Memory Lane

Those who know me know I’ll go to pretty much any lengths to find an interesting piece of Phoenix Suns ephemera. So it shouldn’t be any surprise to learn that last week I traveled to Chicago for the annual National Sports Collector’s Convention, the premiere destination for the discriminating sports memorabilia-ist.

I went with visions of game-worn Van Arsdale warm-ups, Hawkins high-tops and signed Barkley elbow braces dancing in my head. In truth, in terms of the amount of Suns stuff to be found, I was a bit disappointed, but that’s probably a function of the show’s location more than anything else – Bulls fans had plenty to be happy about. But there were nuggets (of the non-Denver variety) to be had here and there if one was willing to look hard enough… and we true Suns fans are known for our persistence.Photo 1

The convention floor was absolutely choked with trading card dealers – You couldn’t swing an autographed Sammy Sosa bat without hitting one (f you were willing to risk arrest). Collectors sat on dealer-provided stools at the booths, flipping through boxes and boxes of “common” and collectible cards for pretty much any sport you can imagine in relative comfort. Most card dealers also had sealed original boxes of sports cards from almost any year cards had been made. I saw one box of unopened basketball cards featuring an entire set from 1988 selling for more than $9000. Although there were plenty of basketball cards, and thus Suns cards, to be found, I decided to skip card-shopping – for the most part. I couldn’t pass up this non-Suns gem from 1976, for reasons that I hope are obvious.

Photo 2

Some card dealers had autographed cards featuring Suns players, but I skipped those as well. Not that I didn’t want to dive in and scoop up every signed Walter Davis card I could find, but because autographs are difficult to verify, even at card shows, where everyone is an expert. Most dealers won’t stay in business too long if they’re found selling unauthenticated merchandise, knowingly or not, but you never know…

I spent considerable time in a booth that offered game-worn jerseys from all sports, but while I found plenty of Bulls uniforms and warm-ups (mostly from non-star players), and some from New Orleans, Charlotte, Utah and other garden spots, I didn’t find anything from Phoenix. Nor was I likely to at the show, said the booth’s proprietor. “Not much demand for Suns stuff in the Midwest,” he told me.

Still I pressed on, moving between the Mickey Mantle jersey and the Joe DiMaggio jersey for sale (each for more than six figures) and it wasn’t long before I found my first purchase.

Photo 3This Hoop Magazine was the game program from a Warriors/Suns contest in 1975. Because the game took place in Oakland, the program is focused on the Warriors, so there’s not a ton of Suns content, but the cover of then-Suns superstar guard Charlie Scott is pretty terrific, and some of the photos and ads inside the magazine are great artifacts of the NBA at that time.

Photo 4

After more dogged scouring of the aisles, I located my next memento, and this one is genuinely rare and doesn’t come up for sale very often on auction websites.

Photo 5

It’s another Hoop magazine, this one a game program from the 1976 NBA Finals, which of course was the classic series between the Suns and the Celtics. It’s a program I’ve long coveted, so I jumped at the chance to buy it. Once again, the amount of Suns content is minimal (because the magazine was put together before the Finals participants had been decided), but there’s a good article about Charlie Scott’s career revival as a member of the Celtics; a photo spread on the NBA rookies of the 1975-76 season, including a game shot of the Suns’ own Alvan Adams;

Photo 6 and the sheet music and lyrics to CBS Sports’ groove-tastic NBA theme song! “The Name of the Game Is Action!” Sing along at home!

Photo 7

As the day wound down, I had an appointment to keep in order to obtain the souvenir I wanted most. I had registered for it months in advance, paying the going rate. Many sports stars of yesteryear (Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, Cal Ripken, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Brian Urlacher, Emmitt Smith, Aeneas Williams, Barry Sanders, members of the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team, Mike Tyson and more) were on hand to sign autographs ($150 for Joe Torre) or have their photos taken ($200 for Roger Clemens). But there was only one star I was interested in meeting. He had never been a Sun, but his spot in the franchise’s history is nonetheless memorable.

I had ticket number 3 for his photo session, so I lined up at the appointed time with other diehard fans. When it came my turn, the usher on duty walked me over to the long-retired NBA legend like I was a toddler on my way to meet Santa Claus. One of the league’s 50 Greatest Players (as voted in 1996) smiled politely at me, looking a little bewildered, like a man who fell asleep on a plane and woke up somewhere completely unexpected. But I extended my hand for a shake and told him, “You broke my heart in 1976,” and his smile became warm and his eyes twinkled as he wrapped his hand around mine. “Phoenix,” John Havlicek answered.

For younger readers, John Havlicek was near the end of a storied career with the Boston Celtics when the overachieving Suns miraculously found their way into the NBA Finals in 1976. Even then, “Hondo” was a do-everything player and the soul of the Boston team, who could score, rebound, defend, and was known for always remaining in motion. He played the entire series with painfully torn tissue in his foot, and still commanded the floor almost every minute of every game, nearly winning the legendary Game 5 with a running bank shot at the end of the second overtime before the Suns’ Garfield Heard made the “Heard Shot ‘Round the World” to send the game into a third extra period. It was the series, and the game, that made me a basketball fan, and a Suns fan, for life. And Havlicek was bona fide hoops royalty who had key role in it.

Havlicek shook my hand, the photo was snapped, and I was ushered away as the next fan, no doubt with his own cherished recollection of the man, stepped up. Minutes later, I collected my photo and headed for the convention center exit with my minor haul.

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There hadn’t been much in the way of Suns stuff to collect at the country’s biggest annual sports memorabilia show, but I left thrilled at having had the chance to relive one of my favorite Suns memories… with an NBA legend who remembered it, in his own way, just as fondly.

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