am. I assume he’s a reporter for some European paper – this practice isn’t open to the public, but there’s a good amount of press present. I introduce myself, and he introduces himself as Pablo. I ask what paper he’s with, and he tells me, oh no, he’s not press, he’s a fan. He spent a semester in high school at Peoria High as an exchange student from Spain and fell in love with the team. Now he works for a hotel in Birmingham, England, but when he heard the Suns were going to be in Treviso for training camp, he took a day off work, flew to Italy, and wandered around Treviso simply hoping to find someone who could help him see the team practice. The man traveled across a continent with no set plan for how to see his favorite NBA squad play. Maybe it’ll work out, was the best he could hope for.

And I thought I was a devoted Suns fan.

Even more amazing, Pablo’s plan worked. He got himself to La Ghirada, but the Suns weren’t there. Some La Ghirada official noticed him looking bummed, asked him what was up, Pablo explained, and the official magnanimously made a few phone calls, got Pablo his own press pass, and here he was. Dream come true. “I can’t believe that’s Amare Stoudemire down there,” he keeps saying.

Practice ends. I make my way down to the court, armed with my tiny recorder. Press encircles Marion, Nash, Stoudemire, and Coach Mike D’Antoni, so I decide to head for the players the press hasn’t reached yet. Get my feet wet, as it were. I approach Pat Burke and Kurt Thomas, icing their knees and ankles on the bench. I tell them I’m with Suns.com and ask them a few questions about the practice, their experience in Italy. They respond to me as they would to any member of the press – in an exceedingly friendly manner, intelligent and funny. This isn’t so bad. I move on to Leandro Barbosa, Boris Diaw and Sean Marks. Same thing. What I always suspected is proving true: These are genuinely nice guys.

I tromp over to Shawn Marion, stretching on the floor next to James Jones. James gets up and moves toward the locker room. I need to get down low to talk to Shawn, so I sit down where James was, and only then do I realize…that when NBA players work as hard as they do when they practice, they get very, very sweaty. But I’m a pro (or at least I’m pretending to be), so I stay down there and finish the interview. But I’m sure glad my luggage is waiting for me back at the hotel, and no longer circling over Germany somewhere.

After chatting with Coach D’Antoni, Assistant GM Mark West (who wonders, as I do, why the arena’s baskets have tassels at the bottom of their nets) and Steve Nash, we’re done for the day. I say goodbye to Pablo, who’s staggering around looking dazed because he’s just had his picture taken with Amare, and Robert and I make the long walk back to the bus stop, high on adrenaline and the sheer craziness of where we are and what we’re doing. Things can’t get any better.

Little do I know.

Back in the piazza near our hotel, Robert and I settle down for a big dinner. It’s an open square, and people are everywhere, chatting, smoking, walking their dogs, enjoying the beautiful night. Before long, we spot several of the Suns coaches, including Dan D’Antoni, walking toward the restaurant. Robert waves and says, “So they let you all out of practice, huh?” Assuming we must be with the team somehow, Dan (who we quickly learn is probably one of the three or four nicest people on the planet – Mark West must also be considered in that discussion) comes over to our table, asks us how the restaurant is, wonders what we’re having, asks if we’re having a good time in Italy, etc. We feel part of the club. They take a seat behind me at their own table. Robert and I are just finishing grinning over this encounter when we see a very tall, very distinguished older man in a baseball cap walking over to the table where Dan D’Antoni and his party are sitting. I look at Robert. He looks at me, his eyes as wide as saucers. “Are you kidding me?” The man takes a seat with the Suns coaches.

It is Bill Russell.

For the next two hours, Robert and I eat in silence, straining to overhear every word of their conversation. We hear stories from the locker room of the Celtics dynasty. We learn the mechanics of the famous Celtics fast break. We hear tales of Cousy and Auerbach. Bill Russell’s legendary laugh echoes throughout the piazza.

Overwhelmed and exhausted, we pay our bill, stagger back to our hotel, and collapse. After all, tomorrow we have to do all this again.

October 3

Old pros at this now, we hop the bus to Palaverde and make the long walk to the stadium. Inside, the Suns are hosting a Special Olympics clinic, and Boris Diaw, Mike D’Antoni, Assistant Coach Phil Weber and Director of Player Personnel Vinny del Negro, among others, are working with the kids. There’s much laughter, many smiles, and lots of applause everywhere on the floor.

The arena starts to fill up. On one side, there are the children of the servicemen stationed at the same Air Force base as my friend. From the jerseys they wear, the Suns are apparently the official team of the American armed forces.

Take that, Lakers.

On the other side are local fans, there to get a glimpse of an actual NBA powerhouse holding an actual scrimmage. A local announcer introduces the players, and it’s surreal time again, as “Pat-a Bork” and “Shawn Maddy-own” and all the rest take the court for the “Phoenix Sons-a.” Steve Nash gets a tremendous ovation, but the biggest cheers come for Vinny del Negro and Mike D’Antoni, legends for their time spent here as players and coach. Coach D’Antoni welcomes the crowd in fluent Italian, and the fans respond with an even bigger ovation.

The scrimmage begins, and the Suns look good (“Mark West already has two fouls,” Robert jokes as soon as the ball goes up). Amare Stoudemire, though clearly not in mid-season form, shows flashes of explosiveness that have us salivating. Steve Nash directs traffic like the consummate pro he is. Pat Burke plays like a man possessed, and Marcus Banks impresses everyone with his strength and poise. Most impressive is the amount of chatter we hear from the court, particularly on defense. The Suns appear more committed than ever to making it hard for other teams to score. Best of all, after every play, there’s copious high-fiving and back-pats. There may be a lot of new faces on the roster, but these guys like each other. They’re going past “team” toward “family.”

After the scrimmage, the Suns sign for the kids and chat with the press. I manage to corral Davin White and Eric Piatkowski for some good quotes. Robert and I catch Dan D’Antoni’s eye and ask him about dinner the previous night. His eyes go as wide as Robert’s did when we saw Bill Russell walking toward us. “Wasn’t that something?” he asks. “Just to listen to him talk…” He shakes his head in wonder. I ask him if, when he tried to pass the Celtic great the dinner rolls, they weren’t swatted back in his face out of instinct, just as Russell rejected so many shots by Oscar Robertson or Wilt Chamberlain. The coach laughs and shoves me good-naturedly. Part of the team.

I sit next to Jumaine Jones on the bench. I’ve been a little nervous to talk to him because…well…he’s intimidating. On the court, he looks positively fierce. But it turns out, he’s just quiet, feeling his way, getting to know a new team and a new system. Several times, though, he smiles hugely, and lights up the arena even brighter, particularly when I ask him if he’s happy to be with the Suns. “Who wouldn’t be?” he asks back.

Then I approach Amare. He’s lying on the ground, doing one of the many exercises that have become part of his routine for strengthening his knee. I ask him what it was like to hear his name announced to a crowd in Italian. He launches into a perfect imitation of the public address announcer: “Numero uno, Amare Stoudemire!” he booms. Then he smiles. “Sounded good, man.”

At the end of the session, Jeramie introduces us to Suns General Manager David Griffin. He’s a year younger than we are, and went to high school across Phoenix from us, but we have acquaintances in common, so we talk teenage years in the Valley, the Suns through the years, and the prospects for this year’s team. He’s friendly and affable. Like absolutely everyone else we have met associated with the team.

Back in the city that evening, we see David with other Suns personnel on their way to dinner, as well as Vinny del Negro, who says a cheery hello. It’s as though Treviso were some big college campus, almost, and we’re just running into neighbors from the next dorm over. It’s as though we’re not really in a foreign country. It’s as though we’re not saying hi to the freakin’ Phoenix Suns.

October 4

Our last day with the team. Hard not to feel a little sad, even though we’ve just been on the periphery – it’s not like we’ve been hanging out with the players. But everyone, no matter how little we’ve interacted with them, has made us feel like part of the family, from Public Relations Director Julie Fie to Raja Bell, who gives me some great quotes after the day’s long practice.

This session’s highlight, however, is the chance to chat with Al McCoy. He approaches Robert and I, sticking out his hand and saying, “I hear you gentlemen came all the way from Phoenix,” and I get chills just hearing his voice (“I want to tell you,” I hear him say in my head, replaying his call of Garfield Heard’s famous shot that sent Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals against Boston into its third overtime, “Someone up there is on our side!”). We talk about everything from his good friend, the late, legendary Lakers announcer Chick Hearn (the only person who’s ever been associated with the Lakers whose name I can say without following it by spitting and crossing myself), to Iowa (both my parents grew up there, while Al announced sports for Drake University before coming to Phoenix), to what he sees as the biggest changes in the NBA in the years he’s been covering it (“The speed,” he says, then adds, “and the money.”). I want to ask him to say, “Heartbreak Hotel!” just once, but think better of it. After all, I’m still pretending to be a pro.

Later that afternoon, back in Treviso, Robert and I meet up with Jeramie, dropped off by a shuttle van to do a little sightseeing. Mark West and his lovely wife are with him, and Mark gives me a big (BIG) handshake, remembering me from our conversation two days earlier. Turns out he used to be a big comic book fan, and since that’s one of the things I write for a living (when I’m not, you know, covering the NBA for Suns.com), we chat about Batman for a few minutes. Then we depart with Jeramie so we can all be tourists in Treviso. Jeramie loves his job (who wouldn’t?) and loves every minute he spends with the Suns (duh), but he is in Italy and he’s happy to actually get out and see some of it. He, Robert and I snap pictures of everything in sight, wander back to La Ghirada and raid the Benetton team store for souvenirs, then return to the piazza for dinner. Boris Diaw, having a snack with Mike and Laurel D’Antoni, Assistant Coach Marc Iavaroni and Julie Fie, sees us coming. “Uh oh,” he calls out in warning, “Here comes the paparazzi.”

Robert and I share a quiet meal with Jeramie, then we put him in a cab back to his hotel. He hasn’t taken a cab here in Italy, and so isn’t sure how to direct his driver back to the hotel, so hopefully he’ll make it back there all right. If not, I’m applying for his job.

We’re sorry to see him go, sorry to end our adventure with the Suns. Without Jeramie’s incredible generosity, none of this would have been possible for Robert and me. We won’t be following them to Rome and then Cologne. Robert and I have many more adventures to come on our trip – tomorrow we head to the Air Force base to see our friend, followed by visits to Florence and Rome – but it’ll be hard to top these three days when we did what all fans dream of: For a brief time, we went beyond being fans to being part of the Suns inner circle. And the way were treated made us more certain than ever that we root for the greatest NBA franchise there is – on levels that go far beyond the magic the players work on the court. It was more than we could have asked for.

Someone up there was on our side.

Postscript

Jeramie made it back to his hotel, darn the luck. For the moment, his job is safe from my clutches.

Like any good Suns fan, I blame the Lakers.

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